#Media and #Disability Representation – 6 Recommendations

Film reel, strip, and clapper with blue text. Media and Disability - 6 RecommendationsIt is well understood that film and television are a part of our cultural experience. In fact more than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court observed how film impacts “public attitudes and behavior in a variety of ways, ranging from direct espousal of a political or social doctrine to subtle shaping of thought which characterizes all artistic expression.” and that they “are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” and their “importance as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform.” The representation of disability within film and television should be a part of that cultural exchange.[1] 

In the last couple of years we have seen a marked increase in the visibility of disability in the media. Examples include very visible national advertisements that include individuals with disabilities – Swiffer, with a one-armed dad; a blind mom and her use of Facebook, a lesbian couple learning to sign to adopt a child from Wells Fargo, an aunt who is a wheelchair user in a Honey Maid commercial, and the presence of models with Down Syndrome in several Target print ads just to name a few. And of course, one cannot talk about increased visibility and not mention Nyle DiMarco’s win in Dancing with the Stars, the success on Broadway of Spring Awakening with its diverse cast, and of course the television series, Speechless.

What is also visible is where disability is perhaps not treated as well. These include mainstream media commenting critically on the prevalence of disability in Oscar wins. As was noted in one article, “Since Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar playing “Rain Man,” a majority of Best Actor Oscars were taken home by men playing the sick or handicapped.” Also, the response to disability protests for films such as “Me Before You” which, arguably only offer dangerous stereotypes that it is better for an individual with a disability to die (usually beautifully and/or tragically) rather than live with the impairment. For the first time, media outside the disability community blogosphere was examining this trend and finding fault.

According to the U.S. Census, there are 56 million people with disabilities; that breaks down to approximately one in five Americans. GLAAD’s 2015-16 study, “Where We Are On TV”, highlights that fact that only eight characters had a disability this season, representing 0.9% of all characters. What is perhaps more distressing is that the percentage and number of series regulars with disabilities has actually decreased. This is not the direction to go.

In response to criticisms within the industry we are seeing strong commitments and investments in diversity; we are seeing the establishment of myriad programs, contests, and fellowships that aim to support diverse filmmakers and actors. Unfortunately, it is rare that “diversity” is inclusive of disability. As such, I am writing to urge the open, named recognition of “disability” within the larger umbrella of diversity, for the recognition of the significant exclusion of disability from many programs and projects focused on addressing the broader issue, and for concrete actions to address this ongoing invisibility of disability. Without direct investment and recognition of disability with inclusion and strong internal mandates there will never be any development of future disabled film and television talents, both in front of and behind the camera. Therefore, I would like to propose 6 Media and Disability recommendations. They aren’t perfect, and they doesn’t cover everything, but it is a place to start.

Six Media and Disability/Diversity Recommendations*[3]

1.  SPECIFIC INCLUSION. Include “disability” as a named minority status when promoting any diversity initiatives.

Often diversity programs, internships, contests etc. focus on gender or race without recognizing that disability is also a minority status/identity. This exclusion sends a message, “Disability need not apply.” Considering that disability is a fact of life for more than 20% of the American population, it is crucial that disability is explicitly included.  In addition, many of these projects do not recognize the intersectionality of disability and that it often exists side-by-side with other statuses.

2.  DATA COLLECTION. Ensure “disability” is included in any surveys or demographic questions for all projects, programs, memberships and other processes.

Without asking, it is impossible to get any idea of the representation of this population. As an example, the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study titled “Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity.” The in-depth scrutiny included 109 films released by major studios in 2014 and 305 scripted series that aired on television and streaming services from September 2014 to August 2015. Disability was not included in their examination. On a positive note, Annenberg’s upcoming studies will include disability as a part of the analysis. However, the Screen Actors Guild does include disability as part of voluntary data collection and is a key source of information about this population in the entertainment industry. It is unclear how many other associations, fellowships, workshops, and programs actually have members and participants with disabilities because the question isn’t asked. This kind of demographic information, even when only provided voluntarily and even when only viewed in the aggregate, is invaluable to gaining an understanding of who and where these industry professionals are.

3.  EXPLORE NEW MEANS OF OUTREACH. Looking for people with disabilities but aren’t finding any? You may be looking in the wrong/same places.

When seeking individuals to fit roles in front of or behind the camera, to participate in programs or internships, or to support your media diversity/disability activities, choose different conferences, consider a different sourcing agency, pick a different place to advertise.  Consider creating a fellowship for filmmakers from underrepresented communities, or setting up an internship program with a minority-serving institution, particularly those with film programs. Build partnerships. Actively reach out to professional, academic, or advocacy organizations related to disability and/or media. There are plenty of talented people with disabilities who can bring value to your productions.

