Danny Woodburn Challenges Hollywood Over Inclusion And Diversity

Danny Woodburn is challenging Hollywood. Inclusion and diversity are popular buzzwords in Hollywood these days. Despite the fuss and fury over social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, there’s another group Hollywood has been ignoring for decades, and still continues to ignore. Danny Woodburn is accusing Hollywood of ignoring a fifth of the U.S. population. Woodburn is using social media to do it: the Huffington Post, Facebook, and Twitter.

Which minority is ignored the most in Hollywood, according to Danny Woodburn? Approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population is African-American. Roughly 17 percent of the United States is Hispanic. Over 56 million people — 19 percent of Americans — have a disability. People with disabilities are seldom considered when scriptwriters create characters and casting directors attempt to fill the roles. Woodburn wants to correct that.

Danny Woodburn’s article for the Huffington Post discusses the way Hollywood’s attempts at inclusion and diversity either ignore people with disabilities or cast non-disabled actors in roles where the characters are supposed to be people with disabilities. Danny Woodburn is an actor, writer, producer, and comic. Woodburn won the DREAM Award in 2009 for achievement in promoting success and inclusion for people with disabilities. Woodburn also won the Harold Russell Award in 2010 for his SAG union advocacy on behalf of actors with disabilities. Woodburn, a Little Person, has long been an advocate of inclusion and civil rights for people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities are systematically excluded from the topic of diversity and inclusion whenever a discussion comes up… The diversity discussion has not been very diverse… You don’t get to call it inclusion or diversity and… decide not to mention people with disability. And you have not mentioned them. I’ve searched. I’ve read. I’ve listened. I’ve watched all the recent media coverage on ‘diversity,’ and disability is not part of the discussion.”

Woodburn, who is Co-Vice-Chair on the SAG-AFTRA Performers With Disability Committee and a member of the National Advisory Board ReelAbilities Film Festival, also asked the following questions.

“Why do I need to educate you about access to employment, when you hold a casting call for a person in a wheelchair on the second floor of building without an elevator? Clearly, you had no intention of hiring someone in a wheelchair. Why do I need to educate you about casting a non-amputee person to play an amputee; yet you want advice from the actor who happens to be an amputee, whom you never even auditioned.”

The days are long past when any casting director would day hire Sidney Toler or Warner Oland to play Charlie Chan. Why are actors without disabilities hired to play characters with disabilities? Woodburn isn’t the only one asking these questions.

Dr. Frances Ryan, in the Guardian, compared casting able-bodied actors to play characters with disabilities to acting in blackface.

“While ‘blacking up’ is rightly now greeted with outrage, ‘cripping up’ is still greeted with awards. Is there actually much difference between the two? In both cases, actors use prosthetics or props to alter their appearance in order to look like someone from a minority group. In both cases they often manipulate their voice or body to mimic them. They take a job from an actor who genuinely has that characteristic, and, in doing so, perpetuate that group’s under-representation in the industry.”

In the Independent, actress Victoria Wright encouraged hiring actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities.

“Due to the increasing use of Computer Generated Imagery to create Computer Generated Impairments, Hollywood is shrinking non-disabled actors to play Hobbits and shrinking our career opportunities… Disabled actors could save Hollywood studios millions of dollars because they wouldn’t need to CGI us.”

“But in those rare films where disabled actors have played the leads, like Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, so good in Children of a Lesser God in 1986, or Peter Dinklage, who has dwarfism and played the lead in The Station Agent in 2003… their real life disabilities, far from a detraction, give their performances an edge that no CGI could replicate.”

In an interview with CNN, Danny Woodburn expressed similar thoughts, pointing out that using CGI to make able-bodied actors look as through their characters were people with disabilities was akin to blackface.

Danny Woodburn accused Hollywood of talking about inclusion and diversity, but not doing anything about it where people with disabilities are concerned.

“When you who have the media’s eyes and ears, effectively the world, and make no mention of your struggling brothers and sisters who meet with a whole set of obstacles everyday that you take for granted or overlook or just don’t know about, then you are not speaking of real inclusion.”

In a recent Facebook posts, Woodburn pointed out that the New York Times article on “diverse TV” only discussed race and gender. Woodburn noted the way CBS treated Marlee Matlin — and every Deaf person watching the Super Bowl — with disrespect.

Actor/director Eli Van Sickel asked HowlRound “if able-bodied actors continue to be cast in these roles, what opportunities are left for disabled actors?” Danny Woodburn — and an increasing amount of other people — are asking the same question.

[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]