Disability Media: The Coming Sea Change

As you’ve no doubt heard, the TV business in America is going crraaa … zzzy. There are now more scripted TV shows airing in one season — 500 and counting — than at any time in the history of mankind. That’s double the amount just six years ago and 10 times the amount when Archie Bunker and the Fonz ruled the earth. You can’t watch all the great new shows, let alone just the good ones, even if you are an insanely dedicated binge-aholic.

Have we reached the pinnacle of this great TV programming glut? Hardly. The first Netflix streaming series, House of Cards, aired Feb. 1, 2013. Five years later, Netflix will spend six billion dollars on new content, adding to the 126 or so original series it ran in 2017. The streaming revolution, already at full-bore with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, is about to accelerate to infinity and beyond with new, deep-pocketed entries like Facebook, Apple, YouTube and probably your brother, Larry. Cable pioneer HBO is spending $3 billion a year on new shows, joined by AMC, FX, Freeform, Showtime, British imports, Swedish imports … the glut will only get gluttier.

Why should you care about this media muddle? Because — I boldly predict — this is a major game changer for the up-to-now pathetic representation of people with disabilities on TV. Shows that are categorically unique or off-beat now stand as good a chance to be seen on your TV, computer or iPhone as original gangster cop shows or white family sitcoms. Unique, in the world of standard TV tropes, includes stories about disability.

opens in a new window Santina Muha landed a recurring role on a Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time.
Santina Muha landed a recurring role on a Netflix reboot of One Day at a Time.

Here are a few examples of this coming groundswell. Start with just adding disabled characters. On Jan. 31, YouTube Red, an original programming channel you’ve likely never heard of, uploaded a new series called Step Up: High Water. It’s about a performing arts school in Atlanta — not the newest idea on the planet. What is new is that one of the main characters, a dancing phenom, is a double amputee, played by double amputee, Eric Graise. This isn’t Artie from Glee. This is a dancer.

Another example: the hit Netflix reboot of the ’70s sitcom, One Day At A Time, not only shifted the cast from white to Latino, but also added a recurring wheelchair-using character played by actor Santina Muha, who has an SCI. Muha, also the recent host/performer of the United Spinal fundraiser, “Don’t Just Stand There,” has personally felt the impact of TV’s increased appetite for casting performers with disabilities.

“This is finally an exciting time for actors with disabilities!” she says. “I’ve been pursuing this field for most of my life, and it’s been a frustrating ride. But in the past few years, I’ve been called in for more roles specifically written for a character who uses a wheelchair. And I’ve also been given more opportunities to audition for roles where it doesn’t matter either way.”

“‘Please submit actors of all abilities’ has become one of my favorite sentences, second only to ‘You’ve got the part!’”

Gloria Caldron Kellett, the executive producer of One Day At A Time, echoes Muha’s optimism. “Absolutely, I think there will be more [hiring of disabled actors]. People are starved for real representation. I am committed to continuing to tell stories about people with disabilities.”

An even bigger shift is toward whole shows focused on disability. A few weeks back, Sundance Now, another streaming service that just came online, premiered This Close, the first series in history to have been written, produced, and created by deaf people, Shosannah Stern and Josh Feldman, who also star as deaf best friends in a hearing world. The great Marlee Matlin is in it, too. Even much of the crew is deaf.

Other, on-the-cusp examples come from Nic Novicki, a little person actor/advocate who, in 2014, created the annual Easterseals Disability Film Challenge to encourage and showcase short films made by and/or about people with disabilities. The format of this competition is unique: Entrants are given a long weekend to write, film and edit a movie between three and five minutes long. Anyone from working pros to first-timers can enter. Winning films tend to get enormous exposure.

In 2015, the Best Filmmaker award went to deaf actor/director Dickie Hearts. Building off that success, Hearts went on to win a top prize awarded by the Project Greenlight Digital Studio for his sitcom idea about a deaf barista who gains superhero powers from a radioactive cup of coffee. Another Disability Film Challenge winner, David Harrell, an amputee, took a second top prize with the same project at the Australian Focus On Ability Film Festival. The resulting web series, Lefty and Loosey, is now in production.

Disability film events like this are popping up all over — scriptwriting competitions, filmmaking workshops, and full-fledged, Sundance-like festivals. The ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York, now in its 10th year, is one of the trailblazers. For a week, in 30 venues around New York City, the public can see features, documentaries and live performances, all about disabilities. There are 13 other ReelAbilities festivals around North America, with a Los Angeles version currently on the drawing board.

These forums are incubators — a nascent farm system — for a new generation of disabled film and video makers who have some distinct advantages. As Novicki points out, “Anyone can now do it. Go down to Best Buy, pick up an inexpensive digital DSLR camera, shoot something, edit it on your computer, and enter a festival or put it on YouTube. You can live in Illinois or Alabama, and it doesn’t matter. YouTube doesn’t care where you live.”

And it doesn’t care if you have a disability. Two other factors make this a propitious time for breaking in. The first is fragmented viewing patterns among young people, especially online, which means you can start small — very small — and grow. Another Film Challenge winner, Whitney’s Weekend, starring Jamie Brewer of American Horror Story fame and made by double-amp actor/director John Lawson, has been seen by more than 100,000 people online. Maybe one of those people is from YouTube Red or Amazon, and that will lead to a meeting.

The second factor is acceptance. People under 40, especially those looking for edgy entertainment, are much more open to seeing people with disabilities as part of any story. In the post-ADA era, it’s no big deal. They have seen Larry David get into shouting matches with chair users over disabled bathroom stalls and have viewed and loved multiple videos by web stars like Zach Anner, a comedian with CP first spotted by Oprah Winfrey and now a writer on the network series, Speechless.

Television is a tough, tough business. You don’t get a trophy for just showing up. But for the first 50 years of its existence, TV was akin to a monastic order, rigidly controlled by network and studio clerics. Now it’s much more like the very earliest days of Hollywood — if you have a good idea, a little talent, a cool camera, endless perseverance and a boatload of chutzpah, you can take a shot. And if you have a disability, I just named a half-dozen venues where you can get your wheels wet.

Or, along with the rest of America, you can just sit back and watch a whole new world of disability TV materialize on your video device of choice. Like TV itself, it’ll soon be too much to keep up with.

• Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, opens in a new windowdisabilityfilmchallenge.com
• ReelAbilities Film Festivals, opens in a new windowreelabilities.org
• Focus on Ability Film Festival, opens in a new windowwww.focusonability.com.au

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