May I first state that I am not a member of SAG-AFTRA or any other union. My perspective comes from producing and promoting performers-with-disabilities (PWDs) in the media. I want to explore if and how this long-touted show business merger impacts disabled actors with employment opportunities.
Where Are We On TV
A recent study "Where Are We On TV" conducted by GLADD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and I AM PWD (Inclusion in Arts and Media for Performers-With-Disabilities) found that less then 1 per cent or 5 series regulars are depicted as living with disabilities. That is actually 1 less actor from the previous year. There is a serious disconnect between the five onscreen performers and the U.S. Census Bureau's finding or 12.5 per cent of the population or 36.4 million citizens with disabilities in this country.
I AM PWD Campaign
The I AM PWD Campaign is a tri-union committee of SAG-AFTRA and Actor's Equity members whose mission is to create, promote, and advocate for more inclusive employment opportunities for performers-with-disabilities. They certainly have their work cut out for them. With such low representation on screen now any effort to improve this is most welcomed.
New SAG-AFTRA Factors
Two new factors of the SAG-AFTRA merger will certainly help improve these employment opportunities for all actors.
The first factor is although the membership dues may increase somewhat, it will take less time to become a vested union member. This means quicker access to health coverage as well as other union resources and benefits. These are all positive additions for performers-with-disabilities especially those who may need to utilize healthcare services more frequently.
The second factor is a true union commitment to include more roles being made available to actors with disabilities. There is no reason why a role such as a teacher, attorney, neighbor, or family member can not go to someone with a visible disability. After all we do exist in these real life roles already. This commitment resulted from all three unions recognizing the disparity in just five disabled portrayals against the country's total 36.4 million disabled population. The I AM PWD Campaign is the launching pad these unions created for more on screen inclusion. Ultimately increase understanding and awareness of the disabled community. This is working for other groups in the study and it will work for our disability group.
A History of Improving On-Screen Representation
In 2005 SAG's initial study, "The Employment of Performers with Disabilities in the Entertainment Industry" showed that 20 per cent of all Americans or 54 million people have disabilities. Yet there were only a scant 2 per cent of TV Show characters displaying a disability. Of these 2 per cent only 0.5 are speaking roles. This is certainly a low representation rate by anyone's statistics.
In the seven years following the 2005 SAG Study the acting opportunities for disabled performers remains stagnant at best. This is fertile ground for our inclusion efforts which must mirror the broader understanding and awareness of persons with disabilities in the community.
Going In the Right Direction
SAG (now SAG-AFTRA) is to be commended for their focus on hiring PWDs since the 1980's. These efforts as well as their own member's advocacy in bringing national attention to this low on-screen representation rate in Hollywood serve as a solid foundation for growing inclusion opportunities for PWDs.
A Brighter Future
I most certainly see an increasing presence of PWDs on entertainment venues today. It is up to all of us to continue promoting ourselves, out colleagues, and our supporters to build a very aware and thoroughly entertained national audience.
Vince Staskel, M.S., is a retired Legal Rights Advocate and Consultant. His thirty-two year career has included working on IDEA, ADA, SSA Claimant Legal Representation, and Media Arts Inclusion in the not-for-profit, business, and governmental sectors. He is presently very active in the promotion of performers-with-disabilities in the entertainment industry. Vince can be reached at email@example.com
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