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The Most Underrepresented Type of Diversity in Media: Disability

People with disabilities are not seeing themselves on the big screen, on television, or in the rooms where the writers of mass media are employed.

By Hilary Van Hoose, Special to the Star

At a time when one third of Americans are living with a disability, and when those numbers are on the rise due to long-COVID, film studios and television networks continue to eschew disability representation for both employees and content.

Only 3.1 percent of characters on TV have disabilities, according to a 2020 report by GLAAD. Many of these fictionalized portrayals are considered inaccurate or offensive by disabled viewers.

Aaron Ducker, a person on the Autism spectrum and stand up comedian currently writing his own screenplay about an autistic protagonist and producing a comedy magic show in Australia that focuses on his experiences of living with Autism, described in an interview how most Autistic fictional characters speak in an unrealistically robot-like, monotone cadence and how the writers confuse being anti-social with having difficulty socializing. “That's kinda why I was motivated to write my script, because if no one's gonna do it right I might as well do it,” Ducker explained.

Much of this issue is due to a lack of disabled writers working on the shows and films that Hollywood is producing.

Only 0.7 percent of current active screenwriters with the WGAW (Writers Guild of America West) self-identified as having a disability, according to a 2020 report by the WGAW. Even the guild itself failed to include disabled people under the classification of “underrepresented writers” in any of the data after the second page of the report.

These figures are not typical of all industries, as 30 percent of the professional workers in the United States have a disability and 62 percent of those people reported that their disability is an invisible one, according to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation.

The numbers for people in the general population are even higher. Although a study by the CDC indicates that 26 percent of Americans have a disability, that figure is considerably lower than it should be because the wording of the questions used to classify respondents of the study exclude many federally recognized disabilities such as Diabetes and Asperger's Syndrome. If one were to include the seven percent of the population listed as having Diabetes and being “without disabilities,” that addition alone puts the figure at 33 percent of the population having a disability, and if we include similarly excluded disabilities (such as various classifications of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which the CDC reports accounts for 17 percent of children aged 3 to 17) it would raise the percentage significantly.

Many studios and networks offer diversity fellowship programs to find underrepresented writers, but this year many hopefuls were dismayed at the beginning of fellowship season when Jamey Perry, a disabled TV writer recently staffed on the NBC series “Lincoln Rhyme: Hunt for the Bone Collector,” took to Twitter to describe her experience.

“Just a friendly reminder that none of the network writing fellowships in Hollywood consider disability 'diverse,'” said Perry. “We're also ineligible to be a 'diversity hire' even if it's a TV show about a disabled person.”

The leadership at media companies set the standards for what it means to be inclusive, and new writers are encountering friction in that sphere as well. In the summer of 2020, Cheyenne Thornton, a person on the Autism spectrum and a graduate film student at Long Island University, obtained an interview with a studio television executive through the efforts of the online #RaiseThePercentage hashtag initiative. This initiative connected emerging Black writers with more experienced writers or executives.

“What I got from this interaction was pretty much that when it comes to disability, that it's still seen as more of a liability. It's not really seen as diversity,” said Thornton.

Even after getting hired, the work itself from production assistant level through staff writer level and above has considerable accessibility issues.

“You'd be shocked how many writers' rooms around LA are in buildings with no elevator. In this day and age, 30-plus years after the passage of the ADA. That's a total lock-out for paraplegics like me,” said Perry in an interview. “Beyond that, support staff are expected to do a number of other very physical jobs for the showrunner and writers: Buying groceries, hauling them back to the room, and stocking them in the kitchenette. Keeping the kitchen and writers' room clean - and writers are messy. Picking up lunches for 10-plus adults every day, which entails dealing with parking and sometimes inaccessible restaurants. And this is all assuming they can even get hired, since most people won't even interview a disabled person they perceive as 'unable' to do the wild gymnastics of support staff work.”

The low pay given to entry level workers in the entertainment industry also creates barriers for people with disabilities. Advocates in the #PayUpHollywood movement have pointed out that the minimum pay for those who qualify to join IATSE is about $16 an hour for writers' assistants and $17.64 for script coordinators, with non-unionized workers such as writers' PAs and other production assistants often being paid at or close to minimum wage for the region in which they work; currently $15 an hour in Los Angeles. 2019 census data showed the median rent in Los Angeles to be $1,577 per month and the average rent to be about $2,500 per month.

Thornton, who has disability benefits as a Navy veteran, explained that even people without disabilities are often unable to support themselves on the pay given for entry level work in the entertainment industry.

“Imagine what it would be like if you did have medical needs that you have to pay for out-of-pocket. It's not livable; it's not a livable wage,” said Thornton. “If I wasn't on disability, that wouldn't be doable for me. If I was one of the millions of disabled people who wanted to be a writer and I did not have that income... how are they going to survive in California with little or no pay?”

Thornton explained that when she took a class designed to mimic a TV writers' room, the class was unwilling to adjust to a more visual style or modify its pacing to be more inclusive. “For me, the way that the writers' rooms are run, there are no accommodations for people with disabilities,” said Thornton.

Several disability advocacy organizations are offering solutions and training to help employers become more accessible and inclusive.

"When it comes to accessibility in the workplace, employers shouldn’t think about accommodations as something 'extra' that they are offering for only their disabled employees,” said Lesley Hennen, an Entertainment and News Media Associate at RespectAbility. “Instead, employers can make it standard practice to ask all employees if there is anything that the company could be doing to improve the work environment for everyone, or if there is any type of equipment or software that the employees need so that they can do their job as best as possible. For example, many employees (both disabled and non-disabled) may prefer a standing desk over a seated desk. Some may require multiple computer monitors, screen readers or other assistive technology to do their work, and others might benefit from having a quieter room or other office space available to work from occasionally throughout the day, if they need a space to focus on something for a short period of time, away from the hustle and bustle of an open-office plan."

Telecommuting and other modern workflows implemented by companies, many for the first time, in order to cope with the pandemic have come with the unexpected advantage of increasing accessibility for disabled workers.

“I have heard from several disabled people who got jobs during the pandemic, jobs they don't believe they would've been considered for in a physical writers' room,” said Perry. “Showrunners are seeing the value of these workers and I very much hope they will remember that when rooms go back to in-person.”

One tool that has opened up accessibility for many workers with disabilities during the pandemic is software that creates remote working environments, such as Zoom and Slack.

Thornton mentioned specific day-to-day benefits, saying “In a Zoom room, even if I'm not feeling that great, I can still come in. I can even cut my camera off and still sit here and participate. And in the Zoom room, because sometimes I have challenges with speech, I can still type, so it gives me multiple options to participate.”

With much of Hollywood returning to in-person offices, workers in all sectors of the entertainment industry who have disabilities worry that they will see the small gains in accessibility created during the pandemic disappear again.

“The nature of my disability means I really only need the minimum of accommodation for an in-person room (chief among them an elevator lol). But I have friends who need more, and I do worry that things will just reset to the status quo when writers return to [in-person] rooms,” said Perry.


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