How important are media images of people with disabilities? Very important, according to Gail Williamson, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles (DSALA). She became aware of the impact of those images when the CBS drama Life Goes On began to air in 1989. She told her 10-year-old son Blair, who was born with Down syndrome, that he would enjoy watching the new show since the character Corky was played by actor Chris Burke, who also had Down syndrome. Williamson told Blair that when he grew up he would be like Corky. But unbeknownst to Williamson, Blair had surmised that his Down syndrome would go away, since he had not yet met any teenagers or adults with the genetic condition. Blair told her, “Daddy’s Down syndrome went away; Timmie’s [Blair’s brother’s] Down syndrome went away.”
The astonished Williamson realized that every child with a disability had the right to turn on the television and see someone like himself or herself. Any child who was deaf or blind, used a wheelchair or crutches, had an amputation, wore a prosthetic, stuttered, was shortstatured, had any other genetic condition—she just wanted children to see a diverse group on television that included people like them, so they could feel good about themselves and dream about what they might grow up to become.
About two seasons into Life Goes On, Williamson and her husband Tommie saw an even more important reason for media images of people with disabilities. Not only was it good for Blair to have a role model on television, it was good for the general public to see examples of people in everyday life interacting with the character of Corky. Public reactions were changing when Tommie and Williamson were out with Blair; there were fewer stares and less pointing. More people were choosing to interact with Blair just to be social. At restaurants waiters were now asking Blair what he would like to order instead of asking the closest adult at the table. Williamson believes the series gave people permission to talk to children and adults with Down syndrome. People who had never met individuals with Down syndrome now knew something about them. Parents who gave birth to babies with Down syndrome were often told by their doctors that their children would be like Corky, and this gave them hope for their children’s futures. Life Goes On brought about true societal change.
Since that time Williamson has spent much of her energy educating the entertainment industry about including people with disabilities in television and film. She serves as a consultant to the California Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, working out of their Media Access Office to promote the hiring of actors with disabilities. She has also made a name for herself in the Hollywood community as the go to lady for those developing stories that include characters with Down syndrome. Her own son Blair has an impressive list of acting credits, including ER, CSI and The Guardian.
For the Farrelly Brothers’ film The Ringer, Williamson read the script early on and met with producer Peter Farrelly and director Barry Blaustein. The film stars actor Johnny Knocksville, who infiltrates the Special Olympic Games pretending to be a Special Olympic athlete in order to win the games and fix a bet. With the help of the Media Access Office, Blaustein auditioned all the actors in Hollywood who had intellectual disabilities.
When Blaustein decided to cast all typical actors to play his lead Special Olympic athletes, with only a smattering of real Special Olympic athletes mixed in, this casting choice ate away at Williamson. She passionately wanted one of the lead actors to truly be an actor with an intellectual disability. She finally called Blaustein and told him that without at least one actor with Down syndrome included among his leads the film wouldn’t be believable, since probably half of the Special Olympic athletes have Down syndrome. Blaustein agreed to view an audition tape, and Williamson called Edward Barbanell, a young man who had previously won an acting scholarship at the Media Access Awards from the talent agency Kazarian, Spencer and Associates. Eddy did an extraordinary rendition of Romeo in the garden speaking to Juliet. He taped his audition and sent it overnight to casting director Nancy Foy. After reviewing the tape with Blaustein, Foy flew Eddy to Hollywood for a live audition. Eddy was booked to work on The Ringer for a few weeks; his part extended to a couple of months when he proved to be a wonderful and professional actor. This is the kind of success story that Williamson loves to tell.
Beyond her typical duties as executive director of DSALA, which aims to enhance the welfare of approximately 2,000 families of people with Down syndrome living in the Los Angeles area, Williamson has added some industry goals. One is to continue to meet more talented individuals with Down syndrome across the United States and Canada, collecting head shots, resumes and video samples of their work. She never wants the producer, director or casting director of another project to tell her that they have decided to “go another way” because they couldn’t find the right talent. She says that is entirely unacceptable.
