Authentic Television

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on September 17, 2021 # Lifestyle

TV in a living roomEverybody likes to see themselves on television, or at least someone who looks like them. If you are in a wheelchair or otherwise disabled, you won’t see yourself much. But things are changing. Kind of. You can now catch yourself more than ever in this age of multiple outlets – “Ramy,” “Superstore,” “Speechless,” and many guest stars on “The Good Doctor.” But it’s not that TV is brimming with disabled actors. Or is it? Let’s ask the experts.

Gail Williamson is a Hollywood talent agent specializing in performers with disabilities. Mark Measures is the President of the KMR talent agency, the man who brought Gail into the fold. KMR currently has over 200 active disabled clients. Gail herself has a son with Down syndrome and, long before she became an agent, has been a leading activist in Hollywood since the early 1990s. If anyone knows what’s going on with the progress of the disabled in film and TV, it is these two pioneers. Their measurement is boots on the ground, or on the set, as it were, not dry stats.

If you follow these stats, the outlook is kind of grim. The most recent survey comes from the LGBTQ group, GLAAD, in their annual diversity report. In terms of regular characters with a disability on broadcast scripted series, they report that the hard numbers remain the same as two years ago – 27. That’s out of roughly 775 such characters. Small potatoes.

Cable and streaming don’t do much better. As has been the norm in the last 5-6 years, there are individual shows to point to: the wonderful one-off Netflix documentary, “Crip Camp;” the Netflix series, “Special,” starring Ryan O’Connell, an actor with cerebral palsy; and “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” on Freeform, recently canceled. The survival rate of all new TV shows is not high. The survival rate of disability-centered shows is even worse. Two notable exceptions have survived: the aforementioned “The Good Doctor,” starring a doctor on the autism spectrum, and “NCIS: New Orleans,” co-starring wheelchair user Chill Mitchell.

If you are in the glass-half-full camp, there are two movies out this year worth cheering about loudly. “A Quiet Place 2,” with the Deaf daughter (Millicent Simmons) in a much bigger role -- the film brought in a whopping $191.7 million at the box office. “CODA,” meaning “child of deaf parents,” is now playing in theaters and Apple TV +. Starring Deaf actors Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur, it’s been dubbed the feel-good movie of the year.

“CODA” shows, as many previous examples, that stories about disability can be rich and complex and brilliantly made. Quality isn’t the problem. It’s an opportunity. Perhaps the dearth of new disability-centric TV shows is just fallout from the pandemic. But…this is not the time to lose heart. There is serious work going on, mostly in the trenches. This brings us back to Gail and Mark.

They see enormous progress in the casting of disabled actors in guest and supporting roles where their disability is not the reason they are there. They aren’t the subjects of typical disability stories – as Mark says, “all the tropes we’ve seen for years.” Most people cast through KMR play everyday people – the doctor, the crime technician, the school teacher, the banker. Their disability is beside the point. They are hired because they are talented actors—end of the story.

Gail is adamant about this trend. “I don’t care about stories about disabilities,” she says. “They can happen or not. I want to see full inclusion and allow our talent to be themselves, not just a stand-in for their disability.”

Mark accurately dubs this “authentic casting,” a paradigm here to stay. As he says, “From our perspective, the zeitgeist is moving forward and we are pushing it.” He points to noted KMR client, Ali Stroker, a wheelchair user and the 2019 winner of the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, “Oklahoma.” She is now being cast in roles that have nothing to do with the chair, just her talent and ability.

Examples like Ali’s are a sea change in the way Hollywood views the disabled. Authentic is now the rule. Cast a non-disabled actor is a disabled part, and you’ll hear a chorus of blowback from every corner. If your disabled character is one of the leads, all the more reason to get it right. Take “CODA,” for instance. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur play the Deaf parents of a hearing girl. Marlee says that if Troy’s role had gone to a hearing actor, she would have walked.

KMR specifically praises the NBC series, “New Amsterdam.” Beyond casting disabled actors in guest roles, they now have recurring roles featuring a Deaf surgeon, a little person as an ER-resident, and an amputee nurse. They are professionals, not just patients. That’s what authentic casting is all about.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.