“It is the largest minority in the world whose rights have not been realized. There is a vacuum in the philanthropic world on this issue and we can take a leadership role to make change.”
— Jay Ruderman, President, Ruderman Family Foundation on people with disabilities
A long-running and all-too familiar conundrum at the heart of the disability community is that the term “disability community” is at best a misnomer and at worst a grand delusion. There is no disability community, really, or only in the vaguest terms. The vast majority of disability groups — the National MS Society (not to be confused with the Nancy Davis Foundation for MS), the Reeve Foundation, the American Foundation for the Blind, and so on — have a single agenda and guard it like a mother hen. They are more like the assortment of grand duchies and fiefdoms in Central Europe before Otto von Bismarck came along and pounded them into Germany. And many are in open competition with others for medical research money, celebrity endorsements, and media attention. This is not a recipe for collective action.
There are ways, of course, that this disparate assortment of advocates can come together. The best example was the build up to the passage of the ADA in 1990. A political act that benefited all drew the activism of all. They can also come together around social policy or when a presidential candidate — what is that guy’s name? — blatantly mocks people with disabilities. It’s like we have to be mocked to get any press these days.
All disability groups can cross party lines and join hands for the common good around one intractable barrier — the universal hobgoblin of inclusion. Everyone involved can join the fight. The guy in the chair and the deaf girl face the same invisible wall of exclusion. And there is one potent way to beat the drum for inclusion, and that’s media.
This is where this story really begins. It’s about a relatively new player in the disability arena that has made social inclusion and media awareness a principal mission. New players are rare in disability advocacy, especially new players who have the resources to foment change. Meet the Ruderman Family Foundation.
A Brief Backstory
The patriarch of a family in Boston, Morton Ruderman, made a ton of money in the health care technology business and decided to devote himself and his family’s fortune to causes dear to him. Initially, the focus of his creation, founded in 2001, was strengthening the ties of understanding between the American Jewish community and the state of Israel. While early efforts involved programs directed at the Jewish community in the greater Boston area, in time they went international. This led to projects like establishing the first university curriculum focused on the lives of American Jews at Haifa University in Israel, called the Ruderman Program in American Jewish Studies.
The Ruderman Foundation is, in the eyes of its principals, a “family business” and is now run by Morton’s son, Jay, along with his wife and siblings. In working with the Boston Jewish school system, the Rudermans came in contact with the problem of accessibility for kids with disabilities. Jay Ruderman calls it “a fundamental issue of fairness.” As their mission statement reads, “guided by our Jewish values,” the foundation felt compelled to respond. Unlike most disability activists and fellow travelers, there was no one with a disability in the Ruderman clan that triggered this response. Only later did disability become personal when Jay’s nephew was born with autism.
By 2008, the Ruderman family saw the bigger issue of disability inclusion as a new direction for their efforts. They didn’t want to do something that just repeated what others were doing. They also decided that their work would be directed more toward the populace at large and not just “preaching to the choir.” If you have attended one or a hundred conferences on anything related to disability, you know that it’s usually the choir you see sitting around you. They know the sermon by heart.
|.“I think sometimes producers and directors are scared of disabled actors because they
.think … we might not be able to do this or that or might make it complicated for
.them, and I just want to say. … Give us a chance. Please.”
………. — Micah Fowler, actor with CP, co-star of Speechless, at the Ruderman Roundtable
So the Rudermans stepped in to fill what turned out to be a huge gap in the broader disability game plan — public awareness. Those periodic six-o’clock news stories about a gutsy teen with a disability or Oscar-winning, feel-good movies like Forrest Gump weren’t getting the job done. This task required some savvy thinking and financial investment where real results can be seen. This isn’t run of the mill do-goodism. This is business.
But why does public awareness matter, especially awareness spawned by film and television? Because many millions of people out there, after decades of saturation, often take television as more real than reality itself. As Jay Ruderman so aptly put it, “Many of us in America relate more to people we see on television than we do with each other. Becoming comfortable with people with disabilities in our favorite TV shows and films means we will be more comfortable with them in real life.”
I live in Media Central, USA, otherwise known as Los Angeles, and out here diversity is one hot topic of late. You will read this shortly before the 2017 Academy Awards. After last year’s debacle where the glittery stage was a cavalcade of straight, white males, I promise there will be many more black, gay, and female faces up there this time around. Will there be at least a token person with a disability as window dressing? Highly unlikely. When the president of the Motion Picture Academy, who happens to be a black woman, recently announced her bold new diversity initiative, she didn’t even mention people with disabilities. We didn’t even make the boiler plate press hype! Such obtuseness is a testament to how long and winding the road to full inclusion still runs.
The Rudermans saw this and took action. They first commissioned a “white paper” on the employment of actors with disabilities in television. The two authors of the report, noted dwarf actor, Danny Woodburn (Seinfeld) and Ruderman content specialist, Kristina Kopić, surveyed the 10 top-rated scripted dramatic shows on network TV, plus the top such shows on streaming services like Netflix. Their findings were insane: Out of all the characters with disabilities appearing in these shows, 95 percent of them were played by nondisabled actors.
