A Report from the Field: I AM PWD Convening
Christine Bruno (2011 I AM PWD Co-Chair), Kathleen Martinez (Assistant Secretary of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy), Anita Hollander, and Nick Wyman (National President, Actor Equity Association). Photo by Stephanie Masucci
Anita Hollander here, East Coast National Chair of AFTRA & SAG Performers with Disabilities, reporting from New York CIty, Jan. 11, 2012, where the I AM PWD Campaign, a tri-union partnership to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the media, marked the end of its three-year campaign with a bi-coastal industry summit held in New York and Los Angeles simultaneously via the seamless technology of videoconference. I was proud to be one of the planners of this wonderfully successful event.
Disability IS Diversity: Reflecting the True American Scene, an event that included casting directors, filmmakers, and studio and union representatives at Baruch College in New York and at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, focused on ways to increase the visibility of both actors and characters with disabilities in popular entertainment, as well as the employment of broadcasters and journalists with disabilities.
I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People With Disabilities) was formed by the Performers With Disabilities Tri-Union Committee of Actors' Equity, AFTRA, and SAG in response to the lack of representation on television and film of people with disabilities.
Robert David Hall, who plays Dr. Albert Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Danny Woodburn, best known for playing Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld, hosted the event. Speakers at the event included 2011 campaign chairs Christine Bruno and Diana Elizabeth Jordan, and the national presidents of all three actors unions---Roberta Reardon (AFTRA), Nick Wyman (AEA), and Ken Howard (SAG). Keynote addresses were given by Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte in LA and in NY by Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary of labor at the U.S Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). They all said some great stuff.
Martinez noted, “When I became the assistant secretary at ODEP, one of the most important things to me was to elevate the discussion about the people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera...and that's what I AM PWD has done.”
AFTRA President Reardon remarked, “Our tri-union I AM PWD disability rights campaign has become an international civil and human rights force for change. From Brussels to Cape Town, from Australia to the United States, people with disabilities worldwide share the same desire to work without bias, to earn a decent wage, to be contributing members of society, and to achieve their dreams."
As the 2010 AFTRA chair of the campaign, I mentioned in my Watchdog Report of media activity, "Despite the progress we've made, our presence still does not reflect our 54 million Americans with disabilities. By representing them better, we are tapping into a powerful resource of new, fresh stories, as well as a vast source of purchasing power to better fund our industry."
I also sang a parody of "Modern Major General" from Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates Of Penzance. Here’s a sample: "On network shows and cable shows we all have proven we can act/And then there’s that Reality TV where we did more than that/Just follow on the scorecard in your packet if you get perplexed/This is the very model of a modern major watchdog check.”
Speeches were followed by a lively and productive 90-minute session of round table discussions, guided by facilitators Lawrence Carter-Long in NY and Dr. Olivia Raynor in LA, plus excellent PWD (persons with disabilities) discussion leaders at each table, including my marvelous colleagues in New York, working actors with disabilities: Alexandria Wailes, Ali Stroker, Guthrie Nutter, Christopher Roberts, Steve Gladstone, Teale Sperling, Mary Theresa Archbold, Shannon Devido, and chairs Christine Bruno, and me.
Working groups included representatives from ABC, NBC, CBS, Warner Brothers, The Public Theatre, the ReelAbilities Film Festival, and many others. We asked three questions of each work group:
Have you ever worked with an artist with a disability? If so, tell us about it. If not, what may have stood in your way?
How did working with an artist with a disability (or not working with one) affect your work?
What would you be willing to do to improve the presence of performers and broadcasters in media and entertainment?
A lot came out of the responses to these questions. We had a Broadway leader at one table who has been trying to figure out how to get producers and directors to audition and hire more people with disabilities on Broadway. She had her own questions about what we have tried and what has worked in venues other than Broadway. All of the participants---including a network TV casting director, a theater producer, and a representative from Special Olympics---were fascinated by the ideas and experiences of the others, and we could see light bulbs going off every few minutes. At other tables, the conversation just kept going on and on, and I heard PWDs and network people who'd just met bidding each other farewell saying, "I'll talk to you next week." Knowing those PWDs, I am absolutely sure those phone calls will happen. Informal meetings were set up, cards were exchanged, and it seemed that our little pebble in a pond was rippling out well.
As Dr. Raynor, who directs the National Arts and Disabilities Center at UCLA, remarked, “The I AM PWD campaign leaves us with a roadmap for progress. It calls on writers to utilize characters with disabilities to add interesting dimensions to storylines, as well as creating more opportunities for actors with disabilities to audition and be cast. This is what the campaign was all about. And now is the time to make it happen.”
Now that the event is over and the three-year campaign is officially finished, we are involved in following up with our guests and some of the promises they made to take certain steps, sending out our Watchdog Scorecard and other reference materials that were at the event, and keeping our website running, including a video version of my Watchdog Report (premiering the first week of February on the website). The unions are beefing up the PWD element of their diversity committees, and there is an overall sense that performers with disabilities are more on the minds of people in all the various areas of our industry. We know there's still so much more work to do, but if the two upcoming film festivals I'm speaking at are any indication, disability is not on the back burner of people's minds anymore. And as Kathleen Martinez said, that's what this campaign has accomplished!