On a related note, when incorporating characters with disabilities or other chronic conditions, reach out to actual people with disabilities. Find consultants who can help you ensure you are “getting it right.” Hire writers and/or directors with disabilities. There are many aspects of culture, technology, relationships, and how people with disabilities relate to society. Outreach to these communities helps you to add, not just accuracy, but depth to your projects (and not just on the subject of disability).

4.  EXPANDED OPPORTUNITY. Consider instituting a “Rooney Rule” for casting your projects (and make sure your location is accessible).

In football, “The Rooney Rule” requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling a head coaching position. It does not guarantee hiring and is not an affirmative action plan. However, recognizing that discrimination plays a role in individual decision-making processes, such a rule requiring at least one actor with a disability to be auditioned for the role of a character with a disability offers an opportunity for positive change. Although not perfect, over the first three years of the institution of the Rooney Rule, the overall percentage of African American coaches increased from 6% to 22%.

Perhaps more importantly, considering the prevalence of individuals with disabilities within general society, casting actors with disabilities in background and/or as recurring characters, even if the character is not written as disabled, not only increases diversity, it allows your media to reflect society.

I recognize this bullet in my recommendation is about casting, however, I do think it is important to recognize that the Directors’ Guild of America (DGA) has been quietly pushing for a Rooney rule with regard to the selection of directors.  Granted, studios and networks rejected the proposition outright, but I have to admit that I think the DGA was on a good track. The difficulty lies, I imagine, in the way films are made. I don’t believe there are broad general “interviews” for directors. Not perfect, but it is a way to increase the opportunity for women and other minority (including disabled) directors.

5.  IT BEGINS WITH THE WORLD/WORD. Create more diverse characters to begin with in scripts and storylines. 

Our world is filled with thriving diverse communities and when writers create the worlds in their scripts, there is an opportunity to be more inclusive. Writers can and should explore writing more diverse and creative parts for actors/characters with disabilities. Defy stereotypes, change the token stories, flip the narrative. The is also the possibility of implementing a “Geena Davis type solution[2]” (simply change any character in a script into a woman) for disability.

Writers are often taught that if a character has a disability or is a minority or a woman, it must “serve the story” so there must be a reason for them to exist in the narrative. The truth is that in real life, people have disabilities, women exist, and people of color are just as likely to be doctors, or lawyers, or accountants as they are gangsters, homeless, or victims.It may get taken out. It may get changed later, but it begins with the script and there is no reason not to include diverse characters, is there?

6.  SPEAKING OUT. This is your industry too.

Disability/Diversity doesn’t belong to one person. Seek to increase disability in your work, but also speak out, encourage others to act, amplify the voices of filmmakers and actors with disabilities. Ask industry members with disabilities to participate in your projects, to judge your contests, to sit on your panels; ask them to talk about everything, not just their disability, ask about the craft.  Increasing the visibility of this population within the industry and helping the filmmaking community grow and improve is part of everyone’s job.

 

[1] Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 501 (1952). 

[2] *Loosely based on Molly McArdle’s “What Comes Next?: 23 Steps Toward Ending Publishing’s Diversity Problem,” http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/26/what-comes-next-23-steps-toward-ending-publishings-diversity-problem/

[3] Two Easy Steps to Making Hollywood Less Sexist, Geena Davis, Hollywood Billboard. (2013). http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/geena-davis-two-easy-steps-664573

#FILMDIS Twitter Chat: #Disability Creatives #ARISE

filmdisarisechat

#FILMDIS: Disability Creatives #ARISE Twitter Chat

Saturday, October 22, 2016

6 pm Pacific/ 9 pm Eastern

Tonight I will be hosting the #FilmDis Twitter chat (created and usually hosted by @DominickEvans).

The discussion tonight is a lifting up and celebration of #disability #creativity. Come share what you are working on and/or what you want to work on.

Let us celebrate those films and programs and shows that include people with disabilities (and/or were made by people with disabilities) that we love. Let us show off the creators with disabilities. This is the time and place to brag and to share.

We’re told that there are no actors with disabilities, or writers, or filmmakers. Tonight, lets prove otherwise.

It is time for disability creatives to #ARISE (term taken in honor of Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY group and the sharing community of filmmakers and creatives of color).

How to Participate

Follow @DayAlMohamed on Twitter

When it’s time, search #FilmDis on Twitter for the series of live tweets under the ‘Live’ tab to follow the full conversation.

If you might be overwhelmed by the volume of tweets and only want to see the chat’s questions, check @DayAlMohamed’s tweets. Each question will tweeted 4-5 minutes apart.

Use the hashtag #FilmDis or the #Arise when you tweet. If you can’t join us on 10/22, feel free to tweet anytime before or after with the hashtag.