Plus, there aren’t that many roles to begin with. According to the latest annual report by the LGBT advocacy group, GLAAD, the percentage and number of series regular characters with disabilities has risen to 1.7 percent (15 characters) from last year’s 0.9 percent (eight characters). That sounds like progress, until you realize how paltry 15 are compared to a disability public of 56 million — and the fact that a huge chunk of those roles go to nondisabled actors. It makes you want to scream.
Unpacking the Problem
The next step in the Ruderman campaign was to stage a convocation in Los Angeles called “The Ruderman Studio-Wide Roundtable on Disability Inclusion.” Noted actors with disabilities like Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad), and the aforementioned Mr. Woodburn joined writer-producers like Scott Silveri (Speechless) and Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead) to lay out the sad reality of the situation. Marlee Matlin told a story about going up for a role specifically written for a deaf actor of her age, losing out to a non-deaf actor, and then being gobsmacked when asked by the idiot filmmakers if she could teach that actor “how to be deaf.”
“It’s still simmering with me,” she said, “and people tell me to get over it, but I can’t.”
Woodburn said he was turned down for a role as a doctor because, he was told, that “he could never be a doctor.” He cracked up the crowd when he confessed that he had been asked, more than once, to get a laugh on camera by biting another actor on the butt. He now has in his standard contract, “no biting on my character’s part.”
Writer-producer Mazzara got to the heart of the matter in this brief exchange with activist and agent, Gail Williamson.
Mazzara: I don’t know if there is malice [in Hollywood] or a system that people grew up in, and there will have to be a painful pulling apart of that system as we go forward. …
Williamson: How would you go about pulling it apart?
Mazzara: White guys need to get their shit together!
Yet another important way that the Ruderman Foundation is fighting the fight for inclusion is an annual monetary award called the Ruderman Prize in Inclusion. Now in its fifth year, five organizations were chosen as recipients out of over 400 applicants from around the world. Each winner receives a $50,000 grant to build upon the work they are already doing. This year’s honorees came from Germany, Brazil, Israel, and the U.S. and underscore the foundation’s commitment to new technology and media outreach.
Sozialhelden, a group from Berlin, will use the money to educate journalists in how to present people with disabilities as more than inspirational “heroes.” Egalite, from Brazil, will grow its online platform to connect job-seekers with disabilities with potential employers. The Jerusalem-based Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design will expand its program in inclusive design and accessible environments for people with disabilities.
The two American honorees this year may be familiar to NEW MOBILITY readers. One is the tech innovator, AXS Lab, created by filmmaker/entrepreneur Jason DaSilva, the 2015 NEW MOBILITY Person of the Year. Jason and his wife, Alice, invented an app called AXSMap.com that allows wheelchair users to check out locations for accessibility before they leave the house. Started on their home turf of New York, the service now draws tens of thousands site ratings from people all over the world. Next time you’re in Sydney, check out AXSMap to find an accessible boozer, mate.
The other U.S. recipient was the Media Access Awards, the annual Hollywood ceremony celebrating disability in film and television. [Full disclosure: I am involved in this event, though I didn’t know about winning the prize until after I was assigned this story. I was as surprised as the next guy.] After going dark for three years, the Media Access Awards, originally created by Norman Lear and others in 1979, came roaring back to life with the help of four big Hollywood union/guilds and the Christopher Reeve Foundation. The aim of this program is in lockstep with the aim of the Ruderman Foundation: promote inclusion by honoring those Hollywood storytellers who see people with disabilities as an integral part of whatever they create.
When you attend events like the Ruderman conference where the agendas of single-disability groups disappear, you do feel like you are part of a community greater than the sum of its individual letterheads. It’s healthy to mingle with people who are both like you and unlike you at the same time. You may even be forced to confront your own bias, implicit or otherwise, towards those whose disability makes you nervous, whether you want to admit it out loud or not. What do you say to someone who is deaf and you don’t sign? Are you impatient and maybe even embarrassed around someone who has difficultly speaking? That kind of thing.
So maybe it’s good to keep up the notion of a community and as the Ruderman Foundation is doing, make inclusion a community-wide effort. One of the participants at the roundtable, activist and actor Jason George (Grey’s Anatomy), laid out the future:
“This work of inclusion,” he said, “it is slow, it is like watching concrete dry, and it is painful … but to say we are close to done is like saying I got rid of three out of my five forms of cancer. There is, however, movement, and this [event] is part of it.”
Hats off to the Ruderman Foundation for entering the fray and bringing new passion and vigor to a prolonged fight. Are there other inclusion go-getters out there? Well, step up. No matter your disability, we are all in this together.
• Ruderman Family Foundation, www.rudermanfoundation.org
• Sozialhelden, www.leidmedien.de
• Egalite, www.egalite.com.br
• Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, www.bezalel.ac.il/en
• AXS Lab, www.axslab.org
• Media Access Awards, www.mediaaccessawards.com