“I’m sorry,” television writer-producer David Shore – the creator and executive producer of the acclaimed series “House” – told the audience at the Media Access Awards last week in Beverly Hills. “He [House, the character played by Hugh Laurie ] was originally supposed to be in a wheelchair. But I lost that fight [with the network]. It was a compromise giving him a cane. So we’re not done yet.”
Such was the prevailing message at the 32nd annual Media Access Awards, where guests, presenters and honorees all spoke about the progress made in portraying and employing people with disabilities on TV and in movies, but also emphasized the many more battles left to fight. “The more visibility there is, the less disability,” said comedian Geri Jewell, the first person with a disability to have a recurring roll on a prime time TV series when she was cast as Cousin Geri on NBC’s “Facts of Life” in 1981.
Honorees at this year’s event included Shore, “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, actors R.J. Mitte from “Breaking Bad” and Ryan Lane from “Switched at Birth,” and casting director Dee Dee Bradley.
Additional awards went to producer Jenni Gold, whose acclaimed new documentary “CinemAbility” provides the definitive look at the way Hollywood has portrayed the disabled, and to industry luminary Norman Lear, who accepted a Lifetime Achievement award for “changing the way viewers watched television through diverse characters” on shows such as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Facts of Life,” and “The Jeffersons.”
Lear, who began his career as a writer, summed up his philosophy of inclusiveness, and the sentiment of those in attendance, by saying, “Life is a gigantic collaboration.” He told a story about an episode of “All in the Family” in which a grocery store box boy with nuanced, unspecified challenges followed Gloria home several times. “There was something deficient about him,” Lear explained. “His hand was clenched in a fist all the time. Archie thought he might be a danger to Gloria, and he carried on.
“Then the box boy disappeared. No one could find him. His mother was very upset. They finally found him, and when they did, he opened his hand. Inside, there was a piece of paper his mother had given him a long time before. And on it was written ‘Each man is my superior and that I may learn from him.’ I couldn’t believe anything more in my life than that. There’s something to learn from each of us.”
Indeed, this was a rare awards event where mantelware took a backseat to the message (“There are an estimated 56 million Americans living with disabilities,” event co-founder Loreen Arbus told XFINITY. “This is about making sure everybody gets a chance to live their dream”), and though there was a red carpet – this was an awards show, after all – rather than hurry past photographers and reporters, everyone from Shore, Jewell and Lear to “Push Girls” star and model Angela Rockwood, looking spectacular in her wheelchair, “Switched at Birth’s Marlee Matlin, Lauren Potter of “Glee” and Ben Lewin, one of last year’s award recipients for writing and directing the movie “The Sessions,” gathered and visited like old friends and comrades. “This is a very human event,” said Potter.
It was also an event rife with jokes. Master of ceremonies Fred Willard called attention to the moving Guinness beer commercial showing a group of guys playing wheelchair basketball. “Interesting commercial,” he noted. “At the end, all but one guy gets up. It shows you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to get drunk.” Later, “Heroes” actor Greg Grunberg, there to introduce Shore, spoke about having a son with epilepsy. “In our house, we deal with it with humor,” he said. “When we ask Jake what he wants for dinner, he says, `’Seizure salad.’”
Then Lewin – who has walked with crutches since contracting polio as a child – introduced filmmaker Gold, also disabled, by quipping, “One of the things [Jenni] share in common is that we’re both happily married, and we’ve managed to sustain it by offering our spouses the use of our parking privileges.”
Laughter aside, the Media Access Awards offered a serious message. “It’s about spreading the word and changing perceptions,” said Arbus. Casting director Dee Dee Bradley, who broke ground on the acclaimed 1989 series “Life Goes On,” the first TV series to have a character with Down Syndrome, and now works on “Switched at Birth,” said, “There’s beauty and talent everywhere. I want to see people portrayed honestly and authentically in movies and TV. It’s all about the power and spirit of of being onself.”
“Things are better,” acknowledged “CSI” actor Robert David Hall,” but we’re not there yet. Diversity is a funny word. You celebrate your successes, but you have to realize there are more than 56 million people with disabilities in America. Do they see themselves on TV and in movies? Are they working in the industry? Only one half of one percent of all the words uttered on TV are said by people with disabilities. I find that quite a gap, and we need to work to improve that.”
Hall is in his 14th season on the CBS procedural, having joined “CSI” in its fifth episode of season 1, and he confessed to XFINITY, “I don’t know that I could’ve have gotten through the network if I had come on at the beginning. Billy Peterson, the star of the show then, sort of gave his blessing. He said, ‘I like this guy.’ However, he didn’t like me because I was disabled. He liked me because he thought I would fit into the chemistry of the cast.
“And I am grateful. I had a lot of years where I didn’t have many auditions because they always want to pigeon hole you as the disabled guy. But I’m a lot more than the disabled guy, as is everybody here. We’re human beings. We study acting. We raise our families and feed our pets and take out the garbage just like everyone else. It may be a little more difficult for some of us, but life is all about obstacles and overcoming them.”
“Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, who accepted an award on behalf of the HBO series based on his books, echoed that sentiment. On his blog, Martin wrote: “David Radcliff, of the Writers With Disabilities Committee of the Writers Guild of America, West, wrote to inform me of this honor, saying, “Game of Thrones seems a natural fit for this recognition. Since its earliest episodes, your gripping series has introduced us to a paralyzed boy with a supernatural gift, has endeared us to a Little Person defined not by his height but by his wit, and has regularly mined the lives of “cripples, bastards, and broken things” to celebrate their strengths and complexities. In fact, it is a fantastic credit to your work that Game of Thrones is not commonly thought of as a show that “deals with” disability — it is something even better: a show that embraces the reality that no one is easily definable.”
When XFINITY asked about creating these characters, Martin said, “I write about people – all kinds of people, because that’s the human experience.”