Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Nationwide Class Action Challenges Hulu's Discrimination against Blind and Visually Impaired Individuals

From the American Council of the Blind:

BOSTON, Nov. 20, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A coalition of blind and visually impaired individuals and advocacy groups filed a nationwide class action today against Hulu to end the video streaming company's ongoing exclusion of blind and visually impaired Americans.  The lawsuit—filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts—challenges Hulu's violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Hulu, one of the largest online-streaming services in the country, offers thousands of shows and movies, including award-winning original content, to most customers at the click of a mouse.  However, the company fails to provide audio description—a separate audio track that blind and visually impaired people need in order to access the exclusively visual content of a show or movie—for any streaming videos. 

Because Hulu fails to include audio description tracks on any of its streaming content, blind and visually impaired individuals cannot independently enjoy Hulu's video streaming services.  Audio description is a separate audio track that, when activated, provides a verbal description of visual elements on screen, especially in scenes with no dialogue.  The audio description track plays between pauses in dialogue.  Hulu boasts an extensive library of live TV and on-demand movies and series—including its Emmy-award winning original series, "The Handmaid's Tale"—but currently excludes customers who are blind and visually impaired.

In addition, Hulu's website and applications are not accessible to blind and visually impaired individuals who use screen readers to navigate the internet.  A screen reader is software that converts the visually displayed content on the screen into audible, synthesized speech or outputs that information on a digital braille display.

The American Council of the Blind, Bay State Council of the Blind, and blind individuals brought this action to end Hulu's discriminatory business practices.  Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a national nonprofit legal center, and the Disability Law Center (DLC), Massachusetts's Protection and Advocacy system, represent these individuals and organizations.

Kim Charlson, President of the American Council of the Blind, said, "Movies and television are pillars of American culture.  As delivery of such media transitions to video streaming services, it is critical that these platforms be accessible in order to ensure the inclusion of blind and visually impaired individuals in contemporary society."

Rebecca Williford, Senior Staff Attorney at DRA, said, "Hulu is owned by a collection of some of the most powerful companies in the entertainment business and is itself one of the nation's most popular online streaming services.  Its utter failure to provide access to individuals who are blind and visually impaired is astonishing."

"BSCB members have been expressing their concerns about Hulu's lack of audio description for years now," said Brian Charlson, President of Bay State Council of the Blind, "and it is time that Hulu join with other industry streaming services out there and meet its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act."

"As forms of entertainment evolve, equal access must transition to meet industry innovation. Equal access means the ability to fully use and enjoy all aspects of entertainment, just like everyone else," said Christine Griffin, Executive Director of DLC.

Plaintiffs do not seek monetary damages, but seek only to achieve equal access to Hulu's services.

A copy of this press release and the Complaint can be found at nationwide-class-action-challenges-hulus-discrimination-blind-visually-impaired-individuals/

About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA): Founded in 1993, DRA is a leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with the full spectrum of disabilities in complex, system-changing, class action cases. DRA's prior cases advocating for accessible entertainment include Blanks v. AMC Theaters (2017) (reaching a settlement to improve audio description in AMC theaters nationwide), and negotiations with Netflix in 2016 that resulted in a settlement to provide audio description for Netflix's streaming and disc rental libraries, including "Netflix Originals." For more information, visit

About Disability Law Center (DLC): The DLC is the Protection and Advocacy system for Massachusetts and is authorized under federal law to protect and advocate for the legal rights of individuals with disabilities in Massachusetts. DLC worked with Bay State Council of the Blind in a series of negotiations with Fleet Bank, Sovereign Bank, and Citizens Bank to ensure that their ATMs, websites, and other banking services were fully accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. For more information, visit

About American Council of the Blind (ACB): ACB works to increase the independence, security, equality of opportunity, and quality of life, for all people who are blind or visually impaired. ACB advocates for policies that provide services, opportunities, infrastructure, and equipment that are necessary for an inclusive society, in federal, state, and local governments, and among service providers and industry. For more information, visit

