Activist Ruderman Foundation Takes Up Discrimination against Actors with Disabilities

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November 1, 2016; Deadline.com

On Tuesday, renowned actress Marlee Matlin spoke to the first-ever Disability Inclusion Roundtable to address the underrepresentation of people with disabilities on film and TV.

We as an industry keep talking about diversity. We know we have a problem but when we start speaking about diversity, disabilities seem to be left out…We all remember the last Oscars for being too white. The Academy said its 2016 mandate is inclusion in all of its facets, but where is disability?

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This conversation is so necessary because there are 56 million Americans with a disability. That is 20 percent of the population. But if you judged our existence by what you see on TV, you would think we made up less than one percent…Movies aren’t much better—there is something wrong with the entire picture.

Matlin was joined by R.J. Mitte, Danny Woodburn, Micah Fowler, and Orlando Jones. “We are talking about a group of people (with disabilities) that are invisible right now, that are treated like second-class citizens,” said Jones. “If representation was equal, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. It’s human rights abuse, that’s what we are talking about.”

Even the physical barriers to auditioning are significant, said Woodburn, who coauthored the whitepaper. “If I’m going to audition on a second floor with no elevator and it’s for a character in a wheelchair, then there was clearly no intent for calling in an actor with a wheelchair,” he said. “It’s a matter of access to employment and that’s also the case in the deaf community and the blind community needing interpreters and readers for their auditions.”

The Massachusetts-based Ruderman Family Foundation organized the event in Beverly Hills after the release in July of its whitepaper study, co-authored by Woodburn, on Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television, which revealed that 95 percent of roles depicting someone with a disability on the top 10 TV shows were played by actors without disabilities. Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president, is no passive grantmaker; the foundation is active in researching and commenting upon issues key to people with disabilities. The foundation has repeatedly pointed out that disability is very often an unreported component in police killings of civilians, and when one of the presidential candidates mimicked Serge Kovaleski, a reporter with a visible disability, he took him to task in no uncertain terms. In general, Ruderman believes in using the voice that well-organized philanthropy can give to an issue.—Ruth McCambridge