Media Access Awards Honor Filmmakers Changing Hearts and Minds About Disability


Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

Recently, Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement have put a lot of attention on abuse in Hollywood. Long overdue conversations are taking place on how Hollywood can not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk about vital issues. At the same time, Hollywood has an opportunity to walk the walk on a broad range of issues that can make the world a better place.

Last month’s Media Access Awards, which honors individuals both behind and in front of the camera who are advancing the disability narrative, changed hearts and minds for influential entertainment professionals in attendance, leading to pledges of increasing inclusion efforts for people with disabilities in Hollywood.

The Media Access Awards is unlike a traditional Hollywood award ceremony – though honoree Nic Novicki said, “it feels like an Oscar to me,” explaining the awards as “like the Oscars, but with more wheelchairs and sign language.”

Novicki is a little person and understands first hand how difficult it is for actors and actresses like him to find work in Hollywood. He needed little introduction, as presenter Jamie Brewer said, “his name is a known name in this industry.”

Novicki was just one of nine individuals honored at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. He received the 2017 SAG-AFTRA Harold Russell Award in recognition of his talent and his work as an advocate for the disability community.

“We’re the largest minority group in the country,” Novicki said while accepting his award. “But yet we do not see ourselves represented. We’re in less than one percent of TV shows and movies.”

According to the 2017 Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) report Where We Are on TV, the number of regular primetime broadcast characters who have a disability is at 1.8 percent, representing only a fraction of the one-in-five individuals who has a disability in the world today.

Actor Mickey Rowe, who was the first actor with autism to perform in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time,” received the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship. Introduced by actress and Paralympic Katy Sullivan, Rowe said he was hopeful for continued progress in the next decade of inclusion of people with disabilities.

“When we cast actors with disabilities in roles with disabilities, it not only affects our own industry, but we get to show all the other business leaders across the country in all sorts of fields that you can hire people with disabilities, we can do the work at the highest level and we get the job done,” Rowe said at the awards ceremony. “Employers have no reason to discriminate against developmental disabilities or any other kind of disability. What power and responsibility that we all have that we get to make that much change for so many other people in our industry and hundreds of other industries around the country.”

Norman Lear co-founded the Media Access Awards to recognize and encourage the accurate portrayal of people with disabilities in 1979. This year, he had the honor of awarding fellow co-founder Fern Field with the 2017 Norman Lear – Geri Jewell Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s Media Access Awards.

Lear, who received a standing ovation during the morning awards ceremony, said 2017 is the “most successful year for actors with disabilities on TV.”

Participants Pledge to Increase Inclusion Efforts

Last month’s awards ceremony changed hearts and minds for influential entertainment professionals in attendance, leading to pledges of increasing inclusion efforts for people with disabilities in Hollywood.

“I promise you,” “Wonder” producer David Hoberman said while receiving the 2017 Producers Guild of America George Sunga Award with co-producer Todd Lieberman, “from now on, we will look for more stories with disabilities and to cast people with disabilities in our films.”

They received the award for producing “Stronger,” which was about an amputee and Boston Marathon Bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, and “Wonder,” which tells the story of Auggie Pullman, a young boy with craniofacial disfigurement trying to navigate school, friends and life.

“We search for stories and we have ability to make stories that entertain but also mean something,” Lieberman said while accepting the award. “We have the responsibility to do so.”

“It is important to tell stories that have something to do with real life, show struggle, triumph, empathy and compassion,” added Hoberman, who was emotional during the awards. “We hope the world that [“Stronger” and “Wonder”] touches changes a little bit.”

Meanwhile “Wonder” director Stephen Chbosky said the event has influenced him to want more inclusive casting of people with disabilities.

“I want to say to all my fellow directors and producers out there… to think all the time when you are casting, including background casting, to always include somebody with a disability or to think about characters out of the box,” he said in an interview with RespectAbility following the awards. “And let’s broaden our minds and really bring our stories and their stories to everyone.”

Called “champions of casting people with disabilities in Broadway shows and television programs” by presenter Michael Patrick King (creator of “Sex and the City” and the new disability-inclusive “Love You More”), Telsey & Company received an award for their inclusive casting.

“It’s important to include stories of inclusion for all people,” the team accepting the award said. “When we open up a script and see a story includes people with disabilities, we get really excited… because we love to explore new pools of talent and learn about new opportunities we may not have experienced.”

They cast “Atypical,” whose creator also was honored at the Media Access Awards, and “Love You More,” a show featuring nine actors with Down syndrome.

Robia Rashid, the creator of “Atypical” called for more stories of inclusion and diversity while accepting her award for writing.

“It’s an amazing time for stories of inclusion and diversity,” she said. “I think we need stories like this more than ever and I feel so honored to be receiving this award for telling a story.”

Actress Amy Okuda presented Rashid with the award. “You learn to accept and appreciate Sam for the singular person that he is and you will start to see everyone with a disability in a new light, a human light. I know I did; it really changed my life,” said Okuda of her role as Julia, a passionate therapist that pushes Sam to try new things.

Importance of Standing Up for All

Jason George, who currently serves as the diversity chair of the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), a union of television and radio artists, spoke about the importance of standing up for all minorities.

“If you say you are standing up and fighting for equal rights, you can’t just fight for the people that look like you,” said George while presenting the Ruderman Family Foundation with the SAG-AFTRA Disability Awareness Award. “You have to show up for yourself, of course, and get everyone invited to the party.”

Likewise, Treshelle Marie Edmond presented an award to Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang for pushing the envelope on diversity and inclusion in Hollywood at the Media Access Awards.

“People see me and see black, then they see a woman, and then they see deaf,” Edmond said in an earlier interview. “This means I have to work three times as hard to get the same opportunities. I get it from all angles.”

Deborah Calla and Allen Rucker chaired the awards ceremony. Co-chairs included Pam Dixon, Jenni Gold, Sam Maddox, Paul Miller, Adam Moore and Tery Lopez.

Inclusion leader Haben Girma and actor/humanitarian Oliver Trevena hosted the awards. Lawyer and disability advocate Haben Girma was the first deaf and blind graduate of Harvard Law School.

“The Media Access Awards are shining the spotlight on the importance for people with disabilities to be seen in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit working to end stigmas and advance opportunities for people with disabilities. “Hollywood is at a turning point – with the opportunity to choose to take the high ground and end abuse and prejudice all at once. It won’t be easy, but we stand (or roll) ready to do our part to advance equality, safety and opportunity for all.”

Learn more at RespectAbility.

Getty image by Scyther5.


Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.