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This Oscar nominee plans to shatter the film world's ableism

Oscar nominated ‘Crip Camp’ chronicles disability rights. The film world could use some tips.
Photo illustration: Stills from the film, \"Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution\", image of the Academy Awards statue and two ramps going towards it.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty: Netflix

For the very first time in its 93-year history, the Academy Awards nominated a director with a visible disability. If that statement conjures both satisfaction and indignation, you’re not alone.

Disability isn’t the obstacle; it’s the deeply ingrained ableism of the industry that holds them back.

“Crip Camp,” a feature documentary about a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities who went on to redefine disability rights in the 1970s, was written and directed by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht. If the film wins the award for best documentary, LeBrecht would become the first person who uses a wheelchair to ever win an Oscar.

While LeBrecht sees his film’s nomination as a watershed moment for the disability rights movement, he’s also deeply aware of how many barriers the industry inadvertently poses for creators with disabilities.

“It’s just been deeply frustrating but more, like, sobering," his co-director, Newnham, told MSNBC. “It makes me aware of how much further we have left to go.”

As LeBrecht pointed out, “We are 25 percent of the population, but representation on the screen is hovering around 1 percent.” For disabled creatives like him, disability isn’t the obstacle; it’s the deeply ingrained ableism of the industry that holds them back.

Disability has always been at the root of innovation. From the touchscreen technology on your iPad to the facial recognition software on your phone, disruptive technologies were first developed for people with disabilities before being enjoyed by everybody. Even the football huddle was invented by a deaf football player.

And every time a person with a disability has overcome all the challenges able-bodied culture has placed in front of them, they’ve made that industry better.

Disruptive technologies were first developed for people with disabilities before being enjoyed by everybody.

Take the fact that the Oscars set has always included stairs, for example. This not only poses a barrier for any presenter or nominee who uses crutches or a wheelchair; it’s also a well-documented hazard for women wearing towering high heels and floor-grazing gowns, as evidenced by Jennifer Lawrence’s iconic fall on her way up to the stage in 2013.

It’s not just the Oscars. Most award shows follow the same ableist standard. In 2019 when Ali Stroker won the Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical for her role in the “Oklahoma!” revival, she had to wait backstage because there was no ramp for her to access the stage in her wheelchair. When the show won the award for the best revival of a musical, she was prevented from joining the cast and crew onstage to accept her award because of this oversight.

The archetypal Oscars staircase is a symbol of ableism that needs to go.

“The stairs have been a tacit message to people with limited mobility that you don’t belong here,” LeBrecht said. “It’s painful.”

While he’s been told the stage will be accessible this year, he wants whatever changes were made to accommodate him to stick.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that this won't be the only year that the stage sends a message of inclusion,” he said.

Fighting for funding

July 2, 202001:43

As he explained, it’s not just about making sure nominated artists can get their awards with pride and dignity; it’s also about sending a message to every person with a disability watching at home.

It’s also not just about a physical ramp for the audience to the Oscars stage; it’s about the symbolic one from aspiring disabled creators to the film industry.

While many diversity and inclusion programs or mentorship initiatives have been created as a result of racial and gender equality activism, disability hasn’t received the same kind of enthusiasm and resources as other diversity efforts. That’s why LeBrecht created FWD-Doc, a group for documentary filmmakers with disabilities that offers networking, resources and toolkits for filmmakers committed to accessibility.

Disability hasn’t received the same kind of enthusiasm and resources as other diversity efforts.

There’s also Eryn Brown, a talent manager at Management 360, who founded the 1in4 campaign, an intersectional advocacy organization led by disabled creatives currently working in Hollywood to increase employment and authentic representation of disabled people. Brown told MSNBC that it’s the first organization of its kind dedicated to long-term institutional shifts to increase employment and authentic representation of disabled people behind and in front of the camera.

“Twenty-five percent of the U.S. adult population has a visible or invisible disability,” Brown said. “And yet we are vastly under-represented on Hollywood’s screens and stages, as well as in offices, crews and sets.”

David Radcliff, the chair of the Disabled Writers Committee at the Writers Guild of America West, said the expectation for aspiring writers and producers to work their way to the top by first becoming an intern or production assistant is a classic example of the way ableism is baked into the culture.

As a young writer, Radcliff, who has cerebral palsy, would interview for these roles and get one rejection after the other, hearing the same response over and over again: that he “wasn’t the right fit” and that they had “to go with another candidate.” In an emerging writers program organized by Disney, he was expected to stand for hours in a ballroom to meet executives. Since he uses crutches, he couldn’t participate the way that his nondisabled peers could.

“Endurance should not be a measurement of one's commitment for a career in entertainment,” he said. “You’re discounting everything else I bring to the table.”

He explained that these often unpaid and physically demanding requirements also filter out people who aren’t disabled, like single mothers and people who work more than one job.

“A lot of the gatekeepers who determine what is good or not are nondisabled people who are simply temporarily nondisabled people,” Radcliff pointed out. “When someone gets a disability, they are quietly erased.”

“The stairs have been a tacit message to people with limited mobility that you don’t belong here.”

We’ve seen the film industry tackle discrimination before. When April Reign started the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag six years ago, she changed how we talk about race in the award show and helped usher in a new focus on racial diversity in both who gets to be on stage and who gets to vote for who will be on stage.

While there are now more Black and brown nominees and presenters, that progress didn’t include disabled creators of color who have been overlooked as nominees or presenters.

“We’ve seen so much success with other diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives from the studios, and some of the other businesses involved in entertainment,” LeBrecht said. “The same kind of initiatives need to happen with people with disabilities.” This includes disabled creatives of all races and creeds.

The solution Radcliff, LeBrecht, Brown and Newnham all pointed to is the need for more people with disabilities to be made visible, especially in leadership. “Crip Camp” didn’t just impact people who watched the film; the mere presence of a disabled and nondisabled director working together made a lot of people within the industry realize how inaccessible the industry was at every level.

“The role of ‘Crip Camp’ was to reframe the way people see disability,” LeBrecht said. “The most interesting change has actually been within Hollywood.”

LeBrecht and Newnham both were encouraged seeing organizers of events and industry parties fix issues with accessibility to ensure both directors could enter through the same entrance, for example. These aren’t details; they’re major revolutions within an industry that hasn’t made accessibility a priority.

It's worth noting that by making these events more accessible for one person, it's not a matter of charity for disabled people. The principle of universal design is based on the idea that adapting products and environments to be accessible to people with disabilities makes them better for everybody.

LeBrecht mentioned the story of Kaitlyn Yang, a visual effects supervisor who uses a wheelchair and who asked for a ramp on set.

“They built one or two ramps so she can do her job,” LeBrecht said. “Because the ramps are there, the load outs at the end of the day are about an hour quicker.”

Closed captions help people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but a national survey of college students found that 98 percent of students who used them, and who were not all hard of hearing, found them helpful. Closed captioning can also help with comprehension, retention and understanding foreign accents. Just ask one of the many Americans who used subtitles to enjoy “Normal People” during quarantine. (Full disclosure: The person writing this article is one of them.)

“We’ve seen that when we have creators from marginalized communities, that fresh films and fresh TV shows appear that have a huge audience,” LeBrecht said. But as long as ableism clogs the talent pipeline, we all lose out.