Jewish group asks why Hollywood loves characters with disabilities on screen, but not on set


This story is sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

When the indie film “Blind” hit theaters in July, it wasn’t just its star, Alec Baldwin, who made headlines for his portrayal of a novelist blinded in a car crash.

A Boston-based Jewish family philanthropy made the news, too — for criticizing the choice of casting Baldwin for the role.

The problem? Baldwin isn’t blind.

“Alec Baldwin in ‘Blind’ is just the latest example of treating disability as a costume,” Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, said when the film was released. “We no longer find it acceptable for white actors to portray black characters. Disability as a costume needs to also become universally unacceptable.”

The statement was picked up everywhere from Variety and Rolling Stone to the Guardian. (The film’s director, Michael Mailer, later called Ruderman’s criticism unfair.)

For Ruderman, whose foundation promotes inclusion of people with disabilities (and also works on Israeli and American Jewish issues), the criticism is part of a broader push to have Hollywood change its act on casting and hiring those with disabilities.

The campaign, which began in July 2016 with the release of a report about Hollywood’s poor record on inclusion, more recently included a challenge to TV networks ahead of pilot season to include more actors with disabilities.

Now a growing cohort of Hollywood A-listers is lending its support to the cause, including Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is Jewish and deaf; producer and writer Scott Silveri of “Friends” and “Speechless” fame; and producer Wendy Calhoun of “Empire” and “Justified.”

In early September, Ruderman Family Foundation officials spent three days in Los Angeles meeting with top Hollywood executives and casting agents to press the issue.

“The real discussion of inclusion in Hollywood is finally beginning to take shape now that studios are opening their doors to the discussion,” said actor and disability activist Danny Woodburn, a little person whose most famous role was as Kramer’s friend Mickey Abbott on “Seinfeld.” “People with disabilities have often been overlooked by my industry, and so it is important to me to affect change in this direction.”

Woodburn will be one of the speakers at the Ruderman Inclusion Summit to be held Nov. 19-20 in Boston. The conference, which is expected to draw about 1,000 professionals, corporate leaders and advocates to discuss disabilities inclusion in all segments of society, will include a panel discussion with actors and Hollywood executives about inclusion.

Among the speakers will be Matlin, who became famous for her Oscar-winning debut in the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God” and later for her recurring role on NBC’s “The West Wing.” The first and only deaf actress to win the Oscar for best actress, Matlin is an outspoken disability advocate who was instrumental in getting legislation passed in Congress in support of TV closed captioning.

But Matlin’s success is the exception to the rule.

While Hollywood is concerned about authenticity and racial diversity, disability is not on its radar, according to the findings of the July 2016 Ruderman White Paper on Employment of Actors with Disabilities in TV. That report found that 95 percent of top TV show characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled performers. Over the past three decades, about one-third of all the Oscars for best actor have gone to able-bodied performers playing a character with a disability.

They include Daniel Day-Lewis for his 1989 performance as an artist with cerebral palsy in “My Left Foot”; Tom Hanks as the “slow witted” Forrest Gump; Al Pacino as a blind man in “Scent of a Woman”; Jamie Foxx as the blind Ray Charles in “Ray”; and Eddie Redmayne as physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”

Despite those successes, roles featuring characters with disabilities are few and far between. While about 20 percent of Americans have disabilities, only 2.4 percent of speaking characters in movies and 1.7 percent of TV characters have a disability, according to the 2016 report. The percentage of actual actors with disabilities is even lower.

Marlee Matlin, an Oscar-winning actress who is deaf and Jewish, receiving the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Tel Aviv from Jay Ruderman, June 19, 2017. (Erez Uzir)

Then there’s the problem of films portraying disabilities as a liability, such as “Me Before You” in 2016. Based on the novel by Jojo Moyes, the movie is about a successful banker who becomes paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and commits suicide rather than live with his disability.

Calhoun, a writer and executive producer whose credits include the Fox hit series “Empire” and FX’s “Justified,” says that developing unique stories about characters with disabilities is an opportunity to create groundbreaking entertainment for a large, underserved audience.

People with disabilities should be included “from the writer’s room to the production crew to onscreen talent,” Calhoun said. “I believe content grows much richer with authenticity.”

To encourage Hollywood to prioritize inclusion, the Ruderman Family Foundation issued a formal challenge in February to the creators of 151 television pilots on 39 broadcast, cable and internet delivery platforms to audition and cast more performers with disabilities for the 2017-18 pilot season.

The results of the Ruderman TV Challenge were released in September, with CBS and Fox the leaders in hiring and auditioning actors with disabilities. CBS has 11 series and pilots employing performers with disabilities. At Fox, 61 percent of the network’s dramas (14 of 23) and 69 percent of its comedies (nine of 13) auditioned performers with disabilities for the past and current TV seasons.

“Fox came out and said, ‘Not only are we going to audition people with disabilities for our pilots, but we will audition for all our active shows,’” Ruderman said. “That shows that the message is getting through and they’re taking it seriously.”

The ABC series “Speechless” includes a lead character played by a wheelchair-using actor with cerebral palsy. Ruderman credits Silveri, the show’s creator, who recently become an outspoken advocate for inclusion in TV.

Meanwhile, this summer’s box office hit “Baby Driver” included a deaf actor, CJ Jones, in a major role. Jones is the first black deaf actor to be cast in a major movie.

But there’s far more room for improvement.

When “Stronger,” the new film starring Jake Gyllenhaal as double amputee Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, opened Sept. 22, Ruderman again expressed dismay with the casting choice.

“I have nothing against Alec Baldwin or Jake Gyllenhaal, who are both great actors,” Ruderman said in an interview. “Our position is not that every role of disability has to be played by an actor of disability, but that at least film and TV people should audition people with disabilities.”

In the long run, Ruderman is optimistic.

“Like any civil rights movement, people like change but they don’t like to be challenged,” he said. “I truly believe that within a decade you will have major stars who have disabilities. Hollywood is being challenged and they are responding to it.”

(This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, which, guided by Jewish values, advocates for and advances the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout our society. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.)

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