A Lesson In Diversity
John and another friend, Danny Woodburn, are two highly talented actors and comedians who I respect so much for their ambition, professionalism and integrity (among many other values). And, with so much hype last night and leading up to last night of the inclusion issues surrounding the Oscars, there was a population who needed to be part of that discussion and was omitted. It is the population to which John and Danny belong, actors who have disabilities. There are many of them. They want and deserve equal opportunities but few of them get the roles. How often it is that Hollywood casts actors without disabilities to play the role of those very capable actors who do have disabilities. Really, this discussion needs to happen around every workplace and within the community as well. When we talk about inclusion and diversity, we need to remember it is not simply a black or white issue. It is much broader.
February 4th 2016 passed and I completely forgot that 29 years ago in 1987, I was in the North Carolina Jay Cee Burn Center and the surgeons were amputating my left hand. About one month later, they had to amputate my right hand as a result of injuries I sustained in an electrical accident. I was working a “real job” as my dad use to say in between acting and singing jobs. I had started playing piano at age three, started lessons at four and took lessons continuously for 17 years. And now after spending over half my life studying piano, at age 30 I would never play again. That day started me on a road that I never intended to take and down a path that has been filled with the perils and rewards of living with a disability.
First I have to say, I am not here to inspire you. I have lost count of the number of strangers that approach me in public while shopping or pumping gas to tell me that I am an inspiration. I guess they mean well, but they are just sort of congratulating me for getting up that morning and remembering to put my pants before I left the house. There is nothing inspirational about pumping gas or grabbing a can of green beans off the shelf. I am here to tell you that you have been lied to about disability. Most people believe that because you have a disability that your life is worse; that being a disabled person is a bad thing and that if you live with the disability, it makes you exceptional. Living with a disability is not a bad thing and it certainly doesn’t make you exceptional or inspirational.
Unfortunately, with the rise of FaceBook, InstaGram and Twitter, this falsehood endures and is reinvigorated by pictures of a child running on carbon fiber blades with the words “ Your excuse is invalid,” or a person using a wheelchair and the words, “Before you quit, try.” Or a person with Downs Syndrome smiling and the words, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” There are many more and I know you’ve seen them. It’s what I call inspirational porn. You may snicker, but I use the word “porn” purposefully, because these images belittle and objectify one group of people for the sole benefit of another group of people. In the examples above, we are trivializing and objectifying disabled people for sole benefit of non-disabled people. The only purpose of these images is to motive you, to inspire you so that when you look at them you can think, “no matter how bad my life is right now, it could be worse. I could be that disabled person with no legs or I could be that person in a wheelchair.” It’s all there to make you lessen your problems or put your worries in perspective.
Life as a person with disabilities can be somewhat difficult and we do have to overcome some things. But it’s not the things that you may think. It’s not the things to do with our bodies that we have to overcome. Now, I have used the terms “people with disabilities” and “disabled people” decisively because I believe in what’s called the “social model of disability.” It states that disability is caused by the way society is structured, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives.
This model not only applies to society, but should also apply to the entertainment industry as well. With the recent swell of diversity dialogue spurred by the Oscars So White the most underrepresent group, Performers With Disabilities, (PWDs) has not even been mentioned in the conversations. The USC Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment was released which frames its findings of significant gender and racial gaps as an “inclusion crisis” and an “epidemic of invisibility,” and completely failed to measure the appearance and inclusion of PWDs. This report represents comprehensive? Inclusive?
In 2015 GLADD’s report, “Where We Are On TV,” it stated less than 1% of characters on television were portrayed with disabilities. The actual number of PWD actors working the roles is even less, with most roles done by able body actors. Current statistics show there are over 58 million people or nearly 20% of the population in the US with some form of disability while a recent study conducted by Neilson established that people with a disability represent $1 Trillion dollars in discretionary income spending, yet their depiction in television is less than 1%. PWDs cross all races, ethnicities, genders, age and sexual orientation. It’s not an exclusive club, but something you could join in the blink-of-an-eye.
Next year, I will have been using my prosthetics for as long as I had my hands. Half of my life wearing hooks. Do they replace my hands? No, but they are a tool I’m forced to use for maintaining my independence in a society designed for able body people; a tool for me to pump my gas or load my grocery cart. I’ve learned to use my prosthetics to best of my ability, just as many of you have by using your hands or your body. So this takes me back to those kids in the pictures we see littered around on all our social media. They are not doing anything out of the ordinary or exceptional. They are just using their bodies to the best of their ability. Is it fair that we objectify those kids in those images and trivialize them using their bodies to the best of their abilities by sharing those memes?
I know when people tell me, “I’m an inspiration” that they mean it as a compliment. I do understand that, but the reason it happens is because of this lie, this falsehood that’s been sold to the public that disability makes you exceptional and makes you inspirational. I’m sorry; but honestly, it doesn’t. I really believe that this falsehood, that this propaganda that we’ve been sold is the greatest injustice. It makes life hard for us. Oh, and that quote about “the only disability in life is a bad attitude,” is total bullshit. It’s just not true. No amount of me smiling at a piano keyboard with a positive attitude will allow me to play as I used to touch the ivories with ten fingers.
I want to live in a society where someone with a disability is not the exception, but accepted as a norm. I want to live in a society where a man stuffing a grocery cart is not an inspiration just because he is using prosthetics. I want to live in a society where we don’t have such low expectations of people with disabilities that we congratulate them for getting out of bed and remembering to put on pants. I want to live in a society where we place value on genuine achievement by disabled people.
And remember the social model of disability? When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives. I want to live in a society where I can be the PWD actor that is hired for the “dad” role, the “banker” role, the “hero” role and he just happens to be missing arms and that’s the norm. I want to work in an entertainment industry where disability is not the real “inclusion crisis” and the true “epidemic of invisibility.