The recent controversy regarding the Academy Awards' lack of inclusion of black actors for award nominations is sadly only part of the problem. The issue of inclusion in Hollywood echos with many minority populations, and was brought up quite poignantly in an episode of Netflix's Master of None in an episode called "Indians on TV." Movies have such a strong impact on our society. A lack of recognition on screen leads to a lack of recognition off screen, in the real world. This lack of inclusion is all the more true for actors with disabilities who are relatively rarely represented in cinema.
When we do see characters with disabilities in mainstream movies, the actors portraying them are often nominated for awards, especially if this feat is achieved by a non-disabled actor. But actors who themselves have disabilities are not only rarely nominated for awards, they are rarely even given roles! Of course even when these roles are designed for people with disabilities, chances are a star looking for an award will be cast before an actual actor with the specific disability. I understand the need to cast stars for publicity purposes, this is how you get return on the investment, but quality projects should be driven by integrity and not just star power. We too often applaud those who can portray a person with a disability, but forget those who really have disabilities. Why are people with disabilities not given a chance to play roles that relate to them? In the case of most other minorities, the casting of an actor who is non-minority as a minority member would be frowned upon. Yet, when a non-disabled actor is cast as a person with a disability, they are applauded.
What is even more rare than seeing an actor with a disability on screen is an actor with a disability playing a role that has nothing to do with their disability, but rather just being a character like everyone else. People with disabilities can be the best friend, the woman in line at the store, the love interest, and it does not have to be about the disability. Simply playing people who are part of the fabric of life and the drama of reality that is being represented on screen.
ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival received over 1000 new film submissions for consideration this year. We see that films including people with disabilities are getting produced, but they have yet to be completely embraced by the mainstream. Even the films made by respected producers do not get the same level of distribution. These excellent movies end up finding a place and are celebrated in festivals like ReelAbilities.
Another new path which is opening doors for actors and filmmakers with disabilities is using new media and technology. The accessibility of digital technology is now allowing filmmakers to both self-produce and self-distribute on the web. Web series' are popping out with more representative and authentic portrayals of people with disabilities. Shows like Teal Sherer's My Gimpy Life, Maleni Chaitoo's Don't Shoot the Messenger or Danny Woodburn's Hot Flash: The Chronicles of Lara Tate are popping up on the web. Similarly, actors are investing in short films with hopes for them to go viral on the web.
These new platforms are not only creating opportunities for more diverse inclusion, they are also providing more authentic representation. These independent productions do not have to play into the format of studios and networks and therefore can push the envelope by presenting a more realistic picture and a more daring one. These new platforms in part rely on niche audiences who will follow and build buzz for these shows.
But sadly, if a web series falls in the forest and nobody's there to see it, it might not have an impact at all, no matter how good it might be. For these new productions to really make a difference, people need to start seeing them. With all the TV binging going on, we need to start supporting the images that will make our world a more inclusive one. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon need to bring these shows to the mainstream, but till then, the public needs to create demand for these shows by seeking them out and viewing them independently.
ReelAbilities Film Festival will be hosting a panel at JCC Manhattan with SAG-AFTRA, The Mayor's Office for Film and Television, NYWIFT and Inclusion in the Arts entitled: Beyond Hollywood: Authenticity and Opportunity. The topic of better inclusion and correct representation and use of these new platforms will be explored and demonstrated with a wide panel of participants who are taking big steps in the new world of inclusive filmmaking.
In countries that have more extensive film funds, more inclusive films are made, as the funding does not require a return on investment. With more than 50 million people with disabilities in America and being the largest minority in the world, there has to be a profitable market for these films. And as this is the only minority that anyone can become a part of, everyone should be interested in seeing more inclusion on the screen. We are all inevitably connected to people with disabilities. Why is there not a stronger demand for this minority to be seen on screen, and how can we improve the authenticity of people with disabilities on the screen?
The answer: Go out and see these films. Stay home and watch these shows. Support films and TV shows that portray a diverse world. Make some noise. Your voice can make a difference.