Five Ways Hollywood Can Really Promote Respect for People With Disabilities
Hollywood acting legend Meryl Streep made a speech at this year’s Golden Globes that, among other things, expressed concern over disrespect and violence toward people with special needs in the current political climate. That’s certainly something we worry about as parents, too, as we’re bombarded with news about people with disabilities being mocked and attacked and abused.
As much as I appreciate anybody bringing these concerns to a large audience, though, and calling this mistreatment out as wrong, I couldn’t help but think that the speech was the equivalent of those messages that crop up on Facebook from time to time. You know the ones — they call for understanding and respect for children with special needs, and then suggest that the way to promote that is to cut-and-paste a message to your wall. It’s nice, I guess. But it’s not enough.
The fact is, the entertainment industry is in a position to make a significant change in the way society views people with disabilities. Strong and respectful portrayals of people with special needs would go far to adjust the national conversation. For my money, one Micah Fowler on a mainstream ABC sitcom is worth 20 award-show speeches.
I’ll establish here that I am a parent of young adults with special needs and not a person with disabilities. I don’t pretend to speak for that community; they can speak for themselves quite eloquently. But I have had the experience of dealing with folks who’ve gotten the message that “it’s not okay to be mean to people with disabilities” loud and clear, but haven’t quite moved on to the “including them in everything” part. It seems to me that the entertainment industry is in somewhat of the same spot.
In that spirit, then, here are five ways I’d love to see Hollywood move beyond cutting and pasting best wishes to its wall and make a meaningful change in the way we view people with disabilities.
1. Hire actors with disabilities to play people with disabilities.
We’ve heard all the logistical excuses for why characters with disabilities are almost always played by actors without. But if the entertainment industry, with all the tricks up its sleeve, and all the creativity at its command, and all the good will in the world, can’t find and accommodate actors with disabilities, it sends a message of “Gee, in a perfect world, it would be nice, but it’s just too hard right now.” That’s the same message we hear when we seek inclusion in schools and workplaces and community groups for our kids. It’s a bad message, and it’s one studios and producers have the power to change if they want to. Please want to.
2. Hire actors with disabilities to play absolutely anybody at all.
While you’re at it, go beyond casting actors with disabilities to play characters conceived of as having those same disabilities. Open up all the possibilities. Imagine all characters as potentially of differing abilities. As a parent, I dream of a society where all different sorts of people are living their lives, doing their jobs, and participating in their communities — my kids included. Show folks what that looks like. Visibility is meaningful.
3. Hire writers, directors, producers, and executives with disabilities.
You know what would help with #1 and #2? If there were people behind the scenes who personally understood and cared about disability issues. Besides inspiring new storylines, new characterizations, and new ways of looking at things, they can tell you when you’re getting things wrong, dealing in stereotypes, or being offensive for no good reason other than you don’t know any better.
4. Stop defending entertainers who slur people with disabilities in the name of “art.”
It’s easy to call out bad behavior by people you don’t like. But when it’s a comedian slurring people with intellectual disabilities, or a comedy using the R-word in excess, or an Oscar-winning film questioning whether people with significant disabilities might be better off dead, we’re more likely to hear excuses about art needing to be fearless, and risk offending, and raise hard questions, and push the boundaries. Maybe that’s true — maybe there’s an argument to be made. But then you have to own up to how these things influence the public perception of people with disabilities. You have to understand that those “artistic” actions have consequences. And you have to balance it with other voices and other depictions. Otherwise, honestly, you’re part of the problem.
5. Understand that sympathy is not the same as respect.
Advocating for people with disabilities is not about being inspired by those who are less than. It’s not about defending the weak. It’s not about doing your good deed for the day. It’s not about standing up for those who can’t fight back or distinguishing yourself from those who are less enlightened. It has to be about saying, “We are all humans, we are all equal, we are all deserving of respect.” A pat on the head feels better than slap in the face, sure, but a handshake would be better.