To coincide with National Disability Employment Awareness Month, DWC Chair David Radcliff weighs in on the state of disability inclusion in the industry.
I’m a “lower-level” television writer and the chair of the Disabled Writers Committee (DWC) at the Writers Guild of America West. That’s a weird dichotomy to straddle—especially with my tight hamstrings—because one role asks me to speak up for one of the most underrepresented communities in Hollywood, and the other suggests I keep my head down and try not to pitch the same thing twice.
So when the Guild asked me to write a piece about the state of disability inclusion in the industry, I got pretty nervous. In truth, there’s not a lot of good news to share. I wondered: if this piece were too blunt, would it injure my own career? If handled indelicately, could it complicate opportunities for countless disabled people still waiting to “break in”?
Simultaneously, if I didn’t speak up with passion and clarity, would I betray a community that, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, has too often been silenced or ignored altogether?
The answer to all of these questions is probably yes. And yet, even with my poor sense of balance, I’ll attempt to walk that line. After all, it’s Disability Employment Awareness Month—that weird 31-day period in which I and others remind you that disabled people are, yep, still employable.
(Ironically, we often do this for free. But I digress.)
Let’s first address an unfortunate fact: According to DWC research, in 2020, only two American productions were made by and about disabled people. One was the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp. The other was the Netflix docuseries Deaf U. Both were steered by white storytellers.
Zero were narrative fiction.
What does it mean that, if we want to see disabled creators put flesh-and-blood disabled folks on screen, we have to turn to documentaries to get that fix?
What does it mean that, with Ryan O’Connell’s Netflix series Special recently concluded, disabled writers no longer have openly disabled showrunners to point to or to chart a path behind?
What does it mean that, even in the remarkably narrow sliver of space in which disabled voices are allowed to create, those voices are overwhelmingly white?
It means this industry routinely misses out on an incredible range of tales and talent. Both onscreen and behind the scenes, and perhaps for a multitude of reasons it hasn’t yet unpacked, Hollywood shies away from money on the table and from one of the largest, most diverse, and fastest-growing demographics there is.
A demographic nearly everyone, at some stage in life, will join.
The late Roger Ebert, who himself all-too-predictably fell out of television’s limelight after cancer left him visibly disabled, famously called film an “empathy machine.” It (and television) is most definitely that. But it’s also a place from which misunderstanding and diminishment can unintentionally spread.
An industry that’s comfortable leaving its disabled talent on the sidelines—even within its own DEI efforts and discussions—risks leaving audiences without exposure to the authentically resilient, hilarious, generous, sexy complexity that exists among this community. And that, in itself, is dangerous.
Throughout the pandemic, “healthcare rationing” has been a sobering concern for disabled people across this country. When doctors are short on hospital resources, and are pressed to choose between the patient who showed up disabled and the one who didn’t, inaccurate notions of “quality of life” suddenly become very real.
Personally, I like my life. But how might our media—and its scarcity of disabled people onscreen, at news desks, in development offices, and in writers’ rooms—inform a doctor’s unconscious assumptions about my own value or potential?
Will she at least check my IMDB page?
The weight of this same cultural invisibility impacts professional pursuits and financial security, too. It’s hard to imagine the Chicago Sun-Times hiring a young Roger Ebert had he rolled into his job interview in a motorized chair, missing his lower jaw, and speaking through a computer—and yet, his writing was never more introspective or more elegant than after he’d become disabled and begun his own blog.
The initial aim of this piece was to report on the state of our industry for disabled folks—but it’s more earnestly hoping for an industry-wide mindset shift. I’ve heard or experienced too many frustrating anecdotes I simply can’t share, been contacted by too many disabled voices brought onto projects to “consult” for pennies rather than to be paid Guild rates as the writers or actors we are.
Just last week, in fact, I had lunch with a performer who told me about having to urinate (with the help of his catheter and a set P.A. standing guard nearby) in a dirty alleyway because there was no accessible restroom for him on set. All that indignity, and he wasn’t even in the final cut.
And, of course, I remember the Emmys, where so many folks spoke warmly of inclusion while standing unaided atop a pyramid of stairs.
In a town where every conversation starts with “What do you do?,” all of us—you, me, and the disability echo chamber this piece is likely to disappear into on Twitter—just hope to create great stories. We look to collaborate with inclusive and talented teams, to entertain and inform and perhaps even save the lives of audience members we’ll never even meet.
And, sure, some of us yearn to hold onto that sweet WGA or SAG health insurance.
Because the reality is: it’s pretty rough out there. But maybe, as we all re-situate for this post-COVID (or mid-COVID?) new normal, it doesn’t have to be.
Sorry if I’ve pitched the same thing twice.
David Radcliff has cerebral palsy and is the chair of the WGAW’s Disabled Writers Committee. He has written for series on ABC and Netflix, is an alumnus of the New Leaders Council of Los Angeles, and is a steering committee member of the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE). He enjoys short walks on the beach.
Read the Guild’s recently updated Employing Disabled Writers: A Best Practices Guide 2021.
The 2021 Media Access Awards, dedicated to the accurate portrayal and employment of people with disabilities in all media, are set to be hosted on November 17. Special creator-showrunner-star Ryan O’Connell is set to receive WGAW’s Evan Somers Memorial Award at this year’s ceremony.