- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
When the select in-person attendees get settled in their seats for the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday night, they’ll see the stage feature a new addition: a ramp.
The accessible, front-facing design was overseen by CBS Entertainment and the Primetime Emmys’ producers and follows an ADA complaint filed on Sept. 7 by Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) and lawyer Michelle Uzeta on behalf of James LeBrecht, who co-directed and co-produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp alongside Nicole Newnham.
LeBrecht was notified that a ramp had been built as of Thursday evening, and according to the director, CBS confirmed to his reps that “anyone sitting in the audience will have unimpeded access to an ADA-compliant ramp” which “has been constructed as a fully-integrated, visible portion of the stage.”
It’s a step towards broader and more standard accessibility at Hollywood awards shows that LeBrecht says he supports, though it was an effort at least six exhausting weeks in the making. For the disabled director and disability rights advocate, muddled and slow communications from CBS Entertainment and The TV Academy meant that while the goal has been achieved, questions still remain about whether entertainment institutions understand what was at the heart of his ask for disabled members of the entertainment industry.
Addressed to Executive Vice President, Diversity, Inclusion & Communications at CBS Entertainment Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i and TV Academy president Maury McIntyre, the complaint alleges that both the TV Academy and CBS Entertainment were in violation of the American Disabilities Act and California civil rights law prior to building the ramp. Specifically, that what was first presented to LeBrecht was insufficient in meeting ADA standards because the options did not actually provide “the full and equal enjoyment… of any place of public accommodation.”
According to the complaint, the planned accommodations did not satisfy LeBrecht’s and his legal representation’s reading of the law. The filing states that Smith-Anoa’i advised “that individuals who cannot climb the stairs to the stage can go backstage to access the stage,” with another suggestion that “a staff member can bring a microphone to individuals’ seating area.”
“Separate is never equal,” the complaint asserts adding that the backstage route would be “not a directly connecting route” per the ADA, and would visibly other a potential winner. Both options ultimately fail to comply with the ADA, it argues, while additionally conveying “disrespect and exclusion.”
LeBrecht told THR that he had been in contact with both the TV Academy and CBS Entertainment ahead of filing the public complaint. “As the Emmys were approaching and following Crip Camp‘s extraordinary experience at the Oscars — where it wasn’t simply compliance with the law, but it was inclusion at every step of the way that had an equal experience to people who could walk — I just wanted to try to effect a change,” he explained about why he reached out.
He first brought the issue forth to the “management at TV Academy” through one of its advisory boards, after which he was told to pursue the issue with CBS Entertainment as the decisions around the design and accessibility of the stage are left up to the producers of the show. (A rep for the TV Academy confirmed this while redirecting THR to CBS for comment on this story.) That’s when LeBrecht says that he and several others got on a call with Smith-Anoa’i and started the conversation.
LeBrecht, who also sent a long email regarding the issue, lauded the executive who “really took to heart what we were talking about and understood the difference between compliance and inclusion, and what do those optics look like.” But he noted that he came away with no answer as to how CBS Entertainment would approach its stage accessibility issue. Once he finally heard back, he says it was to offer what was noted in the complaint. After that, repeated follow-ups yielded little information.
“I appreciated the efforts, but I felt like I needed to get the attention of people up at the top, too, because I just felt like if I’m talking about inclusion and you keep on coming back with compliance, you’re either not getting the message or you don’t care,” he said. “How often do I have to say there’s a difference between compliance and actually serving people with dignity?”
CBS did not return a request for comment.
The issue of what full equitable treatment looks like doesn’t end with critiques of microphones and backstage ramps. TV Academy president McIntyre confirmed to Variety that during last week’s Creative Arts Emmys lifts were located next to the stage, offering more equitable access to people for whom navigating either a ramp or stairs in any capacity can be painful, LeBrecht notes. But for wheelchair users, the director says they can take a long time, becoming another means of visibly othering, and can undermine one’s independence.
“You are not actually getting yourself there under your own power, and it can make you look helpless,” he says.
“For some people, lifts are necessary, but it can’t be the only option,” LeBrecht added. “The goal should be to do whatever you can not to other people and be inclusive of as many people as you can.”
While LeBrecht has praised the Oscars — one of his first big industry awards events — that show was also lobbied and aware that at least some of its nominees needed equal stage access. It’s something LeBrecht was told the TV Academy tried to confirm by reaching out to all of this year’s attendees — limited due to the show’s COVID protocols and precautions. It was relayed to him that no one with a disability had been nominated.
According to the CDC, around 26 percent of Americans live with a disability, with millions estimated as having an invisible disability — in other words, a disability, whether it be cognitive, mobility-related or otherwise, that is not immediately visibly apparent. That can include joint or bone issues that people might otherwise treat as mere pain, but that would be supported, like wheelchair users, with a ramp. But LeBrecht also tells THR that after successfully lobbying for “a ramp at the front of the stage” while promoting Crip Camp at Sundance, it became clear that not just disabled attendees were benefiting.
“The fact of the matter is that that ramp was a real asset because that stage had this little dance number with a bunch of men doing a routine and they used the ramp in their choreography. They were thrilled to see the ramp because there were only going to be stairs,” he recalled.
Still, for LeBrecht, there’s an even bigger issue at hand with that kind of effort. “Do we have to reveal our disabilities?” he asks. “I mean, why force someone to do that?” Especially, he says, when there’s already law that demands equal access regardless of whether a disability is disclosed.
“This is why the ADA was passed. The intention of the ADA, among a lot of other things, was our participation in society be as equal as possible to people who do not have disabilities.”
The director says it is important for industry events and companies building these stages to understand that “the ADA is a base for disability rights. Not the ceiling.” And that’s ultimately what the rejection of othering accommodations, and his continued push for a front-stage ramp, was about. “In our society, do we accept that people with disabilities will take a separate route, especially when it’s completely possible to be inclusive when you’re building a stage from scratch?”
While LeBrecht shares that the experience was at times painstaking and frustrating, particularly the weeks lacking communication about the ongoing efforts, he lobbied for and was made aware of other positive efforts the show enacted or is at least trying to put in place.
“I was told that there are going to be [American Sign Language] interpreters available if needed. That’s fabulous. I also requested that they provide live audio descriptions for the broadcast, as well,” he said. “I know they’re trying to make that happen. That takes a while to coordinate, let alone get a sponsor to pay for it.” (Google sponsored audio description for April’s Academy Awards.)
The Oscar-nominated director knows that the industry — and much of society — is still catching up when it comes to equal access, but LeBrecht also says that it’s time.
“We’re asking people to do things that they haven’t done before,” LeBrecht admits. “But the ADA was passed 31 years ago. Why do we still have to ask for these things? Live audio description may or may not be actually law, but why does it take law for people to say we have a responsibility for everyone in society and not just those who are quote-unquote non-disabled?”
Sept. 18, 8:00 p.m.: Updated with an additional statement from LeBrecht about the use of stage lifts at award ceremonies.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day