Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Disability advocates fear losing fight for inclusion in post-pandemic Hollywood

From Forbes. In the picture, Tobias Forrest, who plays Patrick in Daruma, on set, filming the trailer for the film.

For almost a year, Kelli McNeil has been fundraising for her movie Daruma, a film she calls a “dysfunctional family road trip.” 
The big twist: the two main characters, Patrick and Robert, are disabled. Patrick is a paraplegic and Robert is a double-arm amputee, but unlike most Hollywood narratives, the disabilities aren’t the focus of the script, nor are they an obstacle to overcome. And, after a nationwide search, McNeil cast two actors with disabilities to play the lead characters. 
Her work is notable in an industry still grappling with a dearth of disability-centric storylines and characters. Although representation has seen some improvement over the years in television and film, advocates argue it is still all-too-rare to see people with disabilities working in front of or behind the camera.  
Now, with the presence of a worldwide pandemic – and Hollywood virtually shut down – they fear the fight for inclusion will only get more complicated once productions start back up. 
“We don’t know how things will turn out, but there is a lot of fear among activists,”  said Deborah Calla, Co-CEO of The Media Access Awards, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and creates opportunities for people with disabilities in media. 
“Once production begins, there will likely be fewer opportunities because of modified production, lower budgets, less money, and modified storylines. We have a good chance of going back a few steps in terms of inclusion.” 
And if disability inclusion falls behind, Calla and her co-CEO Allen Rucker say, it will be detrimental. 
“You have to understand that in the field of diversity, people with disabilities were not even included until a few years ago in Hollywood, they were just left out,” Rucker said. “But about three years ago, because of the ‘Me Too’ movement, all of the sudden people with disabilities were getting hired to be guest stars on shows, then to be stars and then people with disabilities were creating their own shows.” 
“It was a real positive feeling,” he said.  
“But with the COVID pandemic, who knows what’ll happen next.”
In mid-March, COVID-19 forced the vast majority of Hollywood to come to a screeching halt. Theatrical releases were cancelled, and everything from indie film productions to entire festivals were shut down or postponed indefinitely. Everything stopped.  
Many Hollywood professionals have been out of work since, including Tobias Forrest, a quadriplegic, cast by McNeil to play one of the leads in Daruma. While it was his first lead role in a 15-year career, Forrest has seen much success in recent years, and fears how the Pandemic will impact him and other professionals with disabilities. 
“I’m really hoping the big movie people, the Spielbergs and big time producers and directors, will be like, ‘Now is our chance for authenticity,’ because they were having to watch what all of us have been having to watch during this quarantine,” Forrest said. 
“I don’t want to go back to being the ‘guy in the wheelchair.’ I want to be the lawyer or doctor… the person who just happens to be in a wheelchair.” 
Although strides have been made in recent years, doors have typically been closed for people with disabilities in Hollywood, despite being the largest minority in the United States. A quarter of the population – about 61 million Americans – identify as a person with a disability, according to the CDC. 
According to a GLAAD's 2019- 2020 Where we are on TV report, the amount of regular primetime broadcast characters counted who have a disability was at an all time high of 3.1 percent— but still a severe underrepresentation of people with disabilities in the American population. Then there's the fact that 80 percent of disabled characters on television are portrayed by able-bodied actors, according to the Ruderman Foundation. 
“We’re also fearful, post-pandemic, that people with disabilities won’t be hired because they are considered the most fragile group in terms of COVID-19,” Calla said. 
Rucker agreed, adding, “There may be producers out there and showrunners who suddenly don’t want to take that chance.”
Rucker and Calla aren’t the only advocates trying to prevent this from happening. 
Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President of Communications for RespectAbility, a nonprofit that works to fight stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities. Over the last three months, RespectAbility has been conducting virtual training sessions for numerous studios in Hollywood, including The Walt Disney Company and Sony Pictures Entertainment. They’ve worked with people in marketing, development and even screenwriters. 
“The fact that these studios are creating these opportunities for their employees to have training during this time is a good thing, because we can talk about how it’s not just the right thing to be disability-inclusive, but also the best thing to do economically,” said Appelbaum. 
The numbers don’t lie: according to Nielsen consumers with disabilities make up a billion-dollar market. When their families, friends and associates are included, that total increases to more than $1 trillion.
“There is money to be made by ensuring disability-inclusive content,” said Appelbaum. 
“People are always looking for new stories, and since there has been so few authentic disability stories told, it’s just a huge option for new material.” 
RespectAbility will also be holding a lab program during the summer for people with disabilities who want to work behind the camera. NBC Universal, The Walt Disney Company, and Viacom are among the studios sponsoring and providing content for the lab. The individuals who take part will be introduced and have the chance to network with industry professionals, with the hope that it will lead to job opportunities for the participants. 
Only time will tell how Hollywood executives handle a post-pandemic reality. In the meantime, filmmakers like McNeil are fighting for their projects to see the light of day. She hopes her film inspires other TV creators and filmmakers to create more inclusive content and make hiring people with disabilities, and writing about disabilities, more mainstream. 
“I am afraid if we don’t make this film, it’ll be years before someone tries again,” McNeil said. 
“But we’re doing everything in our power to get this made.”