Variety’s Inaugural Inclusion Gathering Addresses Disability Representation in Hollywood: ‘I Am Starting to See More Doors Opened’

“Diversity” is undoubtedly a buzzword in Hollywood, but the inclusion of people with disabilities behind and in front of the camera remains an overlooked topic in the industry.

At Variety‘s inaugural Inclusion Gathering, presented by the Ruderman Family Foundation at West Hollywood’s London Hotel on Nov. 2, industry creatives and executives gathered for breakfast and a series of conversations centered around the topic of disabilities and inclusion in Hollywood.

The first conversation, “Disabilities in Storytelling,” was moderated by Tim Gray, executive vice president, Golden Globes, and featured Ashley Eakin, director of Disney’s “Growing Up” and Apple TV+’s  “Best Foot Forward”; Angela Kang, showrunner and executive producer of “The Walking Dead”; David Renaud, co-executive producer of “The Good Doctor”; Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, executive producer, creator and showrunner of “The Witcher”; and Kaitlynn Yang, CEO, visual effects supervisor on “American Born Chinese.”

The guests delved into a myriad of topics, including the power of television and film to impact our perceptions of people in everyday life.

Renaud said, “TV and movies obviously influence what we think is normal. So if we see people with disabilities relegated to certain roles, then we think, ‘Oh, that’s what they do.’ Especially if we don’t have context in our own lives. And that’s why to me, it’s very important that we change the way we represent disability.”

The guests also spoke of the importance of accommodating creatives with disabilities and intentionally planning for their needs the same way other members of the industry would be treated.

Kang said, “Sometimes it comes with added costs. It costs a little more to have two interpreters working on the set, when your deaf actors are on set; that’s okay, though, you can find the money. You just have to get them to understand if we shift some money here, or just allocate a little more here…it’s no different than all the millions of things going on for a production day to day.”

Next up, Variety’s senior awards editor Clayton Davis moderated the keynote conversation with Troy Kotsur, the Academy Award winning star of “CODA” (2022). Kotsur became the second deaf person to win an Academy Award for his role as Frank Rossi, the deaf father of a hearing daughter, in Sian Heder’s Best Picture winner.

Davis asked if Kotsur felt that Hollywood was still open to casting deaf people, or if the success of “CODA” was a fleeting moment in an industry that isn’t always consistently dedicated to inclusivity.

Kotsur expressed optimism: “I am starting to see that momentum and that cultural shift slowly begin to open up and more opportunities being given to deaf actors…I am seeing more doors being opened.”

Kotsur also spoke to the diverse array of roles deaf actors can take on, and emphasized that writers need to be aware of that fact.

“Writers need to do their research,” he said. “There are plenty of deaf actors out there. Deaf people can play doctors, they can play lawyers, they can play firemen. The forest service has deaf people working there. All of these careers actually have deaf people already performing in those careers, so think of the deaf actors when you’re in the writers room.”

Furthermore, Kotsur outlined the measures that should be taken on set when working with deaf actors: “It’s important to have a team of deaf consultants who are familiar with the language and the culture as well. On my projects, I always have an ASL team.”

For example, he explained, English scripts need to be translated to ASL; furniture needs to be set up in specific arrangement for deaf actors to be able to easily make eye contact.

“Those nuances actually make the camera work easier and makes it more authentic to deaf culture as well. So then we can all seamlessly work together and make it believable,” Kotsur shared.

Since his historic Oscar win, Kotsur has fielded various scripts and directed a short film of his own, “To My Father,” which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. What began as a conversation for the Dad Saves America YouTube channel transformed into a documentary short about his relationship with his father. His hearing father learned sign language to communicate with Kotsur, then later became paralyzed in a drunk driving accident; Kotsur and his father developed a new, unique way form of sign language with one another that was all their own.

“My dad didn’t see me as deaf. He saw me as capable…His disability didn’t let it stop him. And I wouldn’t let my deafness stop me either. So he really inspired me,” Kotsur shared.

Lastly, Davis moderated the actors and creators roundtable featuring actors Jamie Brewer of “American Horror Story”; Kayla Cromer of “Everything’s Going To Be OK”; Mark Povinelli of “Nightmare Alley”; Lauren “Lolo” Spencer of “The Sex Lives of College Girls” and “Give Me Liberty”; and CJ Jones, producer, writer, actor and creator who has been featured in “Avatar: The Way of Water” and “Baby Driver.”

Spencer brought up the scarcity of accessible trailers for actors who use wheelchairs, citing that there seems to be only one accessible trailer that rotates around Hollywood sets. However, on one show she worked on, the crew made the effort to build a trailer suited to her needs.

Spencer expressed how important this moment was for her.

“What really stood out about that was the the desire to get it right, the desire to make it happen. The fact that they actually did it…We tested it, what worked, what didn’t work. And then the fact that they did all that for one day for me to shoot,” she said.

Jones shared a story about the casting process behind Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” — and how Wright defended his decision to cast Jones.

He recalled Wright telling those who questioned his choice, “’He’s authentic. I was looking for that specific, deaf, authentic actor who can act and I put him in that role. And it’s going to be believable that he’s actually deaf.’”

There was also an emphasis throughout the event on the importance of acknowledging people with disabilities as rounded, multifaceted individuals who are not reductively defined by their disability.

Povinelli said of his acting roles, “I think that every character I portray now is a little person. That doesn’t mean that it’s the defining part of my characteristics.”

While several success stories were celebrated, the guests underscored that there is still a great deal of progress to be made when it comes to greenlighting projects showcasing people with disabilities and increasing representation of disabled people in every realm of the industry.

In Jones’s concluding statement, he said, “I’m extending an invitation to all of you to try and figure out how we can make a bigger impact in providing jobs and accessibility and collaborating with everybody in the industry.”

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