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Eileen Grubba on the Shape of Disability Inclusion in Hollywood

This Sunday, movie aficionados from around the world will tune in to the 90th running of the Academy Awards.  Film’s best will be celebrated as they compete for 24 Oscars up for grabs.  The talent among this year’s nominees is top-notch, with the likes of past Oscar winners including Christopher Plummer, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer.  And the performance by Best Actress nominee Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water was truly remarkable.  But as is typically the case, this year’s nominee list is short of individuals from the most underrepresented group in Hollywood – people with disabilities.

In Oscar frontrunner The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaner who develops a close bond with a human-like underwater creature, communicating only through the use of sign language.  While Hawkins clearly delivered an Oscar-worthy performance, she joins a long list of non-disabled actors receiving Academy Award nominations for playing characters with disabilities.  Here in lies the problem – the casting of roles for characters with disabilities is more often than not played by non-disabled actors.

To Marginalize and Stigmatize

What is causing this?  Part of the problem is there are simply not enough roles to fill that represent characters with disabilities.  In a recent study on Inequality in 900 Popular Films, across the 100 top-grossing movies of 2016, just 2.7% of characters were depicted with a disability.  When comparing this to the fact that nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. has a disability, diversity in film is clearly not represented in a way that reflects our society.

But perhaps the bigger issue for why there is a clear lack of representation among characters in film played by actors with disabilities, stems from common misconceptions regarding the perceived lack of ability that often surrounds people with disabilities.  The idea that people with disabilities are not as capable or talented, is a stigma that must be defeated for the diversity in film and television to be representative of our population.

Eileen Grubba
Eileen Grubba

One of those individuals fighting to change the Hollywood stigma surrounding people with disabilities is Eileen Grubba, whose film career spans over twenty-five years, where she’s developed a reputation for delivering outstanding performances that depict strong, edgy women in shows like Sons of Anarchy, HBO’s Hung and NBC’s Game of Silence.  Growing up and living with a disability, Eileen has become a leading advocate for the inclusion of performers with disabilities in film and television.  As someone who understands exactly what it means to be looked at differently in casting calls because of her disability, in her experience, the problem starts with a lack of understanding of just what it means to have a disability in the first place.

“I feel like it’s a mistake to underestimate someone who has a disability before you find out what they are capable of,” says Eileen.  “Because someone like me?  My disability is different than everyone else’s disability.  Mine is from the knee down on my leg.  I walk in pain.  That’s no one’s business and it doesn’t matter for most things.  But the fact that I’ve had to get through life adjusting to all these things only makes me better, stronger and more resilient.”

Surviving With Resiliency

That resiliency is a key reason Eileen believes that Hollywood is missing out on hidden talent in the disability community.  In describing her own experience tapping into her pain to bring out emotions in her characters, Eileen says “I have a depth that I don’t think a whole lot of people really truly understand. They might think they do, but until you’ve lived most of your life in the kind of pain that would drop most people, and dealt with cancer, and have faced rejection after rejection and absolute humiliation at the hands of so many people, the depth that I’m talking about is so rich and so scary to a lot of people, that I don’t think a whole lot of people can manufacture that level of emotion as completely and as deeply.  That’s what these challenges do to you. They make you absolutely resilient.”

For Eileen and other actors with disabilities who are fighting for greater inclusion in Hollywood, the resiliency to overcome their own personal journey in living with a disability is only half the fight as unfortunately, opportunities are limited for individuals with disabilities.  Eileen describes her own experience, “When I was young and came out to LA, at first, the floodgates were open.  I was in every room (auditions), and was doing well.  I was getting called back to producers.  But as they discovered my limp, those doors shut.  I spent the next ten years getting three to five auditions a year.  How is someone supposed to work when they get three to five auditions a year?  You can’t.  Most actresses get three to five a week.  I know actresses who get three a day.”

In addressing the impact a lack of auditions has on individuals with disabilities, Eileen states, “How is that person supposed to have the same consideration, unless we have really open minded people doing those interviews, welcoming them and making them feel safe?  They have the skills, but they don’t have the same confidence level because they haven’t been given the same number of opportunities.”

In the Middle of Difficulty Lies Opportunity

For a variety of reasons, the lack of audition opportunities remains a barrier to entry for people with disabilities.  Because of this, Eileen knows that creating an inclusive environment in casting is a must for any producer seriously wanting to take diversity in film and television seriously.  In Eileen’s words, “I can tell you that the rooms that are welcoming and kind, who know what goes on with me and love me anyway, I always do well in their rooms. Always.  We’ve just had this huge open call for performers with disabilities, thank God, thanks to Russell Boast and the Casting Society of America (CSA), and I found myself saying, please make the room friendly and welcoming, please.  So many people with disabilities are truly afraid, because they haven’t had any opportunity.”

As with any organization, creating a welcoming environment for people with disabilities, whether it be in film and television or with employers in the private sector, it all starts by placing emphasis on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  In our own experiences at Disability Solutions, working with employers to recruit and hire people with disabilities, we have seen firsthand the talent value provided to an organization is often times stronger than those without disabilities.  This is no surprise as the resiliency and problem-solving ability required of a person with a disability creates mentally tough individuals ready to tackle the world’s challenges.  

Eileen sums up the opportunity present to put more people with disabilities in film and television by saying, “It all happens faster when we see it on television. Commercials, film, TV, when we see disability represented fairly and in a positive light, a real, true light, that’s when we’re going to open up the world to including the other 20% of our population who I believe are our problem solvers. We’ve been keeping out our problem solvers for too long.”

To learn more about Eileen Grubba’s story and her work as an advocate for people with disabilities, click here to read our full interview with Eileen:  An Interview with Disability Inclusion Advocate Eileen Grubba

The Writer: Hef Matthews

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