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Hundreds Celebrate Disability Inclusion In Hollywood at 40th Annual Media Access Awards

December 4, 2019
4 min read time

Actors, writers, directors and industry professionals were celebrated for their portrayal and inclusion of people with disabilities at the 40th annual Media Access Awards (MAA) in November.

One of those actresses was Tatiana Lee. Lee, who happens to be in a wheelchair, performed on the ABC show Speechless and has been working to make disability more accepted in Hollywood. 

“To see ourselves represented is very, very important,” Lee said on the red carpet of the award show. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to pursue this career.”

Lee was at the award show to honor and present Lolo Spencer, an actress who also happens to be in a wheelchair, with the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship, which Lee had won a year before.

“Inclusion in Hollywood means to me, to be seen,” said Spencer, who is most well known for her role in Give Me Liberty. “To be recognized as talent and as someone who is equally talented as everybody else.”

That’s what the Media Access Awards are all about — recognizing people for their talent and for their commitment to portraying people with disabilities and employing people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera.

It’s a passion and pursuit by two Hollywood professionals who took over the MAA about 10 years ago; Deborah Calla, co-CEO and producer teamed up with Allen Rucker, a writer and producer in 2010 and they have been running the show since. They took over after the MAA lost its funding in 2007; the award ceremony was founded in the 1970s by Norman Lear, Fern Field and Norman G. Brooks.  

“What we see in media is what we do in our lives,” Calla said. 

“Media is really important. It’s a reflection of our society. What we do here is support the idea of authentic representation.”

Since Calla and Rucker took over the MAA, they’ve seen significant change within the industry.

“We went from zero representation to maybe 2-3% of all characters in media having a disability,” Calla said. 

“But there are 61 million Americans living with a disability so when you talk about such small numbers in terms of representation, we still have a long way to go.”

People with disabilities make up about 20% of the U.S. population, yet according to statistics from "Disability Inclusion in Movies and Television: Market Research, 2019," a paper published by the Ruderman Family Foundation, only 2% are represented in television and film. Out of that 2%, more than 95% are played by able-bodied actors.

It’s a reality that this award ceremony hopes to change by displaying the success of shows and films that are employing people with disabilities and properly portraying their narratives.  

Some of the media honored at the MAA include NBC’s New Amsterdam, ABC’s The Good Doctor; NCIS: New Orleans, which airs on CBS, and The Peanut Butter Falcon.

Katherine Beattie, a writer on NCIS: New Orleans won the Writers Guild of America, West Evan Somers Memorial Award at the MAA. Beattie, who also happens to be in a wheelchair, spoke about the importance of employing people with disabilities in writers rooms. 

“In a writers room, it’s important to have writers with disabilities in the room, whether or not there are people with disabilities on camera,” Beattie said. 

“In a writers room, you need someone from every walk of life to get the true, full picture of humanity. Disabled writers just add so much more authenticity.”

Other honorees included David Caparelliotis and Lauren Port, both casting directors. They received an award from the Casting Society of America for their involvement with casting a disabled actor in New Amsterdam. 

“Inclusion in Hollywood is inclusion everywhere,” Port said. 

“What we see on the screen or on the stage or anywhere should represent the world we’re living in.”

The Peanut Butter Falcon producers received the PGA George Sunga Award. The executive producer, and multiple writers and producers from The Good Doctor received the Visionary Award. Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation received the SAG-AFTRA Disability Awareness Award. Nyle DiMarco, actor and winner of America’s Next Top Model, who also happens to be deaf, received the SAG-AFTRA Harold Russell Award. 

“I think Hollywood needs to open their minds to work with people with disabilities,” DiMarco said. 

“As producers, as story editors, as directors, etc. I know we have the talent and we can do it. They especially need to hire more people with disabilities behind the camera, because that’s where true inclusion happens.”

DiMarco, along with Lee and the other actors with disabilities who attended the Media Access Awards gave sound advice for other people with disabilities thinking about entering Hollywood. 

“It’s not easy,” Lee said, “but I think about the future generation and I keep fighting. Never give up and don’t listen to what people tell you.”

CJ Jones, who acted in Baby Driver and who is deaf said, “Don’t be afraid to show your disability; show your talent  — your talent is what is going to make you succeed. Break those barriers and break the glass ceiling.”

The evening was hosted by Joe Mantegna, an actor on Criminal Minds and Shoshannah Stern, an executive producer and actress on This Close. Mandy Harvey, a singer from America’s Got Talent performed with Alfred Sheppard on the keyboard. 

At the end of the evening, Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List, announced that in partnership with WGAW and Easterseals Southern California (ESSC), he will create a disability list highlighting incredible scripts in hopes of advancing the portrayal of people with disabilities in Hollywood. Along with the announcement, the first 10 original screenplays chosen were revealed. Each script includes at least one lead character with a disability. 

The Media Access Awards was co-sponsored by ESSC, a nonprofit organization that has been around for 100 years and provides services to people with disabilities and veterans. 

There is still a long road to full disability inclusion in Hollywood and beyond, but the Media Access Awards show that there are many who are making an effort to move Hollywood in the right direction.

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