About Bay State Council of the Blind (BSCB): BSCB is a membership organization of blind, visually impaired, and sighted individuals committed to an enhanced quality of life for Massachusetts' residents who are blind or visually impaired. BSCB convenes meetings and conferences, organizes recreation activities, provides publications, radio programs, and information, and advocates for services and legislation that improve access for people who are blind. For more information, visit

Friday, November 10, 2017

ABC's SPEECHLESS named 2017 recipient of Annie Glenn Award by American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

From ASHA:

The ABC Television Network series SPEECHLESS will be honored with the Annie Glenn Award for 2017 by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Named for Annie Glenn, advocate and wife of astronaut John Glenn, the award honors those who have made a positive impact on the lives of people with communication disorders. "Speechless" is produced for ABC by Twentieth Century Fox Television.
Mrs. Glenn, who experienced a severe stutter well into her adult years, has worked tirelessly for roughly 40 years as a champion for people with speech, language, and hearing disorders.
"Speechless" is the trailblazing ABC family comedy that centers on a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, and his dysfunctional, yet lovable, family. The character, JJ DiMeo, is nonverbal and uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device to communicate. The actor who portrays him, Micah Fowler, also has cerebral palsy.
The show's creator, Scott Silveri, grew up with a brother with cerebral palsy who was nonverbal. The show is one of very few in the history of television to feature a character with a disability in a lead role. Among them, "Speechless" is especially unique in that it is a comedy.
Reflecting on the show's impact, Mrs. Glenn noted, "It really is remarkable that a show like [Speechless] is on TV these days. Years ago, an individual with a disability would never have been a lead character in such a funny show. Think about how many people now understand that people who use different ways to communicate are the same as you and me. And that TV family is just as silly as your own family. I think that gives a lot of hope to families out there dealing with some struggles and trying to figure out their next steps. Nothing is bigger than the family working together."
"We at 'Speechless' are honored and deeply gratified to be this year's recipient of ASHA's Annie Award," said "Speechless" creator/executive producer Scott Silveri. "'Speechless' is a show about communication: between parents and their kids, between brothers and sisters... but on a more literal level, between one non-verbal young man and the world around him as he strives to find what each of us wants-a way to be heard.
Immersing ourselves as we have in the world of speech and alternative communication has been a revelation for our writers, cast and crew-one that has changed every one of us. But we do our work in a world of make-believe. As such we are humbled to be recognized by ASHA, a body of pioneers and tireless advocates who offer real-world solutions. We celebrate ASHA for the work they do, and thank them for this generous recognition. We will continue to strive to tell stories that are worthy of this honor," Silveri continued.
"We are thrilled to recognize the show 'Speechless' with our 2017 Annie Award," said Gail Richard, PhD, CCC-SLP, 2017 ASHA President. "As a prime-time comedy on a major television network, 'Speechless' has a tremendous platform to raise awareness and understanding of people who communicate in a manner that is different from the norm. We hope its success will encourage the inclusion of more characters and stories in the media and entertainment industries that showcase the unique experiences and capabilities of people with communication and related disorders."
The award will be presented to "Speechless" actors Micah Fowler and Cedric Yarbrough at an evening ceremony on Friday, November 10, 2017, at the ASHA Annual Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The presentation of this prestigious award is an annual and well-received highlight of the professional conference, which regularly draws approximately 15,000 attendees-largely audiologists and speech-language pathologists.
First awarded in 1987, past recipients of the "Annie" include Vice President Joe Biden, James Earl Jones, Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly, Julie Andrews, Jane Seymour, Bob and Lee Woodruff, Bill and Willie Geist, and "The King's Speech" screenwriter David Seidler.
About the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for 191,500 members and affiliates who are audiologists; speech-language pathologists; speech, language, and hearing scientists; audiology and speech-language pathology support personnel; and students. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids. Speech-language pathologists identify, assess, and treat speech and language problems, including swallowing disorders.

Scotland plans to integrate sign language into everyday life

From the BBC:
The Scottish government has announced plans to integrate the use of British Sign Language (BSL) into everyday life.
Measures include removing barriers to deaf people becoming teachers and enabling more pupils to learn BSL in school.
It will also address "equal access" to employment opportunities including apprenticeships and internships.
The government will give £1.3m to a partnership of hearing loss charities over the next three years.

