Katherine Beattie glided around the NCIS: New Orleans set, helping make production decisions. The prop department had ordered wheelchairs for the guest star, whose character had just been injured and was in rehab. Everyone thought one chair looked better, but because of Beattie’s experience as a wheelchair user, she knew the other one would be more authentic. When it was time to start filming, Beattie transferred into a director’s chair. She put on headphones and looked at the monitor, watching her script come to life.
Beattie, one of a small number of TV writers with disabilities working in Hollywood, has been with the NCIS spin-off since it premiered on CBS in 2014. Starring Scott Bakula as Special Agent Dwayne Pride, the show has been a staple of the network’s Tuesday night lineup. Beattie started as a script coordinator — formatting scripts, proofreading and handling legal clearances. Two years ago, she was promoted to staff writer.
Her most recent episode, “In Plain Sight,” revolves around Investigative Computer Specialist Patton Plame, played by series regular Daryl “Chill” Mitchell (“Actor Chill Mitchell Conquers Hollywood,” Sep. 2016 NM). After his close friend — a member of the Valor Brigade, a group of disabled vets who are analysts in law enforcement — is shot to death in front of him, Plame discovers that the Brigade’s wheelchairs and prosthetics are being bugged, revealing top secret intelligence.
“The idea came from stories I shared with coworkers about how easy it is for me to sneak things into places,” shares Beattie, who has cerebral palsy. “Like bringing food into Disneyland or alcohol into a pricey music festival because security guards aren’t going to ask me to stand up to check my wheelchair cushion.” The other writers laughed and thought it was interesting, so they brainstormed how it could fit into a military story. “Because Patton is a tech guy, we thought it would be cool to put those two worlds together,” says Beattie.
Directed by LeVar Burton, the episode offers a rich storyline for Mitchell that highlights his range, along with some impressive wheelchair rugby skills. “With Katherine, I know that my back is covered,” says Mitchell. “I’ve worked on other shows that lacked African American representation in the writer’s room, and you can feel it because they are not writing in your voice. And now, with disability, we have someone that physically and emotionally knows what I’m capable of, because she’s been through it.”
In addition to Mitchell, a large number of disabled actors, including myself, were hired for the episode.
“Every disabled character is played by a disabled actor, and that is a hill that I will die on,” says Beattie. “Not because I think that nondisabled actors should absolutely never play a disabled character, but to me disabled actors aren’t even getting the opportunity to play disabled characters — let alone other characters — so I’m not going to take a role from somebody that deserves it. And, also, they just bring so much more authenticity to the roles. Everyone on the show feels the same way. We have Chill, who is a series regular, so everyone is used to working with a disabled performer. No one bats an eye, and we get the work done.”
The Hard Road to Hollywood
After Beattie joined the Writers Guild of America, the labor union representing professional writers, she attended a Writers with Disabilities Committee meeting. “Everyone there was shocked I had a job,” she says. “Even though we have a big group of disabled writers, hardly any are TV writers. It’s hard to break through.”
In TV writing, there are two main paths to getting a staff position. The first is to start as an assistant and work your way up, but it can be very physical. “When I started as an office PA, I wouldn’t use my wheelchair at work, so I was able to kind of pass for able-bodied,” explains Beattie. “I’d beat my body up doing these physical tasks. I don’t know if I was trying to prove something. I’d carry 50-pound boxes of paper up the stairs when someone else just could have done it. Most people with disabilities don’t have that option.”
The second path is to get into a fellowship or diversity program, but disability often isn’t considered a part of diversity. That is slowly starting to change. Last year, David Radcliff was accepted for the Disney Writing Program and recently finished his first season as a staff writer on ABC’s The Rookie. “These programs can be tricky though,” says Radcliff, who has CP, “because they often choose writers with assistant experience. So, these two paths become intertwined.”
The Writers with Disabilities Committee is working to increase visibility by planning an upcoming event where members can have round-robin conversations with TV showrunners, putting them in direct contact with the people who can hire them. They also host the Disability Scene event, where readings of short scenes that involve disability are performed by actors with disabilities.
Living the Dream
In between takes, I looked around the NCIS: New Orleans set. It was surreal to be surrounded by other disabled actors, telling a story by a disabled writer. I felt optimistic, like things were moving in the right direction, and honored to be a part of it. When the director called, “Action,” Patton Plame and Dwayne Pride entered the scene. A Valor Brigade meeting was in progress, and they needed our help.
NCIS: New Orleans, Season 5, Episode 18 “In Plain Sight” originally aired on CBS April 2, 2019. Watch on CBS All Access.
Ali Stroker has been nominated for a Tony Award: Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical for her portrayal of Ado Annie in Oklahoma! at Circle in the Square. The play is performing through January 2020. Stroker also won rave reviews for her portrayal of Anna in Deaf West’s 2015 revival of Spring Awakening.