Diversity, Disability & Inclusion

Easterseals Southern California (ESSC) has an updated public awareness campaign, "We Are the 25%"

Using last year’s highly successful disability voter awareness theme as a springboard, the campaign highlights the need for disability inclusion for 25 percent of U.S. residents, more than 61 million people across the country who have a disability, according to the CDC. Of those, 23 percent live in California (more than 9 million), nearly 5.5 million of them in SoCal.

The multi-faceted campaign features southern California residents who receive services from ESSC and the voice over talents of award-winning writer/producer and actor Diana Romero (Octavia Spencer’s Truth Be Told, Niña Quebrada, Sold), who has a disability. The campaign challenges people to reconsider how they view people with disabilities, proclaiming, We are the 25% … And want to be 100% included.

Said Romero, a noted activist for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, “My entire life was as a physically-abled person. When I began using a wheelchair three years ago because of multiple sclerosis, it came with the realization that people with disabilities are often overlooked and misrepresented. Seeing people with disabilities on TV and in film informs others what we are all about. People sit in chairs all day long, so I’m not doing anything any different than anyone else, yet I find I am viewed differently. We need to be seen and heard. We deserve accessibility, fair representation and 100% inclusion! The Easterseals campaign is beautiful. It shows people with disabilities doing what people everywhere do. It is so important to educate us all. I am proud to use my voice and happy to see that the narrative on disability is changing in society and in media.”

Commented Mark Whitley, president & CEO of ESSC, “The campaign asks people to practice inclusion in their daily lives. It’s all about accepting everyone 100% for who they are. People with disabilities are our neighbors, co-workers, classmates, family members and, like you, deserve greater equity, opportunity and belonging in our communities.”

Using the hashtag #WeAreThe25%, will continue to roll out over the course of 2021. It encompasses online ads, including placements on streaming platforms that feature films and television shows, and social media.

The campaign was conceptualized and developed under the pro-bono direction of the Los Angeles office of global advertising agency ELA. Said ELA CEO and ESSC Board Chair Andre Filip, “Many people are unaware of how many Americans have a disability. When we learned that 25% of U.S. residents have a disability, we felt it was our duty to be very direct in our messaging while bringing awareness to our bigger goal, disability inclusion. We want to Change the Way People See Disability and this campaign is another powerful way to raise awareness and get us closer to a more inclusive future.”

We are 25% ESSC Ad

About ELA
Founded in 2004 by CEO Andre Filip, ELA (“Everything LA”) is a full-service, global creative ad agency headquartered in Los Angeles. ELA’s work spans a variety of capabilities including advertising, strategy, planning, brand design, digital, social, experiential, production, events and influencer marketing. Clients include TikTok, Disney, Easterseals, PepsiCo, Thermador, Western Digital and more.

About Easterseals Southern California
For more than 100 years, Easterseals has been an indispensable resource for people and families living with developmental disabilities or other special needs. The services provided by Easterseals Southern California (ESSC)—in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Imperial, Kern, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties—make profound and positive differences in people's lives every day, helping them address life’s challenges and achieve personal goals so that they can live, learn, work and play in our communities. With nearly 2,800 employees, 60+ service sites and hundreds of community partnership locations, each year ESSC assists more than 14,000 people, providing adult/senior day services; autism therapy; child development/early education; employment services; veteran employment support; independent living options; and more.

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hollywood and actors with disabilities

Hollywood Disability Forum

(How far have we come?)

Like a lot of children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I spent a lot of time in front of a television in my formative years. Somewhere in my mother’s house are stacks of videotapes of Looney Tunes, Seinfeld and Quantum Leap episodes that I watched again and again until their images started to fade. And I’m pretty sure I was the only ten-year-old on my block to dress as Lieutenant Columbo for Halloween.

But in all of my boob-tube-watching childhood, I rarely, if ever, saw anyone like me on television: someone with a physical disability. While I may have subconsciously measured my young self-image against the Kevin Arnolds and the Theo Huxtables (and yes, even the Steve Urkels) that I saw on screen, I knew intuitively that those guys weren’t exactly living life quite the way I was living it. They stressed about acne and homework, sure, but they didn’t have the unique concerns or self-doubts of an adolescent with a noticeable physical limitation. They didn’t use crutches or a wheelchair every day.

Thankfully, visibility for most minority groups has dramatically elevated since the early years of my childhood. Entire networks are now ostensibly constructed around advancement of minority images in television. Celebrities like Bernie Mac, Ellen DeGeneres, George Lopez and others have brought their unique voices and perspectives—and, by extension, more diverse audiences—to the television marketplace. And yet, it’s still a very rare occasion when I see someone like myself in narrative media. Try to name five characters or personalities with a disability on television today and you’ll recognize we remain the minority that even most diversity-oriented programming tends to overlook.