What's in the plan?

The national plan for people with hearing loss is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK.
It has 70 actions ministers will take by 2020 to help deaf people in Scotland, including:
  • Removing barriers that prevent deaf people from becoming teachers
  • Developing Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) awards in BSL
  • Allowing more pupils to learn BSL in school
  • Guaranteeing government-funded employment schemes are accessible to deaf people
  • Improving ways of giving information in BSL at train stations and airports
  • Starting a steering group to help colleges and universities help deaf students
Delia Henry, director of Action on Hearing Loss Scotland, said the plan was a "starting point" in removing barriers for the 13,000 people who use BSL in Scotland.
She said people with hearing loss "often tell us about their communication needs not being met as BSL interpreters have not been provided when they've been looking for support at job centres or during health appointments".
Dr Terry Riley, chairman of the British Deaf Association, said the plan set "a brilliant example for the rest of the United Kingdom to follow".
He added: "Scotland's approach to promoting and supporting BSL has been highlighted as exemplary by the United Nations, and the Scottish government is to be congratulated."
Presentational grey line

Can deaf people be teachers?

The plan includes specific mention of making it easier for BSL users to become teachers.
There are no laws preventing deaf people becoming teachers, however, only a few currently work in Scotland.
Generally they use a BSL interpreter in the classroom to help them communicate with pupils.
Janis McDonald, chief officer at the Scottish Council on Deafness, said the problem was about access to good-quality education and qualifications.
She said deaf teachers were generally people who became deaf later in life rather than those who were born deaf and had BSL as their first language.
"Someone who only speaks BSL wouldn't be able to pass a teaching exam because it would be delivered in English," she said. "This means they can't get a teaching qualification.
"It's difficult to access further education when the reasonable adjustments are seen as costly or unreasonable.
"People should be able to be qualified in their own language."
Presentational grey line

'They have dreams'

Derek Todd is from the Scottish Council on Deafness and supported the work of the ministerial advisory group which prepared the National Plan.
He told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme that overcoming the language barrier would lead to more inclusion for deaf people, especially in education.
He said: "We try to encourage more people to learn BSL in schools and more hearing children to learn BSL to engage and socialise with deaf children.
"Deaf children can do anything, they have dreams. Education is one of the critical barriers for deaf children.
"Many deaf children leave school with no education or very little qualifications. We want to improve that with this National Plan."
Early Years Minister Mark McDonald outlined the details of the plan to the Scottish Parliament.
He said: "Our long-term aim is ambitious - we want to bring about change that has a real, practical impact on the day-to-day lives of BSL users and which puts Scotland right up there as the best place in the world for BSL users to live and visit.
"This plan, which has been developed in partnership with the BSL National Advisory Group, reflects the priorities of deaf and deafblind BSL users in Scotland and I am confident that it will help us to make substantial progress towards achieving that ambition."