Williamson hopes that another actor with Down syndrome will book a job as a series regular on a prime time show. She thought it might happen this year. At the end of the past season of the CBS Drama The Guardian, characters Nick and Lulu gave birth to a baby with Down Syndrome. Williamson had an adorable little girl waiting to play their daughter this season, but unfortunately the show was canceled.
More than 10 years have passed since Life Goes On was on the air. When Williamson speaks at conferences now, the parents of children with Down syndrome are often too young to remember the series from the early 1990s. Today when a family finds out they have a chance of having a baby with Down syndrome, they don’t have an image to call to mind. The media has not provided one.
Williamson’s solution is to promote development of public service announcements (PSAs) featuring people with Down syndrome. With PSAs, parents who are told that they may be having a child with Down syndrome will bring these images to mind and have a more hopeful outlook. Grandparents being told their new grandchild has Down syndrome may remember from the PSAs that there is somewhere to call for information. Parents asking for full inclusion in the classroom for their children may be more apt to get it if school officials have seen the positive representations on the PSA. The legislator who has seen the PSA may take a little more time to listen to the parent lobbyist who brings a request. The children viewing the PSA may ask a child with Down syndrome to play with them at school or at the park. Children and adults with Down syndrome will see someone like them on television, and their siblings will not feel so alone knowing that there are others out there who have brothers and sisters with Down syndrome too.
Williamson has taken advantage of the many years she has worked at the Media Access Office and has contacted some of the professionals she knows to form a production team for the DSALA. Heart and Halo Productions, named after the DSALA logo, is creating PSAs for upcoming events like the DSALA Heart and Halo Ride and the Annual Buddy Walk, as well as public awareness PSAs that show the lives and humanity of people with Down syndrome.
The People with Down syndrome are People First PSA was produced in both English and Spanish. It strives to show individuals with Down syndrome in inclusional situations, doing the sorts of things that everyone does. The 30-second spots are comprised of three vignettes.
The first vignette features Marcia Landeros, a young adult with Down syndrome who is accomplished in karate. In the English version, a classmate says, “Marcie is in our karate class.” Marcia tells us, “I have my purple belt,” and then drops her classmate to the floor during a kata (exercise). In the Spanish version, the dojo introduces Marcia as his student; Marcia tells us that she likes karate, then drops the same classmate to the floor during the same kata.
The second and third vignettes introduce families. The second vignette features siblings introducing their new baby sister or brother with Down syndrome. The third vignette in the English version features a bride with a groomsman who has Down syndrome. She tells us, “From this day forward, Blair will be my brother-in-law”; the groomsman says, “Kelly got married [to] my brother.” In the Spanish version, featuring the band Ozomatli, band member Adsru and his brother Carlos, who has Down syndrome, introduce each other.
Both English and Spanish PSAs finish with the statement, “People with Down syndrome are people first.” Parents of children with Down syndrome often report that they cry when they see the PSA, from pride and hope for their children’s futures. Other parents in the Los Angeles area and the general public are introduced to the DSALA office when they see the PSAs on the air.
Shortly after filming the People First PSAs, Williamson went to work on several more ideas. Some will have to wait for more funding, but she wanted one to happen for the holidays this year. This project was much bigger and required a studio, but her vision was contagious and her production team went to work.
The Holiday Angels and Bells PSA features an adult hand bell choir of about 30 adults with intellectual disabilities, the majority with Down syndrome. The ARC Bell Choir, founded by Dixie Henrickson and Mary Schallert, has been playing together for more then 20 years and is very well known in the Los Angeles area. The choir plays at the Los Angeles Music Center every year on Christmas Eve for the local PBS Christmas special seen on KCET. The PSA will present long shots of the entire choir and close-ups of faces, showing members from their early 20s to their late 40s. Hands and bells will be interspersed with shots of babies with Down syndrome in diapers, wings and halos who are pulling off wings, chewing on halos, crawling away and creating basic baby-angel mayhem. Following the montage a voice will announce simply, “Happy Holidays from the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles.”
Williamson is hoping to open hearts and minds with these images and share the abilities and beauty of people with Down syndrome with others. Williamson and DSALA believe in the power of the media to preserve these pictures in viewers’ minds long after they have walked away from their television screens.
Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles dsala.org