Eyes on the Prize

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on December 14, 2021 # Lifestyle

Film rollIt is hard to pinpoint exactly when the modern disability rights movement began. I would choose one of two dates. First, in the Fall of 1962, when severely disabled 23-year-old Ed Roberts, widely considered the George Washington of the Independent Living movement, was admitted as the first such student at UC-Berkeley, along with his 800-pound iron lung. The second date is my personal choice: May 4, 1977, when hundreds of disabled activists stormed the Federal Health, Education, and Welfare building in San Francisco and occupied it for 25 days until the Feds enacted a disability rights statute called Section 504. They weren’t asking for charity. They were demanding respect. And they got it.

If you lived through all those years from then to now -- as Judy Heumann did, one of the organizers of the San Francisco sit-in, plus co-star of last year’s hit documentary, “Crip Camp,” plus soon to be the subject of a full-length movie bio produced by Apple Plus TV – progress must seem like filling up Lake Michigan using an eyedropper. But if a generation is calculated as 20-25 years, we are only in the second or third generation of large-scale group action. And in terms of media inclusion of the disabled beyond token recognition – one Oscar in 1947, another in 1986, first series Emmy win (“Born This Way”), 2016 – we are probably in the first generation of significant change.

And guess what? The cat is out of the bag. Despite depressing statistics about overall inclusion, we will never go back to non-disabled performers playing disabled roles (“crip-face”) without a nasty public brawl or otherwise be denied our collective shot of bringing ourselves and our lives to TV and film. Fifteen years ago, there were maybe four or five officially disabled writers in the Writers Guild of America. Now there are something like 50-60. As we move forward, we will have many more boots on the ground.

The annual Media Access Awards, a yearly non-televised ceremony to celebrate disability in American media started by Norman Lear and Fern Field in 1979 – only two years after the 504 sit-in – has now become a reliable barometer of disability advancement in Hollywood. The 2021 Media Access Awards, now being streamed nationally,* is a case in point. Initially, things didn’t look good. 2020 was a pandemic year, with dozens of Hollywood productions either canceled or postponed. It was not a year for bold new ventures, even for streaming outlets with seemingly endless cash reserves.

Even so, disabled performers and disability-centered stories broke through, not so that studio and networks execs could go home and tell their families they were “giving back,” but because these movies, TV shows, and actors who inhabited them were good. Damn good. So good, in fact, that this could be the year you can drop the qualifier “disabled” in front of their names. To call Marlee Matlin, a Deaf actor is like calling Muhammed Ali a Black boxer. Or Meryl Streep, a Hearing actor. We have all now moved to the next level.

The two big winners at this year’s MAA’s were “CODA,” starring three actors who happen to be Deaf and one who could speak and yearned to sing. Have you ever seen a long-form drama where as much or more of the dialogue was signed as spoken? It doesn’t take long before you stop saying, “This is weird,” and start saying, “This is moving and funny!” The second big splash was made by “A Quiet Place Part 2,” another film with silence and Deafness at its core that made an astonishing $298 million dollars at the box office – in the year of COVID! Millicent Simmonds, also the host of this year’s MAA’s, is the heroine of this sequel and her clever use of her Deafness in the story is what wins the day.

Also honored this year is the multi-talented actor-writer-producer Ryan O’Connell, whose Netflix series, “Special,” is about learning to live life as gay and with cerebral palsy. “Special” is the rare example where a disabled writer-performer, to use his words, is “given the keys to the castle.” This watershed transition where such creators are fully in charge of their own productions is now underway. As I said, there is no turning back.

One in four American adults is disabled. It will take a millennium or two when one in four TV cast members is disabled. About the time hell freezes over. Increased minor roles for young disabled actors will increase the odds of extraordinary roles, as will be the case of assignments for disabled writers and directors. These things don’t unfold in a straight line and at least in my mind, it is not a numbers game. It is an impact game. “CODA” is just one remarkable movie, but I know it changed my perception of how little difference there is in the inner lives of people who sign and people who use their mouths. And from “CODA” star and MAA Best Actor winner, Troy Kotsur, I learned the sign for the vulgarity, “a….” (rhymes with “tadpole”), as in “Boston is full of a…..”

See, movies can be educational.

Note: To see the 2021 Media Access Awards, link to https://mediaaccessawards.com or link to YouTube and type in extratv media access awards.

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.