The world really is a stage, scripts and all, to autistic actor

From The NY Times
SYRACUSE — Early Thursday morning at the cafe across the street from Syracuse Stage, an actor named Mickey Rowe (pictured) ducked in from the drizzly chill just as a barista unlocked the door. Starring as Christopher Boone in Simon Stephens’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” he had a matinee to perform in a couple of hours, and an interview to give first.
On Broadway, where the play was a Tony Award-winning hit, it ran eight times a week, with two actors alternating the demanding role of Christopher, a 15-year-old with autism who sets out to solve a mystery. In Syracuse, Mr. Rowe — thought to be the first openly autistic actor to play the role — does all nine shows a week.
For him, such arduous work is a point of pride: evidence that an actor with a developmental disability can be up to the task. Confident enough in his performance to send a tweet to a writer for The New York Times, asking her to come and see (it worked), he means to show what’s possible when companies take a chance on actors like him — and by extension, what’s possible in the wider culture when other employers do.
He doesn’t argue that roles like Christopher need to be played by people on the autism spectrum, but simply that those actors must be given a shot.
“I think it’s theater’s job to change the world,” Mr. Rowe said over coffee. “I think it has a lot more power than it knows it has. And with that power comes great responsibility.”
A boyish 29-year-old Seattle native with the slight but toned build of a gymnast, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand when we met. On our table, he placed a sheaf of papers face down — scripted notes it made him feel better to have, which he consulted if I asked a question he wanted to be careful answering. His vocal tone, timid at first, soon had the resonance of an actor’s voice.
“This is easy-ish for me because you’re a reporter; I’m the interviewee,” he said when we’d been talking awhile. “We have specific roles. If we met on the street, that would be more scary.”
That’s how he’s felt about performing, too, ever since he was little: perfectly comfortable as long as he knows the part he’s meant to play.
Whether Mr. Rowe is the first autistic actor to play Christopher is hard to pin down, given the number of “Curious Incident” productions around the world. Even Mr. Stephens, the playwright, said that while Mr. Rowe is the first he’s heard of, he can’t be sure.
Mr. Rowe with a “Curious Incident” co-star, Elizabeth Ledo. CreditMichael Davis
Casting Mr. Rowe was the result of a deliberate effort by two professional regional theaters, Syracuse Stage and its co-producer, Indiana Repertory Theater (where the show opened this fall), to audition actors both with and without autism for the role. At a time when theaters are discussing diversity, there is a heightened pressure to include performers with disabilities. “Uncommon Sense,” Tectonic Theater Project’s new Off Broadway play about people with autism and their families, has an actor on the spectrum, Andrew Duff, in its ensemble.
Robert Hupp, the artistic director of Syracuse Stage, said that seeking out actors on the spectrum “made logical and irrefutable sense” for “Curious Incident.” To him, Mr. Rowe’s performance is clear validation.
“To anyone who ever had any concerns or doubts or wondered, ‘Could an actor with autism play this role? Would an actor who falls on the spectrum be overwhelmed by this production?’ the answer is definitively no,” he said. “Not if you’re Mickey Rowe.”
Mr. Rowe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from the University of Washington, found out when he was a senior there that he had autism. Legally blind, he struggles to read print smaller than 18-point type (he wears contacts onstage and glasses “in real life,” he says), and was in special education classes for his vision throughout childhood — years he spent friendless, obsessed with magic tricks and circus skills: stilt-walking, juggling, unicycling.
It strikes him as telling that he got speech and occupational therapy, too. He suspects his parents knew he had autism but didn’t want to label him, and if so, he understands. He hasn’t asked them, though; he said they don’t have that kind of relationship.
It was his girlfriend — now his wife and the mother of their two small children — who urged him to get help with issues like interpreting social cues. At the university’s Adult Autism Clinic, his diagnosis came as “a big relief, because you know your whole life that something is different,” Mr. Rowe said. “You don’t know why or what it is or if you’re stupid or what’s going on.”
Still, he didn’t tell people about his autism. So it was unsettling when, in an acting class he took around the time “Curious Incident” opened on Broadway in 2014, the teacher handed him one of Christopher’s speeches and said, “You need to do this monologue. This is you.”
“I remember thinking to myself afterwards: Does she know I’m on the spectrum?” Mr. Rowe said. “Like, do people just know?”
He is not Christopher, though, and he and Christopher occupy very different spots on the spectrum. Even so, he recognized enough pieces of himself in that monologue that he went home and listened to the novel, by Mark Haddon, that Mr. Stephens adapted into the play.
Mr. Rowe and other cast members after a performance. CreditShane Lavalette for The New York Times
Not long afterward, struggling to get work, Mr. Rowe threw in the towel on trying to pass as neurotypical. In an essay on the theater industry website HowlRound, he wrote about being an actor with autism, noting the “tension between everything that I am and everything that might be conventional for an actor.” He hoped his disclosure would change the way people looked at him, just enough to give him a chance.
The piece raised his profile and put him on the radar of anyone searching for an actor with autism, but in practice nothing changed. Going out for roles, he still faced immediate roadblocks: the small talk, the eye contact, the instant connection an actor is supposed to make with the director.
“Just how you walk into the room and shake hands with the person when you first meet them is a huge part of the audition, and people on the spectrum aren’t very good at that,” he said.
So his résumé was comparatively slender when the Indiana/Syracuse production asked him to submit a video audition. Soon the show’s California-based director, Risa Brainin, flew to Seattle to see if he had the chops. If he didn’t, they weren’t going to compromise.
“We couldn’t,” she said. “It’s too major of a role, and too difficult of a role. What we wanted to do was give the opportunity.”
In Syracuse, where the production runs through Nov. 12, Mr. Rowe plays Christopher with an agile grace, an impish humor and a humanizing restraint that seems directly connected to his experience of autism. When the stage directions say that Christopher barks like a dog, for example, Mr. Rowe chooses to underplay it.
The attention the show has gotten has been positive for him. For one thing, Lincoln Center asked him to speak at its autism-focused Big Umbrella Festival next spring. And the ripples extend farther. Marissa Wolf, who is directing “Curious Incident” this winter at Kansas City Repertory Theater, in Missouri, said Mr. Rowe’s casting inspired her to choose an actor with Tourette’s syndrome, a condition often associated with autism spectrum disorder, to play Christopher in her production.
Mr. Rowe worries a little about being pigeonholed, because he also wants to play roles that have nothing to do with autism. At the same time, he sees characters in the canon who he thinks could be on the spectrum — like Bobby, the young misfit in David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” and Jason, the awkward adolescent in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole.”
Eager to work with Mr. Rowe again, Mr. Hupp and Ms. Brainin have been scheming about future projects, pondering which roles — maybe something in Shakespeare? — would be a great fit for him.
What Mr. Rowe wants is a life in the American theater, probably with a stint in graduate school on the way. He can envision himself as the leader of a regional theater, and he is undaunted by the socializing that would require. Mingling may not be in his skill set, but to him, an artistic director is simply playing a role. And knowing that takes the fear away.

