Steve Gladstone – Actor/Screen Actors Guild Florida Branch President; Co-Chair, SAG Performers with Disabilities Committee (2004-2005)

How the Blind Man Sees It

With respect to witnessing changes in the industry, speaking as an actor who is blind, I have recently noticed that some of the major networks (ABC and CBS) have executed “diversity” showcases primarily in Los Angeles and New York. While billed as “diversity” showcases, they are spun to highlight performers of color rather than the total landscape.  This, I believe, is helpful to the ethnic actor but does precious little for performers with disabilities. This leads to a point about the term “diversity”. I have found that this term over the past several years is really synonymous with ethnicity though used to represent all protected groups (women, seniors, people of color and people with disabilities) during discussion and debate. While a worthy term, specific light must be shed on actors with disabilities as a separate group and whose ranks are woefully underutilized.  Perhaps the term “inclusion” is a better fit.

With regard to experiencing changes over the past five years, it’s hard to quantify. There are no meaningful numbers to measure the use of performers with disabilities. Hard numbers have been absent from the Casting Data Report (information provided by producers to Screen Actors Guild) that does in fact count and publish statistics for senior performers, female actors and performers of color used on the set.  Besides a few broad television studies since the late 60’s which showed the portrayal of disabled characters to be 1.3% of prime time players, there are no meaningful numbers to illuminate just how pervasive the problem is.

My sense of it is that the number of disabled characters continues to lag well behind any other group. With over 54 million Americans who have a disability representing 20% of our population, the number of disabled characters portrayed is egregiously out of step with the landscape.

Then there is the question of a disabled character being played by a like disabled actor. I’m not talking about the blind Pacinos or the developmentally disabled Hoffmans who are box office draws, but the journeyman actors with disabilities (1200 in SAG) who are rarely considered for a disabled role.  That role falls to an able bodied actor who then pretends to be disabled.  We moved from using male actors playing female roles in Shakespeare’s day, took the black face off white actors in the early 1900’s, and we need to take able bodied actors out of our wheelchairs and their hands off white canes and dog harnesses.  First, however, we need to get more disabled characters written into scripts.

The core rub is to get writers, directors, and producers to think “non-traditionally:” to include judges, mothers, and basketball coaches who have a disability but where that disability is not germane to the role. There are blind lawyers, CEO’s in wheelchairs, and children with Down syndrome throughout our landscape who are rarely seen on our stages, small and big screens.  If the images changed to reflect the landscape, corporations and advertisers could put some of the $700 billion of assets from the disabled community to their bottom lines.  If we change the images in the media and theatres, we would not only get a better idea of who we are, but we would go a long way in changing the perceptions of the public regarding people with disabilities.  This, in turn, could have a positive impact on not only how people with disabilities are viewed, but also in how they are treated.

My own work has shifted from on-camera to the stage in recent years. I find that I win a role based on my talents, not my disability.  I would like to have more on-camera work and trust I will.

I have found being a member of Screen Actors Guild (SAG)) and Actors’ Equity is a boon. Both unions are eager to help or at least think outside the box when a unique issue surfaces. When a local theatre would not hand out scripts before the day of the audition, evoking Equity’s stance on making scripts available 48 hours in advance for visually impaired performers worked!  SAG Affirmative Action departments in Los Angeles and New York are active in listening and implementing the desires and vetted resolutions of the Performers with Disabilities Committee.

The primary barriers to achieving inclusion that remain are the same barriers that existed and still exist in this country since the 1850’s: bias and prejudice. The controlling bodies make decisions in vacuums about what you can and can’t do.  Deciding without discussing plagues us still.

There appears to be an element of fear as well – fear that actors with a disability will hurt themselves. This is clearly a myth: there is no evidence that people with disabilities get hurt more often than people without disabilities in any workplace.  Notwithstanding, if able bodied actors can get hurt on the set, actors with disabilities should have the same privilege.

There is also a perception that an actor with a disability may need extra assistance at a substantial cost to the producer.  In my experience, those costs have been rare and always affordable.  It is always the people in power who are emotionally and intellectually paralyzed who create the biggest problems.

Regarding support to alleviate some of these barriers, I feel initiatives from appropriate institutions directed toward our film and performing arts schools are key.   The first step is to sensitize and educate the up and coming writers, directors and producers about the disabled community – the size of its population, its vast abilities and treating people with disabilities as people who are not to be feared but embraced.   The next step would be to supply incentives to these students and established filmmakers, artistic directors, screen writers and playwrights to write disabled characters into their stories and to use disabled actors in the making of their films and the staging of their plays.  This would put positive miles on this highway of inclusion.

More initiatives like the landmark UCLA study, which has interviewed a wide body of disabled actors and will provide meaningful narratives and statistics regarding their core issues, are critical.  If we can’t measure results, we can’t measure the progress.

Getting disabled workers in the front office would be very helpful.  Proximity changes perception.

Also, it is important to seek damages from producers using able bodied actors to play disabled roles where like disabled actors were not adequately auditioned or interviewed.

A final note on barriers.  Curiously, the terms we use can help or hurt us. The term “disability” is unfortunate in that it puts the focus where it shouldn’t be.  More terms like “otherwise abled” or “differently abled” need to creep into our vocabulary.

Regarding my work and whether issues of inclusion and/or diversity are a factor:  I recently played a blind author for which I was nominated for a Carbonell (Florida’s Tony Awards) in New Theatre’s premier of Blind Date. Strangely, most of the roles I land are not blind characters so inclusion is not the result.

Steve Gladstone
Screen Actors Guild Florida Branch President
Co-chair SAG Performers with Disabilities Committee

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