Advocacy group the Ruderman Family Foundation has saluted four TV series for their accurate depictions of people with disabilities — but, significantly, no films were included in this inaugural round of awards.
The shows honored were ABC’s “Speechless,” CBS’ “NCIS: New Orleans,” and two series on Netflix, “Special” and “The OA.” Each will be given the organization’s seal of authentic representation.
“Each of these television programs has demonstrated a commitment to inclusion of actors with disabilities, reflecting a deeper belief in the importance of representing diversity in all forms in popular entertainment,” said Foundation president Jay Ruderman. “We hope this Seal, along with the example set by each recipient program, inspires the rest of the entertainment community to provide real opportunities for people with disabilities to be part of popular culture’s great storytelling tradition.”
The Foundation has been working for equal rights for years, but these are their first awards. Ruderman and a panel of experts will select other honorees periodically when productions meet two simple, specific, criteria: The Seal is awarded to television shows and movies that feature actors with disabilities with a speaking role of at least five lines, and these productions must be in, or on the verge of, general release.
“Speechless” creator-executive producer Scott Silveri said the series team is grateful for the recognition. He added, “We hope that, one day soon, representation of those with disabilities on our TV and movie screens will be less novel, more the norm. For now, we’ll do our part and keep telling our stories, and cheer on the foundation for their tireless work, opening eyes to their most worthy cause.”
On “NCIS: New Orleans,” Daryl Mitchell, who uses a wheelchair, has played an investigator for all of the series’ five seasons. Amy Reisenbach, CBS Entertainment executive VP of current programs, said, “Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell is a charming and talented actor who brings to life the endearing and intelligent character of Patton Plame. We couldn’t imagine anyone else playing that role. We are thankful to have such an outspoken and motivational advocate for diversity and inclusion in entertainment be a vital part of the ‘NCIS: New Orleans’ cast and CBS family.”
On “Special,” star-creator-producer Ryan O’Connell spotlights his cerebral palsy as a key part of his mildly fictionalized character. O’Connell stated, “On behalf of the whole family of creative people who made ‘Special’ possible, I want to thank the Ruderman Family Foundation for this important honor. We hope we show that people with disabilities, and who are gay, and every other part of my personality, all have a place in popular entertainment.”
Liz Carr, an actress using a wheelchair, appears on the fantasy-mystery “The OA.”
No recent or current feature films satisfy the Foundation’s modest requirements. The film industry has a habit of hiring actors without disabilities to play parts calling for visible or unseen disabilities, which the organization called “a lamentable track record.”
“The inauthentic representation of disability in both studio and independent releases reinforces ongoing prejudices and stigmas that are preventing people with disabilities from opportunities to represent themselves in the entertainment industry,” Ruderman added. “And since this industry impacts public opinion, it is reinforcing the continued segregation of people with disabilities in our society. Actors with disabilities rarely, if ever, even get a chance to audition for those roles. This continuing discrimination has gone on long enough; it’s long past time for it to stop.”
Future Ruderman Family Foundation seal of authentic representation recipients will be announced when the standards are met. The Foundation hopes that before long, there will be an abundance of qualified productions.