From Screen to Society: How Television Increases Disability Inclusion
We may watch television to relax, but watching that screen can also widen our world view. Gail Williamson a well-known talent agent at Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin and Associates heads their Diversity Department working specifically with diverse talent with disabilities. To commemorate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, LEAD Center talked to Williamson about her work and how authentic portrayals of people with disabilities on television can help increase inclusion in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Williamson knows from personal experience that television can help society become more accepting of people with disabilities. Her son, Blair, has Down syndrome. According to Williamson, "When he was a baby, an entire restaurant would go silent when our family entered because people were not used to seeing babies with Down syndrome in public like that. Then, when he was a little older, Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome, played the character Corky on Life Goes On After the show went on the air, and waiters started asking my son, ‘What would you like to order?’ instead of asking me or his father, ‘What would he like to eat?’"
Over the years Williamson has noticed a parallel between those promoting LGBTQ rights and those supporting disability rights. Recounting how television led to more public acceptance of the LGBTQ community, she noted, “I have worked closely with a lot of advocacy groups over the years. I think disability and the LGBTQ community were in the same place in the 1980s, and then shortly after that we had Will and Grace and there was a big leap.”
Williamson is currently excited by the reality TV show Born This Way. The show features a cast of young adults with Down syndrome and is produced by the influential reality television creator, Jonathan Murray. According to Williamson, Born This Way is having a powerful, positive impact outside of Hollywood. “We know from fan mail that people are watching the show and choosing to carry babies with Down syndrome to term. The show demonstrates people with Down syndrome having full and happy lives, which is something I don’t think people were used to seeing. The show is giving parents hope.” To date, Born This Way has aired for two seasons and won an Emmy and received Television Academy Honors, for creating social change.
People with Down syndrome are also making headway in the television genres of drama and comedy. Williamson talks about her own son’s career and influence on the industry. Blair had a breakthrough role on the television drama Nip/Tuck. His acting skill impressed show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. "When my son was on Nip/Tuck and the show was done, both Brad and Ryan said, ‘We didn’t know we could get that much from an actor with Down syndrome.’” Williamson goes on to explain that “they then turned around and wrote the role of Becky” on the comedy show Glee for a character with Down syndrome, played by the actress Lauren Potter (who was originally one of Williamson’s clients). “Work begets work. These positive experiences stay in your head,” she says.
Williamson hopes that her work and that of her son leads to more opportunities for actors with disabilities, and that their efforts will also result in more positive experiences for people with disabilities when they apply for other types of jobs. "I hope that the images we present of people with intellectual disabilities in TV and film will make it a more inclusive world, so that when someone with a disability is interviewing for a job, the interviewer will know they can do it because they’ve seen people on TV holding down a job.” Williamson also suggests that some tricks of the acting trade can help people with disabilities when they are preparing to interview for jobs. “Improvisation could be a great addition to employment training,” she recommends. “It would be really useful for a person with a disability to act out how to interact with a boss or coworkers in a safe space.”
When asked about the wider impact of her advocacy in Hollywood, Williamson replied, “I hope my work and the work of other disability advocates in other areas are making it so that people with and without disabilities can all work together.”
Gail Williamson has been an advocate for performers with disabilities for close to 30 years. She started with the California Governor's Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities in their Media Access Office and today is a well-respected agent for performers with disabilities. You can learn more about her work at kmrtalent.com and www.DSiAM.org.