More characters with disabilities on TV in 2017 but the industry still falls very short of representing actual U.S. disability community

Full report from GLAAD here:

"This is GLAAD’s eighth year of tracking number of series regular characters on primetime broadcast scripted series who are depicted as people with disabilities (PWD).

"According to the 2016 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census, 12.8 percent (40.7 million) of U.S. noninstitutionalized citizens are living with an apparent disability. In its count, GLAAD included characters who would be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which includes people living with non-apparent disabilities such as cancer or HIV and AIDS. Inclusion of those disabilities would greatly increase the figures found by the U.S. Census Bureau.

"While the percentage of series regular characters living with disabilities on broadcast has increased this year, primetime programming continues to fall short in reflecting the reality of this demographic. This year, the percentage and number of series regulars with disabilities has risen slightly to 1.8 percent (16 characters) from the previous year’s 1.7 percent (15 characters). This is the highest percentage of inclusion since GLAAD began gathering disability statistics in the 2010-11 season."

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Actors with disabilities find little work In TV, but CBS, Fox lead way in hiring, auditioning, study reports

From Deadline:

A new report finds that while about 20% of Americans have a disability, only 1.7% of all the characters portrayed on TV last season were visibly disabled. The report, from the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities in society, also found that “an astonishing 95% of characters with disabilities on TV are played by non-disabled actors.” This, the report concludes, “demonstrates the drastic need for a more accurate representation of people with disabilities on screen in terms of authentic casting and portrayals.” 

“The representation of actors with disabilities on television remains woefully inadequate,” said Foundation president Jay Ruderman. “Despite incremental progress in the right direction by a few networks and studios, actors with disabilities are the most underrepresented minority in Hollywood.” 

The report (read it here) found that 20th Century Fox and CBS were the leaders in hiring and auditioning actors with disabilities. It found that CBS leads in employment with 11 series and pilots having hired performers with disabilities across the network, while 61% of Fox’s dramas (14 out of 23) and 69% of its comedies (nine of 13) auditioned performers with disabilities for the past and current TV seasons. 

