The Value of Increased Inclusion, On Screen and Off

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Troy Kotsur, Academy Award Winner (CODA)The Value of Increased Inclusion, On Screen and Off
By Isaac Zablocki

Photo Caption: Academy-Award winner Troy Kotsur (CODA), recipient of the ReelAbilities Spotlight Award, New York, NY 2023. Photo credit: Roshni Katri.

Last year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner, CODA (whose title refers to the main character, a Child of Deaf Adults) put disability in the spotlight, adding to efforts to increase workforce diversity and equity in Hollywood. Historically, people with disabilities have been extremely underrepresented in the entertainment industry, both on and off the screen; it is heartening to watch what I believe to be a revolution in progress.

In the 15 years since the start of the ReelAbilities Film Festival, I have observed much positive change and, I hope, contributed to it. But things are slow to change. Stigma, ableism and accessibility barriers still stand in the way of full workforce inclusion in all industry sectors. That’s why ReelAbilities is proud to support the Campaign for Disability Employment (CDE).

Representation is key to progress in any type of workplace, but it can be particularly powerful in cinema. On that front, we are finally starting to see more authentic representation of disabled people on the screen. For so many years, inauthentic portrayals—including the casting of actors without disabilities in disabled roles—were not only accepted but even celebrated. This, furthermore, held back opportunities for actors with disabilities to receive major roles and accolades. Fortunately, today, Hollywood understands that including people with disabilities is crucial for representation and promotes positive change beyond just the film industry because media influences how we perceive ourselves as a society.

Just as importantly, we are seeing increased inclusion efforts behind the scenes. For instance, now you can find an access coordinator on some sets, which translates to more opportunities for actors and crew members with disabilities. This movement toward an inclusive mindset is key to achieving true equity and benefits the final product in immeasurable ways.

This extends to artistic roles. Perhaps most important to me is that we need more stories told by the disability community, which, like other groups, has a rich diversity of life experiences and perspectives to share. Even on the most inclusive set, if the story is inauthentic, it will not resonate as deeply and, in some instances, can even do harm.

The richness of stories comes from the human experience, and the best ones resonate universally, illustrating our shared emotions. Disability representation deepens creative output and allows more diverse visions to be shared. But I believe this notion extends beyond Hollywood to include all organizations in all industries. Diversity leads to better products and services for everyone. ReelAbilities Film Festival is proud to present films told by the disability community but enjoyed by everyone. You do not have to be an insider to relate to a well-told human story because we are all insiders when it comes to the human experience.

Of course, once films are made inclusively, they should also be presented in a way that’s fully accessible. For too many years, disabled people were excluded from many cultural experiences. Accessibility is something we also need to improve continuously. This will not happen overnight; rather, we need to educate about universal design, not only in the entertainment industry but in all industries. Greater accessibility means a wider pool of employees and customers, which benefits every business—whether a studio in Hollywood or an office, store or factory in any community across the U.S.

In that spirit, I encourage businesses to consider what they can do to increase the representation of people with disabilities in their workplace and customer base and be a part of the revolution, on screen and off.

Note: Mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Department of Labor or U.S. Government.

About the Author
Isaac Zablocki is the Founder and Director of the ReelAbilities Film Festival.

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