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SAG sez biz handicaps disabled thesps

Guild says unemployment high for handicapped actors

A correction was made to this article on July 27, 2005.

The Screen Actors Guild has released the executive summary of the first study commissioned by the union to examine employment levels and conditions for performers with disabilities within the entertainment industry. Two years coming, the results are not encouraging.

The disabled are significantly underemployed, both in relation to the overall population of actors and to the U.S. population as a whole. More, they are reluctant to ask for even minor accommodations to help them do their jobs, a reluctance rooted in fear of reprisals and blacklisting.

Little had been known about the conditions facing disabled performers, because while SAG and its employers record and publish casting data that offers analysis of the hiring practices and employment trends in film and television with respect to ethnicity, age and gender, none have been kept for the disabled — until now. Last February, SAG’s new TV/feature contract with producers provided the concession that would include performers with disabilities in the annual casting data report provided to SAG/AFTRA.

SAG general counsel David White said “concrete data provides annual scrutiny and accountability.”

The report, authored by UCLA researchers Olivia Raynor and Katharine Hayward found that less than 2% of all performers displayed a disability, and less than .5% had speaking roles.

It also showed that while more than a third of SAG’s disabled performers indicated a reasonable accommodation would help them in their work (i.e., having a cane nearby or asking a director to face them when speaking to read lips), 60% never ask for such an accommodation, fearing employers will not rehire them.

“You begin to wonder, ‘What is my place in the American Scene?’ ” said Robert David Hall, a “CSI” series regular and chairman of the union’s national performers with disabilities committee; he lost both his legs in a car accident in 1978.

“The biggest losses aren’t sight, or hearing, or mobility; they’re the loss of hope and opportunity,” he added.

Cultural impact

Also in attendance at the presentation of the report Tuesday were several performers with disabilities, like “Las Vegas” series regular Mitch Longley, who complained that the industry’s failure to employ the disabled shows “that they underestimate us from a financial standpoint, and from a creative one.” Longley noted that with 50 million disabled people in the United States, about two-thirds of them severely disabled, shows were ignoring a huge segment of their audience.

Marcus York, another disabled performer, agreed, complaining that when shows do employ performers, they often rely on shopworn cliches to explain their presence.

“Whenever you see a ‘wheelie,’ there’s a (visual) tension onscreen,” York explained, “and (producers) want to show why. Usually it’s a corny, cheesy, stereotyped explanation: ‘He’s a Vietnam vet’ or ‘He’s a hospital patient!’ ”

Likewise attending the presentation were Hall’s co-stars from the Eye web’s hit drama, including topliner William Petersen, who noted that Hall’s place on the skein reflected the best-case scenario: when a disabled performer’s disability isn’t made an issue in the script.

“We didn’t not cast him because he’s disabled,” Petersen said, adding, “We didn’t not not cast him because he was disabled. Audiences in this country are missing out on a great talent pool because we don’t do that. I don’t know of any actor in this town who wants to get a job because he’s disabled.”

The complete 23-page report will be posted on the SAG Web site in the coming weeks.

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