How actors with disabilities are changing the narrative in Hollywood
'We just keep trucking along and defying the odds,' says Emmy nominee Ryan O'Connell
When Ryan O'Connell created his Netflix series Special, he knew it was good. But he didn't imagine the comedy would earn four Emmy nominations, including best comedy, in its first season.
"I always believed in the show," said O'Connell. "But having that validated is sort of incredible."
Special is about a millennial gay man living with cerebral palsy while trying to make it as a writer. But when he gets hit by a car just before starting his new job, he decides to hide his disability from his co-workers, citing the accident as the reason for his limp and dexterity issues.
It's a story that rings true for O'Connell. It is, after all, based on his real life.
O'Connell wrote every episode, produced and starred in the show. And like his character in Special, O'Connell also hid his disability after a car accident — until he decided to come out of the "disability closet'" in his late 20s.
He is one of a growing number of creators and actors with disabilities who are breaking ground in Hollywood, in a film and TV industry criticized for still having a long way to go when it comes to inclusion.
This past June, Broadway star Ali Stroker became the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award for her performance in Oklahoma!. Last month, Marvel announced its first deaf superhero. And mainstream shows like AMC's The Walking Dead and HBO's Years and Years are casting actors with disabilities.
"I think that disability representation is like the last to the representation party. Like, maybe that party wasn't handicap accessible, but honey we plowed our way through," said O'Connell.
O'Connell started shopping his script around in 2015. But at the time, he says networks were hesitant to take on the show about a gay man with a disability. "It was a hard sell."
Even with the help of The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, whose production company backed the project, it took four years to get the show made.
Based on his memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, the series is now being praised by critics for its authentic portrayal of disability, sex and relationships, and family dynamics.
"Even though it came in kind of an unconventional package, [the story] was very universal," said O'Connell.
"People are realizing that stories like this need to be told," he said. "[And be] told by the people that have lived it."
And perhaps the best surprise to date? O'Connell himself has earned an Emmy nod for best actor.
"I feel like it kind of fits in the narrative of Special," he said. "We just keep trucking along and defying the odds."
'It wasn't even on their mind'
Los Angeles-based actor and advocate Tatiana Lee, who was born with spina bifida, is someone else who has been working to advance opportunities for people with disabilities in Hollywood.
"They want you to audition at a space that's on a second floor with no elevator," said Lee. "People who are deaf are going to auditions and an interpreter is not provided."
Lee blogs about her own experiences as an actor who uses a wheelchair and also works with Respectability, a non-profit seeking to break down stigmas around disability in the industry. The organization hosts panel discussions and works with studios and writers' rooms to help ensure more realistic, accurate portrayals of those with disabilities.
"You hear these terms, 'They overcame disability.' And then 95 per cent of the time, they let people who don't have a disability portray them," said Lee.
Casting actors without disabilities to portray characters with them is quite common in Hollywood, she said, which means less opportunities for working actors like her.
When she raises these issues with producers, Lee says their response is often "it wasn't even on their mind or they didn't even think about it." But a lot of unconscious bias is at play, she said.
"People think that people with disabilities … aren't capable of listening and being on set or even having the talent to act."
There's also a misconception that casting actors with a disability will cost studios more, said Lee. But she argues the potential for studios to make money is far greater: With one in four Americans living with a disability (it's one in five in Canada), it's a huge audience that is largely untapped.
Some studies show representation of characters with disabilities in film and TV is as low as two per cent. And a recent Canadian study on children's programming found virtually no characters with disabilities.
But Lee remains optimistic change is happening.
"The conversation is happening," she said. "[And] we are now included in that conversation."
Creating awareness about accessibility issues
It's a conversation George Alevizos is paying close attention to. The recent University of Toronto theatre graduate, who uses a wheelchair, has already seen success as an actor, recently appearing in Star Trek: Discovery and landing a lead role in national commercials.
"Having these authentic storylines makes me want to be an actor even more," said the 21-year-old actor.
Shows like Special and Ali Stroker's historic win have been motivating for Alevizos. "I feel like the more representation we see, the more willing people are to go out and work on their craft."
It's also why Alevizos is using his voice to share awareness about accessibility issues. The actor has joined forces with ACTRA, the Canadian actors' union, to conduct a survey on the accessibility of local casting facilities.
"If I am having trouble getting into the audition space, it catches me off guard," he said. "It may not cause me to do my best work, which means I won't book the job."
Alevizos visited more than 20 different commercial, film and TV casting facilities in Toronto with ACTRA to look at the potential physical barriers that actors with disabilities may encounter. Since these in-person tours started, ACTRA says some casting facilities have since switched locations to ensure they are accessible to all. Other solutions being implemented? Better signage, alternatives to stairs and ensuring accessible washrooms.
"I'm just one voice and there's a diverse amount of voices out there for people with disabilities," said Alevizos. "But at least we're opening up the conversation."