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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hollywood Prejudice

I have been relatively inactive recently. I am caught up with the usual end of semester madness and demands of work and family. While I may be silent, I have been following the news as it pertains to disability. At the forefront this month are multiple stories related to the role or lackthereof for disabled characters on television, film, and theatre. Wheelie Catholic and Wheelchair Dancer have, for good reason, blasted the television program Glee. Disabled actors have protested the use of Abigal Breslin in a production about the life of Helen Keller--they believe a blind actress should have been awarded the part. Predictably, mainstream news outlets belittle critiques leveled by actors with disabilities. Like bigoted Hollywood producers that do not caste actors with a disability to portray a character with a disability, news reports state "We tried, there are just not any qualified disabled actors. No person with a disability was good enough to play the part". Yeah, right! If this were true why do so many actors with a disability bitterly complain about rampant and persistent discrimination. Many contend, what's the big deal. Well, it is a very big deal to me and it involves far more than an ideological viewpoint. As the title of Nothing About Us Without implies and graphically demonstrates when it come to disability issues people with a disability must be present for effective change to take place. Hollywood is quite content to lock out actors with a disability. They have done this in the past and they are doing so today. I cannot believe there is a lack of qualified actors with a disability. I believe overt prejudice exists as does subtle bias. I know this in part because I am in a profession, academia, that is hostile to the presence of people with a disability and disability rights. My isolation is to a degree extreme. I have always worked in isolation, that is as the only person with a disability on campus. Aside from a lack of support for my civil rights, the not so subtle message is that people on campus have no place being a professor. It is not a role I or any other paralyzed person is expected to fill.

My views are harsh. Certainly more harsh than Leonard David who recently wrote a thought provoking article, "Let Actors with Disabilities Play Characters with Disabilities", on December 7 in the Huffington Post. I greatly admire Davis' scholarship and activism but he is far too generous in my opinion when it comes to Hollywood. Of course I do not in any way want a person with a disability to get a part simply because he or she has a disability. But as Davis noted "the current reality is that non-disabled actors get to play whatever roles they want whereas disabled actors don't. So there is not a level playing field. One group has all the advantages while the other is discriminated against. The three major entertainment unions agree. It's now been a year since they launched a campaign to create equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities." And what has happened in the last year? Nothing. Actors with disabilities are still discriminated against and actors without a disability play the parts of people who are blind, deaf, paralyzed etc. The result is that we people with a disability remain unemployed in great numbers and socially invisible. We as a society can do better, much better. Don't tell me there are not qualified people looking for work in multiple professions, acting included. Yet within popular culture and the media, especially television and film, characters with disability are a rarity or, worse yet, reduced to a stereotype. This infuriates and worries me. Where are the role models for people with a disability? Who are children with a disability expected to emulate? What message is sent when we have a person without a disability caste in a role as person with a disability? To me it is truly strange when I see a person use a wheelchair in a given role and then see that same individual walk around. The larger message sent is clear: people with a disability, in this case anyone that uses a wheelchair, is not competent. This is a lie, a gross falsehood many accept. It leads to overt prejudice against people with a disability. It takes place in Hollywood, on college campuses, and in the business world. Prejudice accounts for why people with a disability are at such a gross disadvantage economically and socially. The issue is not a given physical deficit but social stigma.

Needles to say no one wakes up and thinks, as Mary Johnson demonstrated in her book Make Them Go Away, that I am going to be biased against a person with a disability. But just because this is not an overt thought in people's mind does not mean rampant prejudice does not exist. The prejudice people with a disability encounter is different from let's say racial bigotry that is clearly understood and frowned upon (all children are taught this in school). It is equally troubling that disability based prejudice is not widely acknowledged. Sure we have the ADA but few people equate it with civil rights legislation. We people with a disability are out of sight and out of mind. And frankly we could use more than a little help from Hollywood because they have a vast influence on millions of people. Just imagine what would happen if somehow disability became cool. Hollywood has the power to make this happen but chooses instead to lock out actors with a disability and more generally a disability rights viewpoint. I for one would like to be perceived as cool once in my life. Ah, dreams die hard even in my household.


Becs said...

Right now, I only know of one actor with a disability getting work - that's the hearing impaired woman who was on "Heroes". And I'm not even sure if she's still in the overall plot line.

william Peace said...

Becs, My son who is an avid Hero fan informs me that the character you are referring to no longer plays a significant role on the series. But at least she was once a central figure.

erika said...

Coolness is in the eye of the beholder, and you easily out-cool many, regardless of the form of their locomotion.

william Peace said...

Erika, You must talk to my son who is convinced I am about as uncool as humanly possible! Of course when I was his age I thought the exact same thing about my father.