Sunni Walton is an actress who’s been in the business for 30 years. Increasingly, though, this veteran of bit parts has found that she can’t get a job, and that difficulty points to Hollywood’s continued unwillingness to employ the disabled.
Eight years ago Walton was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and she, like many others, hid that fact for as long as she was able.
“I continued to work but the nightmare was having to hide it because I was having problems with my vision and my balance,” she said.
When she finally began using a cane and leg braces, her job opportunities began to dry up. Now she’s faced with losing her insurance, as she’s not been able to earn the quarterly minimum required by the Screen Actors Guild in order to received health insurance benefits.
“Lately I’ve been trying to get extra work, just anything to make the minimum ,” she said. “But it’s very hard on me because often they don’t provide extras with any place to sit between takes.”
Walton’s case is indicative of how little Hollywood has advanced in terms of hiring the disabled. Even passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act this year– designed to integrate disabled people into society’s mainstream– has yet to influence those who sit in the industry’s casting, directing and producing offices.
For one thing, many of those offices are located on second floors in buildings that have no elevators.
Executives at the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists have had to intervene on occasion, to remind casting directors that, by law, their buildings should be accessible.
Madlyn Rhue, another actress with a long line of credits until her MS put her in a wheelchair four years ago, says she is angry and frustrated that she no longer is allowed to practice her craft.
“Whenever you have a continuing disease, it’s very hard to get insured on a series,” she said. “I understand that. But I do get crazy when I can’t even try out for episodic work. My talent hasn’t diminished.”
Rhue said among the obstacles she faces are producers and casting agents who think the hiring of a disabled person will be more trouble than it’s worth.
“All I can say is, I have my own driver, I have my own assistant,” she said. “And I’m always on time.”
The odd job does happen on occasion, but for many actors and actresses, it tends to be the rarity.
Rhue did get the opportunity to play the recurring character of a ballistics expert on the 1984 series “Houston Nights,” but the show was dropped after one season.
Walton got a role in a recent vidpic titled “In Sickness and In Health,” but the network’s decision to not rerun it this year has hindered her efforts to earn enough to qualify her for insurance benefits.
And as labor law experts agree, it’s a difficult thing to police.
“There certainly have been some discrimination suits filed since the passage of the ADA, but none in the entertainment industry as far as I know,” said Jeff Berman, an attorney with Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn. “It’s a difficult thing to prove.”
Among those who are trying to make inroads in the field is agent Marie Lanaras, of Wild Briar Talent, who represents 11 disabled actors.
“Of course I find resistance from casting people, but I really believe in mainstreaming disabled actors,” Lanaras said. “I send my people out for regular roles that they can do, ones that don’t call for handicaps.”
She pointed to a recent role that called for a “pesky office boy,” so she sent a client who was in a wheelchair.
“They wanted pesky,” she said. “Well, thisguy could run over people’s toes in the office, he could make a nuisance of himself. And he got the role.”
It was a little more difficult to convince producers that another wheelchair-bound actor could play a police officer, albeit one in an office position.
“But you know, it could be a police officer who had been injured in the field ,” she said. “I felt it added to the role and they decided they loved the idea.”
One of her clients, Charlotte Price, attests that Lanaras’ persistence pays off. Price, who is also wheelchair-bound by MS, has a recurring bit role as part the FYI crew on “Murphy Brown.”
“It’s different for me because I started my acting career after I was disabled,” Price said. “So I’ve approached it differently. I try to look on the positive side of things.
“For instance, when I go out to audition and the building doesn’t have an elevator, and the casting offices are on the second floor, I’ve found that usually people are very nice about it,” she said. “They come down and I read for them in the parking lot.”