“So many times when producers or casting directors hear the word ‘disability’ they think ‘inability,’ and we need to change this preconception,” said Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, co-author of the report and a regular on NCIS: New Orleans (pictured), one of the few primetime series performers with a disability. “What we want is the chance to audition. I wouldn’t have my job if I wasn’t the right fit.” Mitchell has been paralyzed from the waist down since a motorcycle accident in 2001.

ABC had five shows that hired disabled performers during the past year, NBC had three, and Fox had one. On cable, HBO had three shows that hired disabled actors; Showtime and FX had two; and AMC, TBS, Cinemax, Comedy Central, Disney XD, Freeform, Nickelodeon, Pop, Starz, Syfy and TBS each had one. Among the streaming services, Hulu had three shows that hired disabled actors; Netflix and Amazon each had two. 
Networks whose shows didn’t hire any disabled performers – at least, as the report notes, “none with open disabilities, and definitely not visible ones” – include the CW, Disney Channel, Bravo, History, TNT, Spike, TV Land, USA Drama, CMT, Audience Network, VH1, Crackle, Epix and CBS Internet. 
“The imperative for diversity is already widespread in many corners of the industry and we assert that disability is of course a part of diversity,” said the report, which was co-authored by Tari Hartman Squire and Kristina Kopić. “Although we have seen a move in the right direction – more scripted series are open to auditioning and casting talent with disabilities, more performers with disabilities are having positive experiences – we still must acknowledge that we are far from parity with the disability community. The number of working actors with disabilities is far below the 20% of people with disabilities in the population.” 
“Today it would be inconceivable for 95% of Black characters to be played by white actors in blackface,” the report states. “Indeed blackface itself as a practice is almost, though not entirely, inconceivable these days. Although we have to state that this comparison between ‘disabled mimicry’ or ‘cripping up’ and ‘blackface’ is not entirely analogous, and it is important to recognize the difference. For example, according to Anita Cameron, ADAPT Activist and Director of Minority Outreach for the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, ‘Disabled mimicry is not at all the same as blackface, which was a sinister invention and cinematic aggression specifically designed as a genre for the sole purpose to demean black people and make us look foolish with hideous make-up, and exaggerated stereotypes of buffoonery – stereotypes on steroids.’  Filmmaker and disability rights activist Dominick Evans who coined the phrase ‘disabled mimicry’ adds, ‘By contrast, disabled mimicry is based on lowered expectations that performers with disabilities lack the talent to portray a specific role and/or talent with disabilities don’t exist, or can’t be found.’ 
“While we acknowledge that blackface has a deeply racialized history and origin driven by blatant racism, the argument we made in last year’s White Paper maintains that there are some nuanced parallels when it comes to the effect of blackface, as compared to the effect of disabled mimicry: 1) the erasure of a group of people, and 2) public acceptance of that erasure. 
“Blackface is still pervasive within living memory. For example, as recently as 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement, Laurence Olivier received an Oscar nomination for playing Othello in blackface. Today we recognize that casting black actors to play black characters is a given. There are still many obstacles for black actors, but convincing people that the role of a black character shouldn’t go to a White actor in makeup isn’t one of them anymore. However that is one of the obstacles which the disability community still faces in Hollywood – the belief that disability is something to be acted. As Dominick Evans notes, ‘Disability is presented as one of the ‘greatest’ challenges a non-disabled actor can take on, often one they take in hopes of winning the highest honors for their craft.’ 
“The argument we are making is that non-disabled actors ‘cripping up’ or engaging in disabled mimicry is depriving one group of people –in this case America’s largest minority group at 20% of the population –the right to self-representation. It furthermore perpetuates the myth that actors with disabilities are not even good enough to portray themselves.” 
And the report found that TV “isn’t the only culprit. When we turn to movies, just shy of half of all the Oscars for Best Actor since 1988 have gone to non-disabled actors playing disabled characters. That is a rather stunning level of erasure. Audiences clearly are welcoming of stories about people with disabilities, yet there is little backlash over the fact that the disabilities on screen are make-believe. There are no actual people with disabilities – at least no open disabilities, and definitely not visible ones –receiving the awards and honor; not since 1987 when Marlee Matlin, a deaf performer, won an Oscar for Best Actress in Children of a Lesser God.” 
The authors of the report insists that they are “not absolutists” when it comes to the representation of disabled characters and the actors who play them. “We often have arguments levied our way claiming that not every single character with a disability could possibly be played by an actor with a disability. Some argue that there are certain types of disabilities just too rare to find actors for. To these claims we say: we are not absolutists. Our claim is not that every character with a disability must be portrayed by an actor with a disability. Instead, we advocate for more equity and frequency for performers with disabilities to be considered for any role, whether or not the script indicates disability. 
“Our bottom line is that we must shift those social attitudes and offer talent with disabilities the same opportunities at growth and development as we do to talent without disabilities. It is okay for a non-disabled actor to portray a character with a disability if that person truly is the best fit for the role. But the reverse must hold as well. Production teams must be willing to audition actors with disabilities for a wide variety of roles whether or not disability is specified in the script.”

