Seniors and Actors With Disabilities Still Underrepresented On Screen

As Hollywood grapples with diversity, TV has generally received good marks from the media and industry members. TV offers 400-plus scripted series, with a mix of races, thanks to such newer series as WGN America’s “Underground,” ABC’s “Fresh off the Boat,” and NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” plus stalwarts including Fox’s “Empire” and ABC’s Shondaland trio (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” and “Scandal”).

But diversity means much more than race, and many groups are still under-represented — particularly characters over 60 and people with disabilities.

Adam Moore, national director of EEO and diversity for SAG-AFTRA, says Hollywood is a reflection of the bigger challenge. “As a society, we are not terribly comfortable with some of these issues. I don’t think it’s due to malice; people go to what they know, and in a business environment, you look for the least risky. But we’re not great about acknowledging the fact that certain people are excluded from the systems in place.”

Marta Kauffman says Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” is the first series since NBC’s “Golden Girls” [1985-92] to center on characters over 60. Kauffman co-created the series with Howard J. Morris because she realized there were no shows addressing things that a huge chunk of the population is facing: The lead characters, played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, deal with sex, aging and fears of mortality, but in a funny-sad-hopeful way.

Kauffman says there is “a certain ageist factor in the industry.” When TV execs want content that’s fresh, they assume new ideas can only come from young writers.

“People go to what they know, and in a business environment, you look for the least risky.”

They also assume that when a series deals with an untapped demographic, that’s the only audience that will watch the show. Kauffman says “Grace and Frankie” has already disproved that, appealing to many demos, including youngsters (though Netflix doesn’t divulge details about its viewers).

SAG-AFTRA’s Moore agrees that older characters are often invisible, especially females. Women generally earn smaller salaries than male actors, “and when they’re over 40, it goes down even further. And if you look at a woman of color or with a disability who’s over 60, the chances of work go down tenfold.” However, he remains optimistic. “We’re starting to see movement. There are audiences saying, ‘We spend money! We watch stuff!’ ” So Hollywood may pay closer attention.

Steven James Tingus — a former presidential appointee for disability, research and policy — points out that the areas of aging and disabilities are related. Able-bodied people sometimes “age into a disability.”

NEW AGE FAMILY: ABC’s “Speechless” cast actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebal palsy.

ABC will launch the series “Speechless,” involving a special-needs child, this fall. And Tingus says Shonda Rhimes and Lee Daniels “totally understand it.” But otherwise, people with disabilities (PWD) are rarely depicted —and when they are, the vast majority of those roles go to able-bodied actors.

Producer and former TV exec Loreen Arbus is a longtime activist who says PWD are getting rarer. She cites a GLAAD study that monitored 2015 broadcast series and found 881 regular characters: 8 of them were PWDs, representing only 0.9% — down from 1.4% in 2014. Arbus says, “Norman Lear broke ground in so many areas, but much of what he stood for has disappeared.”

However, she’s hopeful because “things come and go in cycles.” She’s working on specific projects as well as a proposal for rethinking the whole process. That includes a form of speed-dating, but for casting directors and performers, “so people with disabilities will have a chance to get a couple of inches inside the door, so that Hollywood will hire more people with disabilities.”

Tingus emphasizes that this is good business sense. In the U.S. alone, the census reported 57 million individuals with disabilities (defined as a condition that limits one or more daily activities).

“Netflix’s ‘Grace and Frankie’ is the first series since NBC’s ‘Golden Girls’ to center on characters over 60.”
Marta Kauffman

Moore agrees that inclusion makes good business sense. “We’re seeing more and more audiences leave same-old/same-old entertainment; they are desperately clamoring for something different from what they’ve seen before.” Such series as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” prove that there is an audience far beyond the communities depicted there. “Everybody wants to see a world they’re not familiar with. This is the power of the medium we deal with.”

Hopefully, Hollywood decision-makers will increasingly tap into a pool of talent that, he says, is “woefully under-represented.”

Moore concludes, “The union is here, as a resource and a partner. There are people who want to tell these stories, from students to the traditional gatekeepers at studios and networks. Our 160,000 members know there is a wealth of talent to get their story to the audience. Reach out and find us. It’s not a matter of ‘Why is this important?’; now, it’s ‘How do we do it?’”

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