“This Close” co-creators and stars Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman are two of only three total writers in the WGA who are deaf but, thanks to a new partnership with Easterseals, hopefully that won’t be the case for much longer.
Stern announced that they would be working with the nonprofit to provide support to deaf writers, getting them in front of industry decision-makers to get feedback on their work and, hopefully, jobs as well.
“We have to make the pipeline. Sometimes you have to chop down the trees yourself to make the road clear,” Stern said on a Power of TV: Representing Disability in Storytelling panel presented by the Television Academy Foundation and Easterseals in Los Angeles Wednesday. “Others will follow once the path is cleared for them.”
After originally pitching “This Close” as a series about a character who is deaf and a character who is hearing, Stern recalled she and Feldman realized over time there was no real reason they didn’t write both characters as deaf other than the fact that they thought the show would never sell without a protagonist who was hearing. Acknowledging that “we can’t just tell them; we’re going to have to show them” what true inclusiveness means, Stern and Feldman shot their own version of the show and put it on YouTube. “If we don’t do it, who will?” she said.
Recently the show wrapped its second season, and Stern was proud to share that the project employs 17 deaf individuals both in front of and behind the camera. Although she admitted that she feels there is still a long way to go in terms of accurate representation in the media, specifically citing the need to make diversity and disability “one conversation in order to pull it up,” she also acknowledged that there is still a great “fear of the unknown” in the business. But, she saw ways to use that fear for good.
“It reminds you that you can’t make art alone,” Stern said. “Fear has to serve as a reminder that collaboration is so critical, and we have to invite everyone into the room.”
The panel, which also consisted of actors Daryl Mitchell and RJ Mitte; “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunner Krista Vernoff; Bunim/Murray Prods. co-founder and “Born This Way” executive producer Jonathan Murray; Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy & Innovation director at Loyola Law School Katherine Perez and actress/philanthropist Holly Robinson-Peete, who served as the moderator, offered different perspectives on how to open the door for more people with disabilities to have careers in Hollywood.
Coming from the academic and policy world, Perez was adamant that “authentic representation” was the only way to go when telling stories of characters with disabilities, and that such representation “means moving away from the pity model [and] medical model of disability towards the social [and] celebrating as a culture.”
She added that because one in four people identify as someone with a disability, “we don’t have representation until one in every four [characters] have a disability.”
And identification is key, too: Some people, she pointed out, want to be seen as people first and therefore refer to themselves as “a person who is deaf,” for example, while others more openly embrace the identifier first and prefer to be referred to as “a deaf person.” Because “language is not going to be static,” she said, it’s important to ask individuals how they want to be identified and allow for those differences in storytelling as well.
Murray stressed the importance of going into specialty schools for people with disabilities to talk to them about having television writing careers, specifically, and show them there are other opportunities than what they may see in their immediate world around them. Meanwhile, Mitte mentioned the need to be proactive about one’s career and not rely on an agent or a manager to send along a specific breakdown for a character that has the same disability the actor does.
“I can go online. I can follow my favorite directors, actors, casting directors, showrunners. You can go to IMDb, pull up a list of a show and follow every single person,” he said.
Mitte also said he believed “not accepting this is an able-bodied role” was crucial and implored actors to “show up [or] go on LA Casting, find a role that fits you [and] is not defined by your appearance but what you can contribute.”
This was an idea further supported by Mitchell, who shared his own experiences of going on auditions for roles that were not specifically written for African-American men, let alone one who was in a wheelchair — though he acknowledged that having 15 years of acting roles under his belt before he was in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed had “proven” his talent.
“They knew me as an actor before, so it erases that stigma. You see what you want to see and you do what you want to do,” he said. For “the average disabled person,” he admitted, “I think it’s a different animal.”
While Mitchell said he is not proud that people often point out to him that he is the only black actor on television in a wheelchair, he is seeing strides in the right direction. A recent episode of his CBS procedural “NCIS: New Orleans,” for example, cast people with disabilities in all of the guest starring roles, as well as the background. The show also employs people with disabilities behind the scenes, such as Mitchell’s real-life son, who has autism.
Vernoff revealed efforts on her production to be more inclusive included casting actors with disabilities as background and guest players as well, because not only do those people need to see themselves reflected on television but also “other people become more comfortable by seeing them represented on television,” which she thinks will help fix “a really broken system that lends itself to unconscious bias.” Research for a storyline in which a disabled veteran character was going to undergo a penis and scrotum transplant revealed that commonly those who need that surgery have also lost one or both legs — so her casting director Linda Lowy found an actor who had recently lost one of his legs.
“I don’t know if we got it really super right, but when he talked about what it was like to go through this accident, the pain was really palpable. The truth of his story, as that actor delivered it, was palpable,” she said.
Vernoff said she encourages actors with disabilities to be submitted for “random” characters as well, even if the script doesn’t specifically call for someone who isn’t able-bodied. “There’s nothing about this patient that says he can’t be deaf. He’s got appendicitis; deaf people can have appendicitis,” she said.
Recently “Grey’s Anatomy” dedicated an arc to a regular character (Catherine, played by Debbie Allen) getting diagnosed with cancer. This was inspired by writer Elisabeth Finch, who is living with Stage 4 cancer, and who Vernoff said was “really tired of a cancer diagnosis being either you live and you’re well or you die.” In this case, they didn’t hire an actor who was actually living with cancer, but rather chose to make it a story for a regular character, which would allow them “to continue telling the story of that character living with the cancer.”
But, as often as she can, if she is writing a character with a specific disability, Vernoff said, “I want a great actor, and ideally I want an actor living with that disability because of the authenticity they’ll bring, and I reject the notion I can’t have both.” While that often takes some extra time, Vernoff said any added effort is worth it because “systems change when people change them.”
This story has been updated. A previous version quoted Stern saying she and Feldman were the only two writers in the WGA but she later tweeted a correction.