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A wish for authentic disability representation on television to continue

By Beth Haller, Ph.D.
Media dis&dat
(A reprint of a blog post I wrote for the Thompson Policy Institute at Chapman University, July 15, 2017.) 

We are in vibrant “new” world of authentic disability representation on television, with shows like Switched at Birth, Speechless, Little People, Big World, and Born This Way. However, is this authentic representation so new?
In the 1980s, several scholars evaluated authentic disability representation on television when disabled actors appeared on screen, looking at their impact on audiences.
Blind actor Tom Sullivan guest starred on a number of TV shows from the 1970s through the 1990s, and researchers Tim Elliott and Keith Byrd ran an experiment to study the audience response to Sullivan’s non-stereotypical presentation of blindness in the hit show Mork and Mindy (1978-1982).
In addition to viewing the episode, the researchers discussed misconceptions and stereotypes about blindness with participants. Elliott and Byrd found that the viewing and discussion of stereotypes created a nonthreatening environment for participants, allowing them to shift their misconceptions and to accept accurate information about disability.
Research in the 1990s about the first TV show to feature an actor with Down syndrome, Life Goes On (1989-1993), had similar findings. An experimental study in 1999 looked at both a documentary with an independent person with Down syndrome and the Corky character with Down syndrome from Life Goes On.
The research participants saw active, socially engaged people with Down syndrome and that helped counter negative stereotypes of people with disabilities. Most importantly, the participants began to see people with Down syndrome as having equal status in society.
This research illustrated several decades ago that media representations of disability have the power to change audience beliefs about disability. So why does authentic disability representation on TV ebb and flow so significantly?
I believe the answer has three parts. 1. News coverage of disability rights at the time. 2. The shift from guest starring roles to principal character roles. 3. The birth of reality TV.
First, TV writers do not write in a vacuum. They may be writing a 1970s show about a medical unit during the Korean war (M*A*S*H, which ran from 1972 to 1983), but before they head off to the writers’ room at a TV studio in Los Angeles, they might see news stories about the 1977 disability rights protests at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Obviously, I cannot prove an explicit connection, but my point is that news media coverage of disability topics reminds everyone, including TV writers, that people with disabilities exist. In addition, once disability is in the mix for a plotline, other connections pop up. In the case of the TV show M*A*S*H, the blind actor Tom Sullivan appeared in an episode in 1976, the late actor William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy, had an autistic son, and actor Gary Burghoff, who played Radar, has a disabled left hand from birth.
Secondly, disabled actors working in the 1970s and 1980s who were able to get recurring roles or star as main characters on TV shows reinforced for producers that a disabled actor could carry a show. Deaf actor Linda Bove appeared on Sesame Street from 1972 to 2002, which is the longest recurring role in TV history for a Deaf or disabled person. Actor Geri Jewell, who was on Facts of Life from 1980 to 1984, became the first person with a disability to have a recurring role on primetime TV. In addition, when Chris Burke starred in Life Goes On, he proved that an actor with Down syndrome could carry a prime-time television show.  
I see a direct line from Linda Bove, Geri Jewell, and Chris Burke to actor Micah Fowler, a wheelchair-using actor with cerebral palsy who currently stars in the ABC prime-time comedy Speechless. With the same kind of trajectory, it is my hope that Speechless will lead to more disabled actors being hired in the next few decades. As Lawrence Carter-Long, formerly of the National Council on Disability, wrote in 2016, "Speechless matters because inclusivity on TV promotes inclusivity in life.”
