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Hollywood’s Invisible Minority: People With Disabilities Eager to Show Their Abilities

Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 24, and it’s likely the contenders will include black artists, and possibly some Latino/Hispanics and Asians. But there will be little to no representation for a major under-represented group — people with disabilities, or PWD.

According to the Census Bureau, there are 57 million Americans with disabilities, or 19% of the population. TV hiring is about 2.4%. The film industry is worse, at 0.9%.

Scott Silveri is the creator of ABC’s freshman series “Speechless,” which stars Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy. Silveri tells Variety that Hollywood execs are not resistant to hiring: “Nobody is building walls. But disabilities are not getting enough attention. It’s as simple as that. When you consider the number of people with disabilities, you’d think this would be more of a conversation in town.”

Silveri was an honoree at November’s Media Access Awards, which honors industry hiring for PWD. Silveri said that he represented one of the many white, male, able-bodied people in a hiring position, and he exhorted the crowd, “Be loud! Shame us! Unfortunately, that’s what it takes to get our attention.”

One possible reason for the under-hiring is that the phrase “people with disabilities” encompasses so many different kinds of individuals. And to many, “disability” means helpless. Which means it’s hard to imagine what job they could fill.

In truth, they can fill many jobs, in front of or behind the camera. The Access Awards audience included amputees, deaf and/or blind people, individuals with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, plus intellectual disabilities such as severe dyslexia, autism, and stuttering. Each of these comes in a wide spectrum: There are many degrees of blindness and Down syndrome, for example.

All are highly employable, says Deborah Calla, chair of the Producers Guild of America’s diversity committee. She rattles off the names of several PWD who are employed in the industry. The good news is that somebody gave them a chance. The bad news is that these people are the exception.

When a PWD is depicted, it’s usually an able-bodied person who plays the role. Gail Williamson heads the diversity department at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates talent agency. She says her clients are happy to play any part. But they also hope for roles in which the disability is not the focus: They’d love to play a lawyer, cop, or waiter who just happens to be a PWD.

At the Media Access Awards, actor Danny Woodburn said much of the #OscarsSoWhite movement “has been about ignorance. And there was blatant exclusion in the media about people with disabilities.”

There are many other groups that are under-represented, both behind and in front of the cameras. Advocates are not talking about quotas, they’re talking about representing the real world.

And it’s good business. “Speechless,” for example, is a hit, with a full-season order. Calla cites A&E’s reality series “Born This Way,” which centers on individuals with Down syndrome. The show won an Emmy this year and has been renewed.

Williamson says her department is unique among talent agencies. “I hope that someday the department goes away because it’s not needed. The goal is to get anyone with any difference included in every agency.” And on every cast and crew.

(Photo: “Speechless” team Micah Fowler (in foreground), Cedric Yarbrough, Scott Silveri, Melvin Mar)

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