"You are wasting your time moving to Hollywood, it's only for "perfect people,"" a friend said to me when I revealed I was going after my goals and moving to Los Angeles.
A few weeks in I thought they might have been right. I auditioned and ended up booking a role in a high-profile project created by a well-known company. I was, as you can imagine thrilled! I went to the fitting and tried on various outfits, including a low-rise bikini.
The next day I woke up to an email letting me know I no longer had the role; they mentioned my disability would be "too off-putting" to the audience. In short; I lost a job because of my disability. This changed my career path, not because they had made it clear that they thought I didn't belong, but because I was fired up and ready to change the broken system in which they engage and perpetuate.
“Companies must take the opportunity of diversity with integrity. Access is essential, not optional.”
Hollywood has many horror stories, but the ones least told are those of the disabled community; fighting to get seen, heard, and treated as equals. When I started my company, C Talent, which represents high profile d/Deaf and disabled artists and athletes, I knew it was going to be a challenge, I spend most days in the trenches educating employers on accessibility issues, stereotypical storylines, unauthentic casting, and inequitable systems.
On the other hand, I get to work with the most incredible talent who are dedicated, extremely talented, and fighting disability oppression daily. When we win, we win big. Getting our talent placed in jobs that don't specify they need a disability and breaking those stereotypes is one of the most rewarding parts of my job and when companies release that their campaign or project did better when they implemented accessibility and inclusion they come back for more! This proves that accessibility should be taken as an opportunity rather than seen as a problem to solve.
I believe that accessibility is only the start to a more inclusive and representative world we would like to see reflected in Hollywood. This is why I started my second company Zetta Studios. Zetta Studios is set to be the world's first fully accessible studio, setting a new standard for the industry. Our findings show this studio will not just be the right thing to do but the economically smart thing to do, as well. This could subsequently lead to disabled talent finally winning more awards during award season, both in front and behind the camera.
There have only ever been two Oscar-winning actors publicly known to have disabilities, out of a total of 3,140 Oscar statuettes awarded since its conception in 1929, Harold Russell (1946, "The Best Years of Our Lives") and Marlee Matlin (1987,"Child of a Lesser God").
These numbers are not surprising. How can a community that very rarely gets the opportunity to audition for a major motion picture, let alone star in one, win an Oscar? And what happens on the rare occasion a physically disabled actor or openly identifying disabled creator is nominated but the stage is not accessible?
I was listening to a fantastic podcast hosted by Sinéad Burke who was interviewing British actor Ruth Madeley. Madeley spoke of her experience at the BAFTA awards, "Sadly, the access to the stage wasn't [accessible]. So, there was no ramp to the stage. It was at Royal Festival Hall, which is very old. And they have limited access in that respect. But yeah, BAFTA were the most supportive people in the world, but I still had to be carried on stage at the back". I am pleased to hear organizations are supportive... BUT companies must take the opportunity of diversity with integrity. Access is essential, not optional.
“They mentioned my disability would be “too off-putting” to the audience.”
Access is required, physical and intentional. We need intersectional targets and people from marginalized communities working on all projects, not just the ones in which their culture is reflected, and we need a disability officer on each leadership team of entertainment companies. This will help create more than occasional change and a few headlines of good news, but systemic and lasting difference.
The oppression of the disabled community has been swept under the (red) carpet for too long. We are still fighting for basic equal rights, the same minimum wage, and essential accessibility. Hollywood has the incredible power to shift and shape society.
Would more openly identifying disabled people winning Oscars change the way disabled people are treated as a whole?
I think so! Hollywood has previously cried out for equity and justice, as we saw in 2018 with the #MeToo movement and #OscarsSoWhite rocking the industry in 2015. We are next! #DontDismissDis! The ironic thing is audiences crave authenticity, diversity, and inclusion. The success of films like "Black Panther", "Peanut Butter Falcon", "Wonder Woman" and "Coco" proves that diversity wins. Creating a diverse environment on stage, in front, and behind the camera will influence the world we live in.
I believe to change the world we have to learn to tell and listen to a new set of stories about the world that we want to create. The media is being watched all the time. The power of it is unimaginable. If we paint the wrong pictures about people with disabilities, the world will see it and believe it. We have to familiarize audiences with seeing people with disabilities on their screen, authentically and in a new light. Knowledge is power and when we are watching entertainment, the media acts as a global teacher whether we actively realize it or not.
We need myths, systems, and old beliefs broken to create a new ‘perfect Hollywood’ that can make space and embrace the beauty diversity brings.