As Hollywood continues its ongoing fight for increased diversity and representation across the industry, disability is rarely included.
Entrepreneur and disability activist Keely Cat-Wells is teaming up with major Hollywood figures to urge movie studios to hire a permanent disability officer. Amy Poehler and Naomie Harris are among over 80 names who have signed an open letter being sent across Hollywood on Wednesday.
“If you show the injustice of the system and say, ‘Look, here’s a way forward,’ it makes it more difficult for people to ignore,” says “James Bond” star Harris in support of the letter.
Cat-Wells is the founder of the Los Angeles-based talent agency, C Talent, which represents d/Deaf and disabled artists and athletes globally.
Her passion for representing these artists came when she was denied an acting job due to her own disability. As a college student, Cat-Wells began to experience severe stomach pains, which resulted in the removal of her colon. Due to the surgery, she now needs to wear an ileostomy bag for the rest of her life. When she was auditioning for a role in 2017 that required her to wear a bikini, she lost out on the part. She had originally booked the role, but was denied the job when she walked into a fitting and was told she would be “too off-putting” for the audience. At that time, she knew she had to help other individuals, like herself, who were facing similar challenges of finding work in the entertainment industry. So, she founded C Talent while she was in the hospital.
“If we don’t design for accessibility or include people with disabilities, it is like saying we don’t want the business of every fifth person who walks or rolls through the door,” Cat-Wells says.
“The oppression of the disabled community has been swept under the (red) carpet for too long,” she continues. “On a social level we are still fighting for basic equal rights, the same minimum wage and essential accessibility. Hollywood has the incredible power to shift and shape society.”
Cat-Wells notes that when the COVID-19 pandemic began, productions onboarded COVID compliance officers swiftly to ensure casts and crew members were kept safe and could keep accessing work. “The disabled community have faced threats, lost jobs and dealt with a lack of access long before COVID,” she says, “And unlike this situation, there has been no drastic steps to provide security.”
Through her company’s open letter, Cat-Wells is asking every major motion picture studio to hire a disability officer onto their team.
In addition to Poehler and Harris, some of the 80+ names who have signed the letter are Janina Gavankar, Jessica Barden, Nicholas Pinnock, Anne-Maria Sieklucka, Henry Simmons, Greg Nugent, Caroline Casey, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Phil Hunt, Heather Matarazzo, Erin Cahill, CJ Jones, Lachi, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tamara Mena, Julian Gavino, Myra Ali and more.
“Hollywood has many horror stories, and the ones least told are those of the disabled community fighting to get seen, heard, and treated as equals,” Cat-Wells says.
Speaking to members of the disabled community and their representatives, Cat-Wells has too may bad experiences to count. One person shared that their client, who required a wheelchair, was told they would not be able to have a trailer, like everyone else, because the set did not have wheelchair-accessible trailers. Another representative said that their client was asked to audition for a project that specifically called for an individual with a disability to play the role. However, when the person showed up to the audition, the it was located up a flight of stairs, with no elevator, that they could not access.
“Some of my experiences include artists not being hired because the studio said they were too many minorities in one — the client was Black, LGBTQ and disabled,” one anonymous participant shared with Cat-Wells.
The activist notes that the success of films like “Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Black Panther,” “Wonder Woman” and “Coco” — all projects that have embraced storytelling from maligned and underutilized perspectives — prove that diversity is a winning recipe for the bottom line in Hollywood.
Read the full open letter here:
Dear Entertainment Industry,
In full awareness of the urgent need to act on disability inclusion, we, the undersigned, call on major motion picture companies to implement a permanent position of “Disability Officer” on leadership teams.
Due to years of misrepresentation in the media, social barriers, and chronic ableism, the Deaf, Hard of Heading, Neurodiverse and Disabled communities continue to be underrepresented and disrespected in the entertainment industry.
This fight is not a new one. Pledges have been made but no systemic action has been taken to change inequitable systems and procedures. We can’t expect a band-aid to heal an open wound.
Disabled people make up the largest minority group in the world – One in four people are living with a disability and yet according to GLAAD’s ‘Where We Are on TV report’ the number of series regular characters reflects 3.5% representation, with very few of those being authentic. This number continues to severely under-represent the actual U.S. population living with disabilities. Behind the camera reflects an even worse set of statistics. Adequate inclusion is long overdue. Do not dismiss disability.
While many corporations claim to have DEI policies in place, disability is rarely included. The time is now to include disability in conversations relative to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
What would a Disability Officer do?
A Disability Officer’s purpose is not just to prevent on-screen mistakes, but to advance the seamless integration of the disabled community in all areas of an organization and make fundamental changes to dated practices based around the Social Model of Disability.
Adding a Disability Officer to your leadership teams promises to make this a reality with responsibilities to include:
- Providing content creators and decision-makers the confidence to include, talk about, and portray disability;
- Ensuring inclusive and accessible hiring practices;
- Working with and educating internal stakeholders and external partners on the quantitative and qualitative benefits of recruiting and hiring people with disabilities;
- Sourcing and identifying employment opportunities for disabled talent and setting targets for disability representation behind and in front of the camera as well as intersectional targets;
- Creating Universal Design within the organization;
- Leveraging internal relationships guaranteeing there is consistency and transparency between colleagues and departments;
- Meeting and exceeding expectations of disabled audiences;
- Striving to create competitive industry standards for authentic disability portrayal, incidental portrayal, and intersectional portrayal;
- Sourcing On-Set Accessibility Coordinators;
- Placing disabled talent in decision-making roles within the organization;
- Being the voice of disability on behalf of the organization to advocate for inclusion and representation of people with disabilities on panels, media interviews, and the like;
- Creating focus groups and databases of disabled talent that can be made easily accessible to the company;
- Working alongside the DEI Officer to measure programs and ensure accountability in the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities – while tracking the benefits aligned with this practice;
- Preventing problems, mistakes, or backlash before they happen.
Why is this not just the right thing to do but the smart thing to do?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers who have embraced disability as a component of their talent strategy report a 90 percent increase in retention of valued employees and a 72 percent increase in employee productivity.
Consumers with disabilities represent a $21 billion market segment. When you include their families, friends, and associates, that total expands even more.
Findings have shown that viewers are more likely to sign up for content distributors committed to more accurate portrayals of characters with disabilities.
In an industry where tokenism thrives and diversity is “trending,” you have the opportunity to set an example of what true inclusion looks like and to be trailblazers by taking action. No project should sacrifice its artistic integrity to accommodate inclusivity, but rather both are, and always should be, possible.
Hire a Disability Officer and take the opportunity of diversity with integrity.
We encourage people with disabilities, visible and invisible, to come forward to tell your stories using the hashtag #DontDismissDis
CEO of C Talent