Disability Representation in Media Panel

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Note: the terms ‘people with disabilities’ and ‘disabled people’ have been used interchangeably due to the panel participants’ not having a preference for either being used. Start the Wave acknowledges the individual’s preferences during this conversation, but also acknowledges the STW community members’ own relationship with the phrases. Start the Wave is an organisation that always strives for growth and learning. If you have any information or resources about the language around referring to people and disabilities and conditions, please email us at ‘insert email address’ and we will be grateful to receive them. Please note that no offence is intentional, so please open a dialogue with us if you have any thoughts about the terms used.

The idea of Start the Wave holding the Physical Disabilities in Media panel came about when STW community member, Alexane, contacted us. They are an aspiring actor but has found challenges and faced barriers in achieving this ambition because of their physical disability. We were joined by Christin Baker, Writer, Director and Producer, from Tello Films.com, and Linda Luarasi, Festival Manager at the Reelabilities Film Festival Toronto. The panel was moderated by STW’s own Jordan.
The panel was a wonderful conversation that covered a variety of topics including the struggles disabled actors faced, issues that producers and directors think about before hiring disabled actors, and how the film and television industry can improve on making sure disabled actors (and others involved in the industry) are given more opportunities. From thinking about, and acting on, adjustments on set and keeping everyone comfortable, to making the industry more accessible.
Alexane told us they wanted to be an actor for a long time “but because of my disability it was a little bit difficult!”

Christin told us of a very recent experience of making sure an aspect of the disabled community has been included in her films. In the script of her LGBT holiday romcom ‘Season of Love’ there was a character who was deaf, played by Sandra Mae Frank. Instead of following from other television shows and films that have hired non-disabled actors to play the role, Christin made sure that her actress was deaf – an actress that could better provide authenticity in the role. Including the deaf community in her project was a powerful move, because of this inclusion and making a point about hiring those who know best because of their true lived experience.

 

Hiring extra people, like interpreters and consultants, can put disabled actors at ease and feel more comfortable, because it immediately shows that the production is not using their disability simply as a niche plot point. It demonstrates that they have thought about the individual and what they need to do their work to their best ability. This allows them to show their talent and their “whole person”, as Jordan comments, and ensures they can continue to thrive in the industry.

 

Inclusivity is an important message for Linda as well: “Checking in is really crucial.” She makes sure to be inclusive by opening a dialogue with the people she’s with, and not just at work. “Whether it’s an interpersonal relationship or a personal relationship, and a professional relationship as well. Just getting a sense of where someone is, where their capacity is, and being more understanding of each other.”

This is something we do at Start the Wave, and we encourage this philosophy to be shared with STW community members. Another way of being inclusive at a very easy and effortless level, Linda said was, “Just being kind to each other, giving space to each other and being patient is a practice of access.”

Checking in with how people feel, their comfort and safety levels as well as their practicalities of functioning and doing their best, and leading and behaving with kindness are two very important pieces to take away in all aspects but demonstrating this on a film or television set is incredibly important due to the stress, chaos and potentially tight time-frame the industry comes with.
Alexane told us: “I did a show on stage in a drama class, and the teacher just asked if I was able to climb [on to] a table.” Just by being asked if they were able to do it, the same way they would ask anyone else, was hugely important to Alexane. Having an open dialogue and being asked, taking time, and checking in, showing not only inclusion but respect. They didn’t assume what they could and couldn’t do and asked what they were comfortable with, which meant they respected Alexane, which demonstrates a good practice for everyone.

Representation of all kinds is important.

 

Storytellers are showing audiences that humans are different and wonderful, and Linda told us that the importance of physical disabilities representation is important to her because, “There is a need to recognise that having a disability is part of the human experience.” Just like Alexane said that queer people fall in love and have fulfilling lives, disabled people also want and need this aspect of their lives portrayed on screen as well.

A sentiment that all of the panellists want to see from the media in the future: telling stories with disabled characters but not focusing solely on their disability and making their storyline all about them being disabled. It’s of course not just about seeing one physically disabled person and seeing one story. Linda urges people to, “Create the kind of media that demystifies that experience [of having a disability or being disabled],” because of course there is not just one narrative. She continued to say that it’s really important to see all of their stories and not only through “a lens of tragedy” which is unfortunately a common trope. Jordan raised the question of characters being defaulted as not having disability, and why is that the case. Similarly, characters have been defaulted as being white, cis-gender and straight. Thankfully this is being challenged in the film and television world, seeing more BIPOC actors on screen, but of course more representation of this kind is needed. And while we’re thrilled there are more LGBTQ2IA characters surviving to the end of a television series for example, disabled folks are still few and far between, especially in protagonist roles.
Once upon a time, having a female lead was a ‘risky’ and ‘controversial’ thing to do, but now there are so many role models that have been created because girls and women are being seen in a variety of roles: badass and multifaceted demon hunters, animal lovers, high-flying businesswomen, superheroes, piolets and captains, FBI and high-ranking police officers, scientists, leaders of countries, even Time Lords! These leads show that girls grow up to be whatever they want to be and deserve to be successful in professional and personal lives. More needs to be done to show the same for disabled people.

Jordan asked what the experience is like when working with disabled actors, and how it differs from working with actors without disabilities? 


“It’s a very sticky belief that people are uncomfortable with challenging,” Linda immediately said but explained that the best way to overcome it is by communicating. 

By asking the person directly what they need, just like asking how they are in terms of their emotions, is very important because it gives them control and allows them to get exactly what they need. The worst thing someone could do in any situation is to assume something on someone else’s behalf: ask them, talk to them and give them authority and autonomy. “Everyone has access needs; everyone could benefit from an environment that takes into account what works for you.” Which is a sentiment that goes for all areas of work as well as life, and Linda continued to say that “there’s a lot of room to figure out what works” which demonstrates respect and kindness. 

Alexane is a budding actor and is disabled. In relation to talking about what it is (or could be) like to work with them, they said “I think the hardest difficulty we have to face is the unknown,” which is such a grounding statement. 


When talking about supporting disabled folx, Alexane made a very important statement: “Never assume the disabled person can or won’t do something.” 

This is something that we can all take into our daily lives. If you think there is a barrier, talk to the person about it but don’t assume they won’t be able to overcome that barrier on their own. But also, if they need help, offer it and do everything you can to break it down and help. Be kind, be respectful and be helpful.

Christin’s advice was simple but powerful too: “Think about adding [disabled people] into your stories […] there’s a bigger world out there that we need to think about to be inclusive.” Stories are showing more BIPOC and LGBTQ2IA people and telling their stories, and disabled people need their stories told as well. Characters are disabled too, just as much as they are queer and BIPOC. 

As always, we love to know what folx are up to so we can support and celebrate them! Kristen is working on her next holiday romcom “Married and Gay” and a thriller “Scare BnB”. At the time of recording the panel, Linda told us about launching the seventh edition of Reelabilities! Alexane had the greatest pleasure of being accepted into an acting programme! This was an incredible panel. The guests were wonderful talk to and gave such an interesting insight into the film and television industry for disabled folx. Thank you so much Alexane for coming to Start the Wave and suggesting this as a topic.
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