If you don’t use Twitter, check out the live-stream:
http://twubs.com/FilmDis

Check out this explanation of how to participate in a chat by Ruti Regan: https://storify.com/RutiRegan/examplechat

Follow
@DayAlMohamed

 

Questions/Comments for the 10/22/16 Twitter Chat

Today’s #FilmDis chat is an opportunity to lift up and celebrate #disability #creatives. Feel free to contribute your thoughts and ideas.

Q1 Welcome to tonight’s #FilmDis. Let’s share! Why not start with a quick a introduction of yourself and your creative medium? #ARISE

The name we’re using #ARISE is inspired by @AVATEC’s @ARRAY and the work that creative community does to lift up their own. #FilmDis

Q2There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself. –Kurosawa  What does your work to say about you? #FilmDis #ARISE

For minority #creatives, including those pwd there is the question: what do we want our work say about us, vs. the perception #FilmDis #ARISE

Q3 Do you self identify when putting your creative work out into the world? Why? What would you advise others? #FilmDis #ARISE

Q4 Audiences don’t go to the movies to think, they go to the movies to feel. –Hark How do we ensure our audience “feels” disability? #FilmDis #ARISE

Community support can encourage media that reflects our reality. That includes #disability media and creators with disabilities #FilmDis #ARISE

Q5 #FilmDis tonight and #ARISE is about YOU the creative with a #disability. Tell us a bit about what you are working on. Let us cheer you on.

#FilmDis #ARISE is sharing some amazing work being done by creatives with disabilities: writers, filmmakers, bloggers. Check it out! #WeExist

Q6 Sharing is the best way to celebrate and lift up disability creatives. Give us some recommendations! #FilmDis #ARISE

 

 

Touch of Love to get Los Angeles Screening!

Yes, you read that title right. This short film has had some solid screenings locally: Balticon in May of 2015, the Independent Women Minority Filmmaker showcase in August of 2015, and most recently, this May 2016, at the Reel Independent Women showcase in Baltimore. I am so excited. I received a phone call yesterday letting me know that “Touch of Love” has been accepted to Shriekfest 2016.
Shriekfest Horror Film Festival is a film festival specializing in the horror genre. Founded in July 2001, it is the oldest continually running genre festival in Los Angeles, California. This year’s festival will be held at Raleigh Studios, located at 5300 Melrose in Hollywood, CA. Shriekfest will take place on October 6-9th, 2016.
tol-poster_shriekfest

What Dolly Parton means to me

Last night was one of the most amazing nights of my life. Dolly Parton was performing at Wolftrap. One of the things I love about Virginia’s Wolftrap performing arts center (and I think it is the only one in the country) is that it is actually IN a national park. So there is all this lush greenery and a stage and some seating but a large lawn where folks can sit and just listen.

Renee and I originally were going to try and catch Dolly in Philadelphia or Pigeon Forge. As was pointed out, she turned 70 this last January and likely wouldn’t be doing too many national tours after this. Luckily for us, and not so luckily for someone else, they broke their foot and couldn’t attend. The result? Monday night we learned we could go to the Wednesday night performance!!!!

We planned a full picnic. 🙂  Brie (and 3 other kinds of cheese), prosciutto, black pepper cheese loaf, fancy chocolate, apples, raspberries, strawberries, tea, ginger beer, cider. An extra big blanket, another for cover, a body pillow, a regular pillow, as well as snacks and a dish for the dog! Yes, we do snooty picnics. Can’t help it cheese plates are among my most favorite things in the WORLD.

It was lovely and Dolly Parton was in full voice. And I must admit, like the rest of the world, as much as we love her for her songs, we also love her for her wit and charm. She told jokes and shared stories, all the while engaging the audience and making us feel like we were special.

I have very few people on my bucket list and all for very different reasons. But one of the reasons that she is so important to me is because of leadership. That sounds like an odd thing to say about an actor and country music singer but I remember years ago, when i was trying to figure out who I wanted to be and HOW I wanted to be, I found a quote of hers that really spoke to me. It tends to be misattributed to John Quincy Adams, but it is definitely Dolly.

Doly Parton Quote - If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.

If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then, you are an excellent leader. – Dolly Parton

I can’t say I’ve always gotten it right, but it is who I want to be in the things that I choose to do, whether that is working with policy, politics, fiction, film, or just being me. She trusts in faith, and firmly believes in seeing the good in people and accepting them for who they are. She “shares the candy” in spreading her good fortune with literacy groups, raptor rescue and many others that I don’t even know. Good advice for life, I think. And a good example for life.  That is why I adore Dolly Parton and so desperately wanted to see her.

Thrilled to be able to cross this item off my Bucket List.

 

PS Special thanks to Jen Horan for taking the awesome pic above. Makes it even more special as that image came from OUR concert.