Media Access Awards Releases Best Practices Guide for Hiring Writers With Disabilities

The manual was penned by WGA Writers with Disabilities Committee members Deborah Calla and Allen Rucker

Amid the ongoing call to hire inclusively, prospective employees with disabilities may face added skepticism in the workplace.

To combat these misconceptions, the Media Access Awards has published "Employing Writers with Disabilities: A Best Practices Guide."

The manual, penned by WGA Writers With Disabilities Committee members Deborah Calla and Allen Rucker, reminds readers that the Americans With Disabilities Act obliges employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" to qualified applicants and employees who have disabilities.

On the set, these accommodations are fairly simple, notes the guide, and in some cases already in place. Sets already have ramps for wheeled dollies, and they can easily be added in front of portable bathrooms and other elevated areas as well. In situations where accessibility is not possible (such as shooting on-location in a heavily wooded area), video villages are already used for equipment and crew. And safety should already be paramount to every production, so it's just a matter of making sure emergency plans include alarms that are easily detectable to the visually or hearing impaired, and exits are clearly marked and accessible. The guide estimates that any accommodations would cost no more than a couple thousand dollars, and the cost of insurance would not rise with the inclusion of employees with disabilities.

When it comes to interviewing prospective writers, the guide also outlines helpful instructions on how to ask questions in a respectful (and in some cases, legal) way.

The ADA stipulates that an employer cannot ask about the existence, nature or severity of a disability. Focus instead on the writer's skills or pitch and let him or her initiate any mention of their disability. If the disability is directly relevant to the story being discussed, it becomes an asset of the writer's experience, but even then, the guide advises producers and showrunners to frame the query with questions like, "Why do you think you're the right writer for this project?" or "What personal experience do you have that you find relates to the show or character?"

"Onscreen representation helps make positive change by normalizing the existence and relationships of characters with disabilities," Calla and Rucker, who also serve as co-CEOs and chairs of the Media Access Awards, said in a statement. "Creating these stories and characters that authentically depict disability begins with writers — that's why it's essential to bring more diversity into the writers room. With this guide, we aim to make it easier for all those involved in story creation and casting to understand how they can take simple steps to be more inclusive."

Rather than assume that a person with a disability cannot work as much as one without, employers should make clear the time requirements. As with any prospective hire, it's his or her responsibility to determine whether the workload is tenable.

In the event an employee with a disability is let go (for non-discriminatory reasons, obviously), employers should follow standard procedure and document every situation that led to the termination and work with the human resources and legal departments as necessary.

The guide also reminds readers that although writers with disabilities should certainly be included in storylines that involve characters with disabilities, those are not the only occasions in which they can be hired. Similarly, characters with disabilities shouldn't only be created for situations centering on the disability. If a writer specifies a wheelchair user or a person with Down syndrome, for example, as a bank teller or member of the crowd, that yields a simple but significant change that ripples from who gets called into an audition to how the onscreen world more closely reflects the real world (nearly 25 percent of the actual U.S. population has a disability).

"We applaud the efforts of Deborah Calla and Allen Rucker to shine a light on the valuable contributions disabled writers and actors bring to storytelling," said Mark Whitley, CEO of Easterseals Southern California, the local branch of the disability services nonprofit that presents the Media Access Awards. "The unique insights, perspectives and experiences of the disability community deserve to be told — and we are optimistic that this guide will help Hollywood continue to head in the right direction by sharing more of these stories and giving disabled writers, actors and filmmakers more opportunities."