Ruderman: More disability inclusion in TV, film

One key way in which Ruderman is changing the entertainment industry is by fighting to have actors with disabilities portray characters with disabilities.

Jay Ruderman with deaf actress Marlee Matlin   (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jay Ruderman with deaf actress Marlee Matlin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I believe that popular entertainment influences culture,” said Jay Ruderman, the Israeli-American advocate for people with disabilities and president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on the inclusion of people with disabilities worldwide and educating Israeli leaders on the American Jewish community.
“Because it’s so influential, making changes in the entertainment landscape can really change people’s thinking,” said Ruderman in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
One key way in which Ruderman is changing the entertainment industry is by fighting to have actors with disabilities portray characters with disabilities.
For his work on this issue, he was honored with the SAG-AFTRA Disability Awareness Award, which was presented on November 16 as part of the Media Access Awards in partnership with Easterseals at the Beverly Hilton. The Media Access Awards celebrate those who redefine on-screen representation for the disability community.
Accepting the award, Ruderman closed his speech with a challenge to the entertainment industry, calling for “all studios and production companies to step up and audition actors and cast them for parts with disabilities and all other parts, and reflect the ongoing movement of a diverse society in which we live.”
He also cited the high rates of unemployment for people with disabilities in the US, around 70%, as compared with less than 4% for the general population.
“People with disabilities represent roughly 20% of our population but account for only 2% of actors we see on TV and in movies,” he said. “And 95% of the characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors. We are fighting for authentic representation of characters with disabilities.”
Seeing disabled actors on screen, he said, “will help society normalize disability. When society is not inclusive, then disability gets treated as a charity case, as the ‘other,’ as people who need help and pity rather than being fully integrated into society.”
RUDERMAN’S FOUNDATION gives the Seal of Authentic Representation awards to recognize films and television series that demonstrate a commitment toward inclusion of actors with disabilities. The foundation announced its latest honorees, including: Tales of the City, a Netflix series which premiered in June and cast deaf actor and filmmaker Dickie Hearts as Mateo, a deaf butler; General Hospital, the ABC soap opera that in June began featuring Maysoon Zayid – an actress and disability advocate with cerebral palsy who is also one of America’s first Muslim women comedians – as Zahra Amir; Years and Years, the British drama series jointly produced by the BBC and HBO, for casting actress Ruth Madeley, who was diagnosed with spina bifida, as Rosie Lyons, a single mother who has spina bifida; Loudermilk, the comedy series from Audience which during the 2017-18 season cast Mat Fraser, who has phocomelia, a condition that involves malformations of the arms and legs; and Raising Dion, a science fiction television series based on the comic book and short film by the same name currently streaming on Netflix, which features a character using a wheelchair who is played by Sammi Haney, a nine-year-old girl born with osteogenesis imperfecta type III.
To help train actors with disabilities for professional careers, the foundation has a begun a partnership with the Yale School of Drama. Jessy Yates, who began training at Yale last year, is the first recipient of the annual $50,000 scholarship. Yates is an actor, performance artist and comedian with cerebral palsy, who got her start in community theaters and the classical music scene of her hometown, Cleveland, Ohio, before training at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. The partnership is the first collaboration with a drama school to enable actors with a disability to pursue their dreams.
The foundation has partnered with Variety, the entertainment newspaper, and has become a premier partner of inclusion in Variety’s 2019 Inclusion Summit, held in Hollywood.
“The summit is an ideal forum for an overdue elevated conversation about the authentic casting of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry,” said Ruderman. The foundation has also asked entertainment networks to take a pledge to try to increase the casting of people with disabilities in their films and CBS was the first to sign up.