Finally, as much as everyone likes complain about reality TV, it put actual people with disabilities in front of the cameras to show audiences their lives. Also, when their shows became a hit, it gave disabled people more control of the reality shows that featured them.
One of the first versions of the modern reality show, The Real World on MTV, featured in 1992 an actual person with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, Pedro Zamora. President Bill Clinton credited Pedro Zamora with helping lessen the fear people had of those with HIV/AIDS.
Little People Big World (LPBW), which chronicled the lives of the Roloff family in Oregon, premiered on TLC in 2006. The parents, Amy and Matt, both have dwarfism, as does one of their four children. Amy Roloff said in 2010 that when they were approached about doing the show, they saw it as a good way to educate the general public about dwarfism. “Nothing had depicted dwarfism in an everyday way,” she said. LPBW ushered in a number of reality shows about little people. Although mostly viewed as positive, some have criticized these shows as playing into TV audiences’ voyeurism about people with dwarfism.
The success of the show led to more than just reality shows about little people. Little People Big World’s producer also created Push Girls for the Sundance channel, a 2012-2013 reality show about four Los Angeles women who are wheelchair users. These reality shows had good ratings and proved to TV executives that TV audiences are interested in lives of people with disabilities, whether they have a connection to disability or not.
Personally, I have had several conversations about these shows with people who are not connected to the disability community, but they told me they were avid watchers of Little People Big World and Push Girls. (A few years ago, a student of mine, who is a soccer player, said she liked LPBW because the show featured lots of soccer when the Roloff children were still in high school.)
These reality shows are the ancestor of the hugely successful current reality show Born This Way on A&E (2015-present), which features adults with Down syndrome gaining independence and navigating friendships, employment and romantic relationships. During its first season, it increased its ratings by 85%, which was the highest rating increase in A&E’s history. The show also won an Emmy for Best Unstructured Reality Series in 2016.
Born This Way executive producer Jonathan Murray said in 2016 that television is no longer a vast wasteland but a place for enlightenment for audiences on a many aspects of life, including disabled people’s lives. “For too long, people with disabilities, including Down syndrome, have been placed on the sidelines of life and the margins of primetime.” 
Murray, who was a producer on MTV’s The Real World, says Born This Way is more real and authentic, and the production team could not use the typical reality show “tricks” to create drama. “We sort of knew we had something very genuine and very authentic … had to go back to that and trusting the emotion of the scene and that the emotional connection viewers would have with the seven adults would carry through to commercial, and that’s very different,” Murray told Deadline in 2016.
Good television begets more good television, so it is my hope that the ebb and flow of authentic disability representation is over, and the stories of actual disabled people, with authentic casting and plotlines, will become a permanent part of the television landscape.


Angelo, M. (2012, June 1). They are Pretty, Normal, and in Wheelchairs. The NY Times.

Carter-Long, L. (2016, October 3). How ABC’s Speechless is changing attitudes about disability. Upworthy.

Cooper, C. (2010). The Big World of Amy Roloff. Ability Magazine.
 De Moraes, L. (2016, Sept. 26).  Born This Way Celebrates Emmy Win with Third-Season Pickup From A&E.

Elliott, T. R. & Byrd, E.K. (1984). Video Depictions of Blindness and Attitudes toward Disability. Journal of Rehabilitation. Jan-Mar84, Vol. 50 Issue 1. (2016, June 10). Born This Way Receives a 2016 Television Academy Honors Award

Hall, H. & Minnes, P. (1999). Attitudes toward Persons with Down syndrome: The Impact of Television, Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, Vol. 11, No. 1.

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Kennedy, D. (2006, March).  Little People, Big World. Will TLC’s new reality show change our perception of dwarfs? Slate.