Robert David Hall – Actor/National Chairman, SAG & AFTRA’s Performers with Disabilities Committee; Board Member, National Organization on Disability (2004-2005)

Is Disability Considered a Part of the “Diversity” Discussion?

In my years as a working actor and an advocate for people and performers with disabilities, I’ve noticed two contradictory forces at work.  A few things change while most situations remain the same.

In the past five years I’ve had some personal success in the acting and voiceover arenas. Apart from my own good fortune and hard work, I can’t shake the notion that the “powers that be” are uncomfortable with our attempts to storm their castle walls. It is always an “us versus them” scenario until you’re on the inside – and precious few of us have ever gotten CLOSE to the inner sanctums of the Entertainment Industry.

There are reasons for this: Good and Bad reasons.

On the surface “disability” is a multi-layered situation.  We are easier AND more difficult to identify than other groups.  Today’s buzz word is “diversity.”  Generally, this refers to ethnic diversity, occasionally to gender or age differences.  While there are more than 54 million Americans with disabilities, we lag far behind as a group in terms of education, employment, and life satisfaction (see the current National Organization on Disability/Harris Survey on Living with A Disability).

This is certainly true in show business.  Though you’ll now see disabled actors more frequently playing characters with disabilities, there’s still a penchant for slapping an able-bodied actor in a wheelchair, or putting sunglasses on a sighted actor to play blind.  This aggravates those of us who are trained, talented, and experienced AND happen to be disabled.

Beyond this instance, however, is the need for society to view people with disabilities as NORMAL, FUNCTIONING, CONTRIBUTING human beings.  To translate this into TV-speak.  You won’t have a career playing the “disabled” girl or guy.  You have to be seen as a cop, a coroner, a father, mother, lawyer, housewife, lover, etc.  You’ve got to play a mainstream character.  The disability must be secondary. There are, of course, some exceptions to this, but very few.

As a group of people, I don’t see People with Disabilities doing enough to solidify our power base.  We’re all looking out for our particular room in the house.  The deaf for the deaf, the blind for the blind, little people for little people, etc.  Maybe it’s possible to have MS and still see yourself as part of a larger group called People with Disabilities.  If we are truly 54 million people strong, the advertisers, networks, and studios should be chomping at the bit to show us ourselves in accurate, positive images.  That’s happening rarely because we’re still a difficult group to categorize. We still are trying to find a unified voice.

“Inclusion” is probably the term I favor.  Whether you’re an ethnic minority, older/younger, male/female, or disabled, you should not be presumed to be inferior. I hate stereotyping but I also detest those in our group who assume they’re owed something.  In America, if you’ve paid the dues that are necessary in your profession of choice, you deserve a shot at the brass ring.  You may not get it, but you’ll be in the ballgame.

I remain hopeful that we’ll move forward as a group.  The greatest contributions from People with Disabilities are still to come.

Robert David Hall is seen weekly on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation playing Dr. Al Robbins on CBS.  He’s also active in the voiceover and public speaking arenas.  He currently serves on the board of the National Organization on Disability and is the National Chairman of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA’s Performers With Disabilities committee

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