The illusion of inclusion

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on April 09, 2019 # Mobility

If you happened to catch the Michael Cohen testimony before Congress a few weeks back, you probably remember when one senator introduced an African-American Trump staff member to counter the argument that the current administration was racist.Commentators from both sides of the political divide immediately jumped all over this as blatant tokenism. Just because you hire a single black person doesn’t mean you don’t have a poor opinion of African-Americans as a race. Same with Jews, Hispanics, and others. Having a good Jewish neighbor or business associate doesn’t make you anti-Semitic.

Tokenism is one name for this. I prefer a more alliterative term: “the illusion of inclusion.”

I am active in the Hollywood disability community so I go to more than my share of conferences and panels where the systematic exclusion of people with disabilities in film and TV is topic number one. The stats are brutal: one out of five Americans (20%) is disabled and among all series regulars on network TV, the rate for disabled characters is 2.1%. My knee jerk reaction when this is mentioned is to raise my hand and try to paint a much brighter picture. After doing this work for about a dozen years, I see progress everywhere. “Look at ‘Speechless,’a prime-time series starring a kid with severe CP which is now in its third season,” I say, “or “The Good Doctor” and the Netflix show, Atypical,” which both do a great job accurately depicting characters with autism. Even “NCIS: New Orleans,” where a series regular is in a chair and an upcoming episode feature many disabled roles including a Paralympic rugby team! If you ask talent agents who represent actors with disabilities, you will learn that bookings are almost doubling on a yearly basis. We’re on the right track!

Being the cheerleader that I am, I know, deep down, that my glass-half-full rap is as much of an illusion as that one Black Trump staffer. The disability-inclusion glass may have a few drops at the bottom, but it’s far from half full. My excuse is that I’m just tired of that repetitive drumbeat of “woe is us.” A constant litany of bad news about exclusion is disheartening. Hope in the form of small incremental change is addictive.

That’s the trouble with social change. At least in my lifetime, it is glacial, frustrating, and never in a straight line. Coming of age in the 1960’s, like many in my deluded demographic, we thought racism was on its ugly way out, maybe one generation away. Boy, were we naive.White supremacist groups are on the rise and high school kids play beer pong on a swastika-shaped array of Red Solo cups. The famed March on Washington and the “I Have A Dream” speech are now merely answers on a history quiz.

There is a lot of disability chatter out there these days, both in the media business and the culture at large, but at this point, it is hard to read the long-term consequences. It may be simply – curse the word – a fad. Disability could soon be off the table as climate change or economic inequality take center stage. In the 1970’s, the anti-nuke movement was huge -- when was the last time you saw an anti-nuke demonstration on the news?

The current Hollywood interest in disability turns on two quality network series: “Speechless” and “The Good Doctor.” Both of these series were just picked up for the fall, but TV audiences are notoriously fickle. They could drop off the map in six months. If both got canceled, do you think another comedy starring a kid with CP would pop up soon? Probably not. Network geniuses would conclude: “Hey, we tried that -- disability doesn’t sell.”

Numbers aren’t all that matter, of course. These show can still have an enormous impact on the many of millions who currently watch them. I was at a trade show called “Abilities Expo” recently, and I noticed a long line of mostly kids in wheelchairs with their parents in the back of the exhibit hall. I ventured back to find that they were all in line waiting to get their pictures taken with Micah Fowler, the disabled teenage star of “Speechless”. It was very moving. For the first time in their lives, these kids had a real TV hero – someone just like them – that they could identify with and perhaps garner a modicum of self-respect. If they canceled “Speechless” tomorrow, Micah would still live in their hearts. Imagine if television featured a dozen Michah’s with different disabilities?

I for one assume that someday it will, but not without millions of advocates beating down the doors and demanding continual change. I ran into the Academy-Award-winning deaf actress, Marlee Matlin, at an event recently and she whispered into my ear, “Don’t slow down.” I knew exactly what she meant. It looks like we are making big gains, but it’s largely, at this point, an illusion. However, with all the chatter, this may be the moment for people with disabilities to truly shine. Let’s not blow it.