Tri-Union Summit Joins Performers With Disabilities & Industry Executives

I AM PWD, a tri-union partnership to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in the media, marked the end of its three-year campaign Wednesday, January 11 with a bi-coastal industry summit held via videoconference.

"Disability IS Diversity: Reflecting the True American Scene," an event that included casting directors, filmmakers and studio and union representatives at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and at Baruch College in New York, focused on ways to increase the visibility of both actors and characters with disabilities in popular entertainment, as well as the employment of journalists with disabilities.

“As the number of disabled Americans continues to grow, the entertainment industry has a responsibility to accurately reflect the world in which we live,” said Christine Bruno, I AM PWD campaign co-chair. “Our job as arts and entertainment professionals is to connect with the audience by telling authentic stories and depicting multidimensional, complex characters from America's rich and diverse landscape that reflect our shared humanity.”

Diana Elizabeth Jordan, I AM PWD campaign co-chair stated, “We know that the entertainment and news media reflects back to us who we are, what we do, and whether or not we are truly a part of the American Scene — or are erased from it entirely and cease to exist. This campaign has made sure that people with disabilities will never be forgotten when discussing diversity and who we mean when we say the American Scene.”

I AM PWD, which stands for Inclusion in the Arts and Media of People With Disabilities, was formed by the Performers With Disabilities Tri-Union Committee of Actors' Equity, AFTRA and SAG in response to the lack of representation on television and film of people with disabilities. Additionally, the campaign covers a dearth of stories that explore issues associated with disabilities.

In 2010, the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 12 percent (36.4 million people) of U.S. non-institutionalized citizens report living with an apparent disability. The three unions believe that this group — and all Americans — should be able to see their lives and concerns reflected onscreen, and that the media we consume should reflect the American Scene in all its variety.

At the event, a lively discussion focused on what was accomplished over the last three years and the work yet to be done. Keynote addresses were given by RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) in Los Angeles and in New York by Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary of labor at the U.S Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

“When I became the assistant secretary at ODEP, one of the most important things to me was to elevate the discussion about the people with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera...and that's what I AM PWD has done,” said Martinez.

Robert David Hall, who plays Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Albert Robbins on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Danny Woodburn, a veteran actor perhaps best known for his role as Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld, hosted. As actors with disabilities portraying characters with disabilities, Mitte, Hall and Woodburn exemplify the purpose of the I AM PWD campaign.

Also in attendance were the unions’ leaders: Actors’ Equity Association President Nick Wyman, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists National President Roberta Reardon and Screen Actors Guild National President Ken Howard.

“Our union was founded on the principle of representing the vast diversity of our membership in every aspect of their working lives,” said Howard. "This campaign and the dedicated members and staff that have continued to insist on greater levels of inclusion, equal access and accurate portrayals are an extension of that principle.”

“Our tri-union I AM PWD disability rights campaign has become an international Civil and Human Rights force for change,” said Reardon. “From Brussels to Cape Town, from Australia to the United States, people with disabilities worldwide share the same desire to work without bias, to earn a decent wage, to be contributing members of society and to achieve their dreams. They want to perform on Broadway, report the news of the day, sing, dance, stage manage, host a late night show and appear on the silver screen.”

“The mission and the mandate of I AM PWD is that everyone should be able to see themselves mirrored in media,” said Wyman. “Kids will grow up seeing and hearing themselves in the media and know that they are not alone.”

Although the tri-union campaign has drawn to an end, the unions will continue to push to increase visibility and opportunity for people with disabilities in the entertainment and news industries.

“The I AM PWD campaign leaves us with a roadmap for progress,” said Dr. Olivia Raynor, director of the National Arts and Disabilities Center, Tarjan Center at University of California Los Angeles. “It calls on writers to utilize characters with disabilities to add interesting dimensions to storylines, as well as creating more opportunities for actors with disabilities to audition and be cast. This is what the campaign was all about. And now is the time to make it happen.”

ABOUT I AM PWD
I AM PWD is a global civil rights campaign seeking equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities throughout the entertainment and news media. I AM PWD was founded by members of Actors’ Equity Association, AFTRA and Screen Actors Guild to bring media and public attention to the issues of media access, inclusion and accuracy for people with disabilities. You can visit I AM PWD online at IAMPWD.org.

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