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Actors and Producers Talk Strategies for ‘Authentic’ Representations of the Disabled at TV Academy Foundation Event: ‘Inclusion Is a Choice’

When discussing the industry-wide changes needed for television to more authentically capture the lived experiences of disabled people, actor Eileen Grubba passionately implored the industry to end what she described as the tokenization of the community.

“The industry has got to stop saying, ‘OK, let me go find some kid that’s cute that’s in a wheelchair and give them a series.’ That is soul-crushing to the people who’ve been fighting for decades to make a living,” said the “New Amsterdam” actor, who has faced disabilities since the age of 5.

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Grubba shared her sentiments on a warm and sunny Thursday morning as industry trailblazers gathered at the Saban Media Center at the Television Academy Foundation in North Hollywood to discuss ways to ensure authentic disability inclusion in television in a “The Power of TV” panel hosted by the Academy Foundation.

Karen Horne, an event diversity, equity and inclusion expert, moderated the free, open-to-the-public event, whose panelists included actor and neurodiverse director Sue Ann Pien (“As We See It”), writer and producer David Renaud (“The Good Doctor”), actress, writer and producer Grubba (“New Amsterdam”), Lauren Appelbaum, senior VP, entertainment and news media, RespectAbility and Tari Squire, CEO, EIN SOF Communications, Inc. — all of whom “are driving disability inclusion, both on and offscreen, within the television industry.”

Panelists discussed the importance of disability representation and inclusion in the entertainment industry. They emphasized the need for authentic representation, valuing the lived experiences of people with disabilities and creating opportunities for actors with disabilities to gain experience and become competitive.

Speakers shared their experiences navigating the industry as disabled individuals, highlighting the challenges faced and the need for industry-wide efforts to break down barriers and create more inclusive opportunities.

“You go around the world, and you see all these children fighting for their lives. And everyone telling them to endure surgeries and chemos and all these things to survive whatever it is that they were allotted in this life. And when they do, then we make fun of them and beat them up and keep them out of work and play for the rest of their lives because we are afraid of their battle scars,” Grubba shared when talking about the lack of casting of disabled people.

“Well, I am one of the people who believes we need to honor those battle scars because those are your strongest people. How is this society supposed to function if we don’t?”

Jumping off this point, Pien shared how difficult it was for her to come to terms with her autism diagnosis, rooted in the fact that in the Asian community, “there is no such thing as a disability, there are no autistic people.”

For years, Pien grappled with whether or not to get an official diagnosis out of fears that the record would tarnish and taint her ability to find work in the industry. For her, acting was a “matter of survival,” as she needed to “act” that she was not on the autism spectrum to be able to access “certain spaces in her life” that would have otherwise been inaccessible to her as a performer.

When reflecting on how harmful this can be for future actors and how vital it is for actors with disabilities to be allowed to audition as their “true” and “authentic” selves, Pien said, “You have to give people a chance to audition and fail. If you don’t give people in wheelchairs, autistic actors or people with disabilities even the opportunity to know what that’s like, they’re never going to become competitive.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, an attendee asked for ways to combat the “gatekeeping” of disabled people in the industry, sharing anecdotes about how she and her friends have struggled to find employment opportunities in the industry and that she’d been labeled a “liability.”

Though the panelists implored her to keep working on her craft, to perfect her skills so that she can be hired despite her disability rather than in spite of it, the conversation came to an emotional crescendo when Grubba expressed to a now tear-jerked crowd that the industry “looks down on them [disabled creatives].”

“This is a very different answer, and our industry needs to hear it. I’m sorry if it’s uncomfortable to hear, but the reality is that they look down on us. And no matter how many opportunities we create, they slam the door because they’re so busy finding some token kid somewhere to put up and say, ‘We did this!’ instead of actually opening the door to the people who have been fighting and fighting and fighting for opportunity for all of us.”

She added: “Why am I never ever allowed to read for a series regular? Why are the gatekeepers of the agencies never allowing people with real disabilities in their doors? Why do we only have one agency really that represents people with disabilities? We need to call out this industry on the BS and get them to start opening the doors and stop looking at us like we are unskilled amateurs because there are a lot of professional people with disabilities in this industry who deserve opportunity.”

“The Good Doctor,” a critically acclaimed series that follows a medical doctor (played by Freddie Highmore) on the autism spectrum, was propped as an example of shows that are working to provide authentic representations of people with disabilities.

Renaud talked about how working on the show has allowed him to see firsthand its positive impact. Young people on the spectrum whom the show has inspired have told him that they’ve actively decided to pursue careers in medicine because the show has “shown them that it’s possible.”

Though the speakers noted the panel itself as an example of the progress already being made in the industry, the benefits reaped by actually talking about disability representation, much more work remains.

Squire underscored the need for studios and networks to do the work to hire accessibility coordinators and directors of artistic sign language and implant wheelchair accessibilities to produce a more accessible work environment for all creatives.

“There are just a lot of folks out there advocating, and that’s the most important thing — that creates a groundswell of support,” Squire said. “The bottom line is that diversity is a business imperative, but inclusion is a choice.”

(Pictured top: David Renaud, Sue Ann Pien, and Tari Squire)

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