"Who Can Tell Whose Stories?" Is the Wrong Question Hollywood Should Be Asking (Guest Column)

Whetter was an American Sign Language consultant for Disney’s Big City Greens.
Courtesy of Disney Channel; Rick Guidotti/Courtesy of Subject

Whetter (inset) was an American Sign Language consultant for Disney’s 'Big City Greens.'

Deaf filmmaker Delbert Whetter details why the entertainment industry is looking at inclusion the wrong way.

The question of who should tell stories of marginalized and underrepresented voices has been much discussed, sometimes leading to heated stances over artistic freedom, cultural appropriation and accusations of censorship. Such discussions are poorly served when they center on a zero-sum proposition that suggests one must make sacrifices for others to make gains, an incorrect framing undermining important lessons. As a deaf filmmaker and frequent industry consultant, I am a member of an exceptionally underrepresented group: people with disabilities, nearly 20 percent of the population, but so deeply marginalized that we are virtually hidden from media. Our depictions onscreen often are entirely through the lens of observers who lack any semblance of our experiences.

While there is artistic and cultural merit in telling stories from an outsider's perspective, the problem is when the outsider's perspective has become the dominant narrative to such an extreme degree that it extinguishes what little oxygen remains for authentic voices to thrive. Can we really argue that the art of cinema is better served when no room is left for artists to participate in their own cultural stories? Ninety-nine percent of stories about people with disabilities are written, filmed, directed, edited and often performed and consulted on entirely by people without disabilities, leading to demands of "nothing about us without us" for good reason.

Dominant outsider narratives displacing authentic voices can promote stereotypes or inauthentic representations, further stigmatizing and eroding opportunities for the underrepresented, with harmful effects on employment, education and services. We should be asking not who gets to tell whose stories, but whose voices are going unheard, and what can we do to elevate and amplify those voices. The unfortunate consequence of leaving so little space for authentic voices means that the demand for them is crushed as well, with disastrous results on the talent pipeline in our industry. RespectAbility, Film Independent and the PGA are developing pipelines through labs and workshops, yet no amount of training and mentoring can help when demand for authentic voices is stifled. For the few-and-far-between opportunities where our cultural proficiency gives us the benefit of valuable storytelling insights, we ask for the same opportunities that filmmakers from dominant perspectives have had to ply our trade and hone our skills.

Delbert Whetter is a deaf producer, board member of RespectAbility and co-founder of its Lab for Entertainment Professionals With Disabilities.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.