Unions working together on disability issues

SAG, AFTRA, Equity announce joint campaign

Talks of a strike authorization and Phase One agreements took a back seat on Monday as representatives of SAG, AFTRA and Actors' Equity announced a joint campaign to improve working conditions and visibility for performers with disabilities.

During a news conference at SAG Hollywood headquarters, SAG national president Alan Rosenberg introduced a disability rights initiative known as the Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People with Disabilities (I AM PWD), which is designed to educate the public about the discrimination and lack of inclusion that performers with disabilities face.

The campaign will focus on removing physical barriers that that interfere with actors' ability to audition and work -- including adding wheelchair access, sign-language interpretation and scripts in Braille and/or large print -- and urging producers to create more accurate characters with disabilities.

Rosenberg noted a key objective will be to convince producers to include actors with disabilities in studios' diversity programs and to track the number of roles played by disabled actors for the guild's annual Casting Data Report, which records the number of roles played by seniors, minorities and women. He noted that SAG's negotiating committee has been discussing that inclusion with the AMPTP for 15 years, most recently during the guild's negotiations for the TV/Theatrical Contract.

According to a 2005 SAG study -- the latest data available -- only one in 50 characters on television in 2003 displayed a disability and 0.5% of those uttered a word onscreen. According to the American Association of People with Disabilities, 56 million Americans have disabilities.

Robert David Hall said he was routinely denied auditions before landing the role of Dr. Al Robbins on "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

"When you don't go on auditions, you don't get jobs. It's that simple," he said. "When I managed to get an audition, it was usually a small role as an angry or pathetic disabled guy. I thought I was more than that."

Linda Bove, a veteran "Sesame Street" cast member and co-founder of the nationally recognized Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, emphasized that deaf and hard of hearing actors are not necessarily seeking jobs, but rather the opportunity to audition and communicate with their colleagues on the set.

"Provide us with a sign-language interpreter and the playing field is leveled. Provide us with the same sorts of access that you provide others with disabilities ... and there is no more disability," she said.

Geri Jewell, a comic best known for her role on "The Facts of Life," said, "The real disabilities in life are prejudice and hated, abuse, hypocrisy, greed, and despair. The more we become aware of what the real disabilities are, the more we will respect and honor and value all of us who have something to contribute."

L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke noted that the few film and TV characters with disabilities are usually played by able-bodied performers. She likened the practice to Caucasians in black face portraying African Americans.

"It's the same concept," she said. "Give people a chance to have careers in those things where they have the abilities and that they can make a difference.... Disability rights issues are human rights issues."

The I AM PWD campaign will officially begin in January.
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