Change is in the air

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on December 14, 2016 # News

As anyone active in trying to change social attitudes about disability will tell you, it is very difficult to measure progress in any quantifiable way. There are plenty of ways of becoming discouraged – the employment rates of people with disabilities have barely budged in the last twenty years, and if you turn on the TV, a character or actor with a disability is a rare bird. Still, if you look closely, there are small intimations of change all around. We have yet to score a touchdown, but we’ve moved the ball at least a few yards down the field.

All I can speak about here is what I know – disability and the media. The film and television businesses, for instance, are now focused, at least in their press releases, on diversity. Last year’s all-white Academy Awards set off a firestorm of protest and the AMPAS, the movie academy, promised big changes. You will no doubt see many more diverse faces at the upcoming Oscars.

But, funny, when the grand Academy listed all the forms of diversity they planned to increase, there was no mention of disability. Not even a rhetorical head nod. This is not new. We are the party-crashers at the big diversity ball. That’s the distance we still have to travel.

One clear example: the new ABC prime time comedy, “Speechless,” as you probably know, stars a kid with extreme cerebral palsy who lives in a power chair and can only communicate via a light board. The creator, Scott Silveri, went into ABC to pitch the show and was ready to make Custer’s last stand. He had his defiant spiel ready to go: “You have to do this show! America needs this show! Now’s the time!” The network cut him off before he could get worked up. “This is great,” they said. “We were looking for a show featuring someone with a disability. And this is it!”

If “Speechless” is a hit – and it’s already been picked up for the whole season – then TV mavens all over town will be “looking for a show with featuring someone with a disability.” It’s a very imitative business. Your next good idea is an idea someone else has already had and made work.

At this year’s Media Access Awards – the annual Hollywood occasion to celebrate those who include people with disabilities in their shows and movies – “Speechless” was the big winner. With a viewership of seven to eight million eyeballs a week, it’s already made an arguable impact. As has another honoree, “Born This Way,” the A&E series reality series starring seven young people with Down syndrome getting on with their lives. In cable terms, it’s a bonafide success, having just been picked up for its third season. Equally importantly, the producer of “Born This Way”, Jon Murray, the man who brought you the Kardashians and a hundred other reality shows -- not to mention the bigwigs at A&E -- know an emerging trend when they see one. Being honored at the Media Access Awards only reinforces the importance of their work. As Jon Murray put it, the presence of people with disabilities on screen “is not just appropriate. It’s also good business.”

Also awarded annually is the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship, going to a young unknown actor with a disability who needs the money to get an agent, hone his or her craft, buy 8 by 10 glossies to hand out to casting agents, and other requirements of success. This year’s winner was a promising young thespian named MacGregor Arney. You’ve never heard of him, but you will.

Okay, a couple of shows like “Speechless” and “Born This Way” aren’t going to change the world, but as one case in point, the Media Access Awards, gets bigger and more prestigious every year and draw more and more industry support, there is room for optimism. In Hollywood’s current infatuation with diversity, which could be short-lived, disability has more or less pushed its way onto the agenda. Some powerful people definitely get it. The rest are there for the nudging and arm-twisting. It will take time and bravado. In the immortal words of Hollywood’s biggest current superstar, Dwayne Johnson:

“Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?!”

© 2016 Allen Rucker

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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life