Why It’s Time to Disable Diversity Efforts
2017’s Emmy darling, The Handmaid’s Tale, is binge-worthy, for sure — stuffed with moments that steal the breath from both Offred and from her audience. But one moment from the series struck me in ways it may not have reached too many of you.
That moment unfolds on a bridge, where Offred pleads with Janine, a fellow handmaid, not to commit suicide. Come down from that ledge, Offred urges, and live. Drink and dance with the other girls, in a future free of the oppressive, patriarchal fascism of Gilead.
Janine’s response is simple: “Who would want to dance with me?”
Her voice breaks. Her disfigured and half-blind face turns towards Offred, searching for hope while also reminding us of Janine’s inescapable “otherness.”
Offred’s response, tellingly, is a non-response: a tremulous, watery gaze of pity that nearly every character with a disability seems contractually obligated to receive.
And it is that look, paired with Offred’s stone silence, that tacit acceptance of Janine’s premise, that firms up Janine’s resolve to “escape.” To jump. To disconnect.
With that jump, Janine’s belief, already a long-standing Hollywood message, is reinforced: even in a world in which other groups have agency, even in the idyllic future of Offred’s dreams, the disfigured, the mentally and physically disabled, will just have to settle for being on the sidelines.
Which brings me to the 69th Emmy Awards.
That ceremony, which sparked the hashtag #EmmysSoBlack, embraced Lena Waithe (Master of None) as the first black woman to win for Outstanding Comedy Writing, Riz Ahmed (The Night Of) as the first Muslim and South Asian man to win an acting Emmy, and Donald Glover (Atlanta) as the first African-American to win for Outstanding Directing of a Comedy Series. Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale) became the first woman in 22 years to win as Outstanding Director of a Drama Series. Sterling K. Brown became the first black man in nearly as long to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
But, even in 2017, disability-related “firsts” remain elusive. I watch the Emmys every year. I’ve yet to see a ramp to the stage.
Even as the industry opens a few more doors for minorities — for women, for LGBT artists, and for people of color — creative forces with disabilities are still held at arm’s length from these crucial conversations. Conversations not only about who and what voices matter but about how each of us perceives ourselves.
Don’t believe me? Consider that Speechless, Atypical, and Switched at Birth are written about disability, but by writers without disabilities. Consider that the Emmys won by Born This Way, a documentary series about Down Syndrome, are etched with the names of its able-bodied crew.
This is not to say that any such exclusion is malicious. The lack of access for artists with disabilities can be attributed, in part, to a television industry funnel that traditionally begins with assistant work — jobs that include picking up lunches for the staff, location scouting, or perhaps running to get the boss’s car.
While few of these tasks stretch the creative muscles needed to develop a script, they frequently provide stepping stones towards a coveted breakthrough writing credit. Across Hollywood, it’s commonly understood these jobs are how eager writers “pay their dues.”
What is less commonly understood is that some of us pay our dues, daily, in different, and in no less humbling, ways. By biting our tongues when told we are inspiring. By reading lips in a noisy restaurant in which no one else knows American Sign Language. By facing down a national employment statistic of about 30%.
Unless and until network diversity efforts expand to include disability, members of America’s largest minority group (about 20% of the population, according to the Center for Disease Control) are likely to remain invisible to popular culture and to themselves. Worse, they’re likely to be misrepresented by those who lack intimate knowledge of the worth and experiences of a person with a disability.
To the extent we recognize television’s awesome power to help viewers discover themselves, how can we justify leaving so much and so many undiscovered?
In his powerful Emmy acceptance speech, following his work on the first season of This is Us, Sterling K. Brown mentioned Homicide: Life on the Street’s Andre Braugher as a guiding star for his own education and career. For any talented person who feels marginalized, such guides are invaluable. But for those of us with disabilities, there are still no guiding stars — no Shonda Rhimes or Ellen DeGeneres or Aziz Ansari — to follow.
Why not? Well, it’s hard to say. I imagine there is some degree of self-selection, as young people with disabilities see no place for them in a profession that already shows them so little of themselves.
I imagine employers have concerns about “accessibility” and “accommodations.” I imagine there are misguided, preconceived notions about hardships or stamina or health. And I imagine these notions are, ironically, fed by the very same media that are crafted by people without disabilities, in the first place.
Of course, I am left only to imagine the nature of these biases and obstacles. Because until our industry conversations about diversity — those urgent and essential dialogues about racism and sexism and homophobia — reach far enough to probe at the feelings each of us harbors about people with disabilities, imagining is the best I can do.
At least until somebody invites me to dance.
Born with cerebral palsy, David Radcliff is a member of the Committee for Writers with Disabilities at the Writers Guild of America, West. He has been a finalist for the Disney Writing Program and for the Sundance Episodic Story Lab and was a winner of top honors at the Austin Film Festival.