Tonys: What Ali Stroker's Historic Win Means for Wheelchair Users Like Me (Guest Column)

"It's hard to overstate the significance of this moment," writes civil rights advocate Judy Heumann of the 'Oklahoma!' star, who became the first wheelchair-using actor ever to win a Tony on Sunday night.

This weekend we saw history turn a page. Ali Stroker, who, in addition to being a Broadway phenom, also uses a wheelchair, took home the Tony Award for best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical. Looking straight at the camera, Stroker gave voice to the yearnings of millions of disabled people when she said the words so many of us have waited for so long to hear:

"This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation, or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena. You are." 

It's hard to overstate the significance of this moment. While we live in a time of many "firsts," for the disabled community it can sometimes feel — especially when it comes to the issue of representation and inclusion in media — as if the progress is unfolding in a parallel universe.

Consider the way our understanding — and the media representation — of other historically marginalized groups has changed. The characters portrayed in Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, for example, depart type from characters who populated 1970s Blaxploitation films, like Gordon Parks' Shaft. Constance Wu and Henry Golding, who delighted audiences in Crazy Rich Asians, don't look much like the characters portrayed in earlier movies like Thoroughly Modern Millie or Mickey Rooney's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

However, these efforts to diversify popular media have not extended to disabled people. As a child, I rarely ever saw myself — or anyone like me — represented in movies or TV shows. Since being barred by the school principal from entering my own school in the first grade after being deemed a "fire hazard" on account of my wheelchair, I've searched for ways to relate to my experience of the world. I searched the films, TV and newscasts I loved for representations of people like me. Virtually every time, I came up empty-handed.

The few disabled stereotypes I did see — facially disfigured James Bond villains or the powerless victim of Lenny in Of Mice and Men — were rarely real people facing the same kinds of challenges non-disabled people face, including the struggle to find love, build a career, deal with financial turmoil or cope with family illness. More often, these disabled characters were as one-dimensional as cardboard cut-outs, positioned like props for entertainment purposes.

The situation today is not much better. Although we constitute about one-quarter of the population in the U.S., just 2.1 percent of the primetime broadcast TV series regulars are disabled, according to GLAAD's Where We Are on TV '18-'19 report. An Annenberg Foundation and USC Annenberg Center report found that 2.5 percent of the top 100-grossing films over the past decade included disabled characters. And, the Ruderman Foundation found that in 95 percent of these examples, these characters were not played by actors with actual disabilities.

This means audiences have few opportunities to learn about us or our experiences and have few examples to change their common thinking that disabled people are somehow broken, abnormal or in need of repair. 

Late-night show host Trevor Noah, speaking about the prevalence of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters, touched on how jarringly strange this phenomenon is when seen from a different perspective. Noah cited a disabled actor who addressed the problem in a conversation online by explaining that, currently, the issue is not that disabled actors like him don't get these parts, but that they don't even get called to audition for them.

"As someone who is not in a wheelchair, I never thought of it that way," Noah told his Daily Show audience. "It's powerful because you [usually] don't think about representation, you don't think about how important it is for people to see themselves onscreen in a real way."

Remember the unspeakable video of Donald Trump mocking a disabled reporter? The president's display provided an excellent example of the worst, most mean-spirited kind of misrepresentation — and misunderstanding — of people with disabilities who live, flourish and contribute to our diverse and ever-changing world.

What if people were to realize that many of their best friends, closest relatives, dearest loved ones and most valued colleagues have some form of a disability, and perhaps one we cannot see? What if they were to experience the inner lives of disabled people through storytelling, to learn about the social injustices disabled people face as well as how our day-to-day lives are like theirs?

Never before has our society made such a concerted effort towards inclusivity. From the political sphere — with Congress now made up of a more diverse group of representatives than ever before — to award shows like the Oscars and the Tonys — that have suddenly become a celebration of diversity, a veritable rainbow coalition of black, white, Asian, LGBTQI performers.

Yet, in a world of increasing inclusivity, it seems particularly odd that popular media still excludes one very large section of the population. Meaningful change begins with starting a conversation about changing the way disability is represented in the media and taking the necessary collective actions which finally result in authentic and meaningful inclusion of disabled people.

Seven decades later, that little girl who was deemed a fire hazard by her school principal got to experience what it's like to see a star on a stage holding a statuette while speaking courageously, and proudly, from her wheelchair. That is a moment we will not soon forget.

Judy Heumann is an internationally recognized leader in the disability rights community and a lifelong civil rights advocate. She has been involved on the national and international front working with disabled people's organizations and governments in the U.S. and around the world.