Over 80 members of the entertainment industry, including actors Amy Poehler, Naomie Harris, Heather Matarazzo and Janina Gavankar, are urging Hollywood studios and production companies to better prioritize disability in their diversity and inclusion efforts, in a new open letter.
The letter, released Wednesday, was spearheaded by Keely Cat-Wells, founder and CEO of C Talent, an agency representing disabled artists and athletes.
Cat-Wells noted that diversity is often thought of as giving more people “a seat at the table” in a statement accompanying the open letter.
“But what if we can’t access the door to get to that table?” she said. “If we don’t design for accessibility or include people with disabilities, it is like saying we don’t want the business of every fifth person who walks or rolls through the door.”
Cat-Wells founded C Talent after her own battles with discrimination in Hollywood. In 2017, she said she was rejected for a role because of her disability.
“I went to the fitting where they had me try on a low-rise bikini, which revealed my Ileostomy bag. The next day, I received an email saying that I no longer had the part. They said I was ‘too off-putting’ to the audience and it would be ‘too confusing,’” she said. “This could have easily been ‘fixed’ with a high-waisted bikini. This type of prejudice and discrimination is not an isolated occurrence. In short, I lost a job because of my disability.”
“This fight is not a new one. Pledges have been made but no systemic action has been taken to change inequitable systems and procedures. We can’t expect a band-aid to heal an open wound. Adequate inclusion is long overdue. Do not dismiss disability.”
For decades, Hollywood has systematically excluded disabled artists. In front of the camera, disabled actors often find themselves getting passed over for roles — including when nondisabled actors get cast in roles involving disabled characters. With some exceptions, on-screen narratives about disabled people tend to either celebrate disabled characters “overcoming” their disability or turn them into objects of pity or ridicule. Behind the camera, film and television sets often do not provide sufficient accommodations for disabled people or take accessibility into consideration.
“Due to years of misrepresentation in the media, social barriers, and chronic ableism, the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Neurodiverse and Disabled communities continue to be underrepresented and disrespected in the entertainment industry. This fight is not a new one. Pledges have been made but no systemic action has been taken to change inequitable systems and procedures. We can’t expect a band-aid to heal an open wound,” the open letter reads. “Adequate inclusion is long overdue. Do not dismiss disability.”
The letter calls on Hollywood studios and production companies to establish a permanent position for a disability officer, a leadership role that would make sure disability is incorporated into every facet of the company, not just as an afterthought.
Cat-Wells pointed out that over the last year, Hollywood quickly responded to the pandemic, hiring COVID-19 safety officers and consultants to make sure film and television production could resume safely. Why not, then, take the same kinds of “drastic steps to provide security” for disabled artists, who “faced threats, lost jobs and dealt with a lack of access long before COVID,” she said.
According to the letter, the disability officer role could entail improving hiring practices, setting goals for disability representation on- and off-screen, as well as developing industry standards for portrayals of disability and accessibility in workplaces and on sets.
Establishing a permanent leadership role “will create more than occasional change and a few headlines of good news, but systemic and lasting difference,” Cat-Wells said.
Read the full letter below.