Reasons & Remarks – Rising Inclusion

The “progression” of representation of people with disabilities in the film industry

In the February issue of PN, I wrote about a few interesting examples of Hollywood actors portraying characters who were paralyzed in film. I hope you found those examples interesting, too. However, representation of people with disabilities in the film industry as a whole has been pretty underwhelming, and it’s often met with legitimate criticism.

While social movements such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite have begun to have an impact for minorities and women in the film industry, those of us with disabilities continue to be disappointed in the pace at which our demographic is “progressing.”

Sure, progress has been made in the form of landmark new films like Million Dollar Baby, The Peanut Butter Falcon and CODA, but the conversation surrounding who should be able to play characters with disabilities has begun to shift, hopefully making way for more actors with disabilities to land coveted lead roles.

But what about people with disabilities as producers, screenwriters and other positions behind the camera? They, too, have an impact on how moviegoers perceive people with disabilities.
During the 2023 Coronado Island Film Festival (CIFF), I had the honor of moderating a discussion panel titled Representation Rising. This panel’s purpose was to take apart the misconceptions about people with disabilities inside the film industry and to uncover their innovative contributions.

The four panel members were Paul Raci, a character actor who has performed on stage and in film; Aiden Keltner, a director of short-subject films; Patrick Ivison, a film producer; and Rory Cooper, PhD, who is the subject of a documentary being screened throughout the country.

For more than 90 minutes, we addressed some of the challenges people with disabilities face when getting into the filmmaking business. We covered everything from accessibility on sets to the authenticity of storylines.

Some of you may know Raci from Sound of Metal, released in 2019. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Joe, a recovering alcoholic who lost his hearing in the Vietnam War. In addition to being a Vietnam War veteran, Raci grew up with deaf parents and used sign language his entire life; for the sake of authenticity, he was hired for this role over several other high-profile actors.

During our discussion, Raci stated that he’s not deaf, nor does he speak for those who cannot hear, but he said there are plenty of talented deaf actors who are capable of great performances if simply given the opportunity to do so.

What’s more, Raci said during this discussion that he’s committed to hiring people with disabilities for other projects that he will be producing in the near future. Later in the week, Raci received CIFF’s Industry Impact Award for his advocacy for the deaf community and its representation in entertainment.
Keltner has directed multiple award-winning short films that have screened internationally at various festivals. He recently directed an award-winning short film, Amazing Grace, which told the story of a middle-aged single mother caring for an adult son who was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

During the discussion, he spoke mostly about the stigma of mental illness and the impact it has on the way those with invisible disabilities are portrayed. As an example, Keltner talked about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and its role in the demise of state-funded institutionalized health care. He said if that film was a true story, the patient named “Chief” who escaped at the end of the film would most likely be living under a bridge or be dead. By the way, in regard to authenticity, Keltner’s family has a history with mood disorders and his father is a clinical psychiatrist. So, Keltner was certainly the panel’s subject matter expert on invisible disabilities.

Ivison, a level C4 quadriplegic, has served in myriad positions in post-production for film. After graduating from film school at the University of Southern California, he found it quite difficult to get steady work due to his disability and his reliance on Social Security disability benefits. After eventually establishing himself as a legitimate filmmaker, Ivison continues to deal with accessibility on sets.

As an example, Ivison recalled shooting a film that included several scenes inside a small bungalow. Ivison said he was sitting in his powered wheelchair located in a narrow hallway, while the remainder of the crew was filming in a different section of the house. So much for inclusion.
Lastly, Cooper is the subject of a short documentary called Bumps in the Road that was honored at CIFF for addressing disability advocacy. The documentary chronicles Cooper’s life with his wife, Rosemarie, as well as his impressive journey from an Army sergeant paralyzed in an accident in Germany to becoming the founder and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories at the University of Pittsburgh.

I can attest from personal experience that trusting journalists and filmmakers to tell your story can go horribly wrong. Fortunately, the director of this film was in the audience, so it was a great opportunity for everyone to learn how Cooper and the filmmakers developed the mutual trust necessary to tell the story that for decades Cooper considered his own.

The audience comprised mostly of filmmakers, and I’m sure I can speak for the panelists when I say there’s a genuine interest in including people with disabilities when producing films. Matter of fact, some actors and filmmakers are now demanding inclusion riders in their contracts that provide for a certain level of representation in casting and production staff.

Furthermore, some writers are now using sensitivity readers to flag content perceived as offensive or inaccurate when depicting a character with a disability. Currently, these measures aren’t absolute, but I think most people in Hollywood want to do the right thing — until money gets in the way.
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