So it was with something of a personal curiosity and excitement that I attended the 2009 Hollywood Disabilities Forum, held in October at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. As a graduate of the UCLA screenwriting program, and as a writer with a physical disability, I am aware that events like this one will prove vital not only in respect to my own career, but also in helping to shape the self-image and social perception of the new generation of children with disabilities—children who, just as I did, continue to search for genuine reflections of themselves in a media that still doesn’t truly see them.

The forum, moderated by author Allen Rucker, boasted an impressive panel of industry talent including David Milch (creator of Deadwood and NYPD Blue), Daryll “Chill” Mitchell (star of FOX’s Brothers), and Margaret Nagle (writer of HBO’s Warm Springs), among others. Discussion topics ranged from the nature of the creative process to the numerous challenges of breaking into the film and television industry with a physical disability.

Actor Robert David Hall, best known for his recurring role on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, served as master of ceremonies for the event, emphasizing inclusion, accuracy, and access for characters and performers with disabilities. “We’re looking for our opportunities to be seen and heard,” Hall said. “To be cut out of mainstream TV, movies and advertising stinks, and we’re trying to change that.” Hall, who serves as the national chair of the Performers with Disabilities Tri-Union committee, walks on two prosthetic limbs as the result of a car accident in 1978. “It’s crucial for all of us—actors, writers, directors, producers, casting associates—to come together to create solutions. They won’t happen without us.”

But arriving at solutions is difficult when the nature of a problem is still not fully understood or acknowledged. Even as an avid television viewer with cerebral palsy, I was surprised to learn that although 20 percent of people in America have a disability, only one-half of one percent of words spoken on television are spoken by a person with a disability. According to the forum’s keynote speaker Peter Farrelly, this imbalance between representation and reality is self-sustaining, as the lack of people with disabilities in our omnipresent media culture keeps that demographic “pretty much invisible” to storytellers, casting directors, and other industry professionals.

“Unless a role is designated as being somebody with a disability, the truth is, casting is just not seeing you,” Farrelly said. “No screenplay says ‘Amanda, the girlfriend, walks in the room and has perfect hearing,’ but that’s who they’re thinking of when they’re putting the movie together because that’s what they’ve seen before.”

Farrelly—who, with his brother Bobby, created hit comedies There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal and Stuck on You—has included people with disabilities in the majority of his films, in hopes of changing what has become normalized in global media. “It’s going to be a gradual change,” Farrelly said, likening the social bias against people with disabilities to that against women in traditionally male professions. “My mother was a great nurse who should’ve been a doctor. Today she’d be a doctor. Progress happens.”

But some members of the panel expressed concern that the very progress they’re hungry for is too often impeded by the casting of able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities. Television writer-producer Janis Hirsch, who works closely with Mitchell on Brothers, argued that roles for characters with disabilities should be played by actors with disabilities because there is no shortage of available talent in the audition pool. Hirsch cited a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm as representative of what is often a hurdle for the advancement of actors with disabilities.

“The episode had two characters in wheelchairs, played by women without disabilities,” Hirsch said. “I’m sure they’re lovely women, but they’re dead to me. It’s not like there weren’t other talented options out there.”

Milch, whose HBO series Deadwood featured a woman with cerebral palsy in a 19th-century South Dakota brothel, countered Hirsch’s stance by questioning its exclusivity. “I’m not interested in blackballing actors,” Milch said. “It’s a dangerous position to take. I’m not going to hire to meet a quota. Let’s focus on making more opportunities, not fewer, here.”

The collision of these two perspectives sparked thoughtful debate at the forum, drawing feedback from audience members and panelists alike. One actress in attendance expressed that film and television “didn’t need any more Daniel Day-Lewises,” referencing the actor’s Oscar-winning turn as Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Actor RJ Mitte, who holds a supporting role on the popular series Breaking Bad, found a measured middle ground, offering that “the perfect role is out there for everybody, it’s just important to be ready when it comes.”

Though debates like these provide no easy answers, simply attending this event proved to be an eye-opener for me. I left the forum infused with hope and a new sense of perspective, recognizing that perhaps elevating representation of characters with disabilities truly is a social cause akin to those of so many other minority groups of previous years. As a writer, media junkie, and hopeful participant in the future of the film and television, I was gratified to witness so many people of intellect and passion discussing something I had grown up only subconsciously recognizing: if we don’t work to get ourselves reflected in the media, who will...

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