Stars urge Hollywood to take urgent action on disability inclusion

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Amy Poehler (left) and Naomie HarrisImage source, EPA
Image caption,
Amy Poehler (left) and Naomie Harris have signed the letter

More than 80 actors and entertainment industry professionals including Amy Poehler, Naomie Harris and Jessica Barden have signed an open letter against prejudice and discrimination towards disabled talent in Hollywood.

The letter says there's an "urgent need to act on disability inclusion" and urges major studios to appoint permanent disability officers.

The number of disabled characters on screen "continues to severely under-represent the actual US population living with disabilities", it says.

"Due to years of misrepresentation in the media, social barriers, and chronic ableism, the deaf, hard of hearing, neurodiverse and disabled communities continue to be underrepresented and disrespected in the entertainment industry."

Around one in four adults in the US have some form of disability, according to government statistics.

A recent report found that 3.5% of TV series regular characters were disabled in 2020. A separate study put the number of disabled characters at 12% in 2018 - but found that most of the portrayals were negative.

A previous letter in 2019 said that, among the 61 Oscar nominees and 27 winners who had played characters with a disability, only two had been authentically portrayed by an actor with a disability.

'Fundamental changes'

The new letter and the #DontDismissDis campaign have been organised by agent Keely Cat-Wells, who said she lost a job because of her disability when she was an actress.

"Covid-19 made productions recruit Covid officers and specialists to keep cast and crew members safe so they could keep accessing work, in order to save as many jobs as possible," she said.

"The disabled community have faced threats, lost jobs and dealt with a lack of access long before Covid-19, and unlike this situation, there has been no drastic steps to provide security."

The proposed disability officers would "make fundamental changes to dated practices" by giving decision-makers "the confidence to include, talk about and portray disability", ensuring inclusive and accessible hiring practices, and identifying opportunities for disabled talent.

James Bond actress Harris, who is among the letter's signatories, said: "If you show the injustice of the system and say, 'Look, here's a way forward', it makes it more difficult for people to ignore."

In an accompanying document titled Hollywood Horror Stories, disabled talent have anonymously detailed the discrimination they have faced.

'Old and oppressive systems'

It includes stories of being asked questions like "what happened to you?", "can you have sex" and "can you really not see?", and instances where they say basic needs were not met even though castings specifically asked for disabled actors.

One actor said: "I was asked to audition where the audition room was up a flight of stairs with no elevator, the role specifically asked for someone who was disabled to play the role."

Samantha Mannis, the author of Friend's Guide To Adulting, was working as a writer for a renowned Hollywood studio when she was fired two weeks after a disability-related hospital stay.

"I had done my job, and spent thousands of dollars of my own money on Uber rides, and designer clothes so that I could fit in," she said. "After fighting to get discharged from hospital so I could make it to my call time, they told me, 'This just isn't a good fit.'"

The letter's authors say access and representation behind the scenes is just as bad if not worse, with hiring websites often not accessible.

Cat-Wells, who runs management company C Talent, which represents disabled talent, said: "Hollywood has many horror stories, the ones least told are those of the disabled community fighting to get seen, heard, and treated as equals.

"Hollywood needs to remove old and oppressive systems; This is not just about disabled actors, it's about all jobs in the industry, there should be people with disabilities in every role from entry level to head office, the CEO and beyond."