Although the people with disabilities comprise the largest minority community in the world (1 in 4 U.S. adults live with a disability), it remains one of the most underrepresented and underserved communities. In fact, according to a report funded by the Ford Foundation, people with disabilities are greatly lacking in representation both on screen and behind the camera. Only 2.7 percent of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies of 2016 were depicted with a disability, and among regular characters on primetime TV in the 2018-2019 season, only 2.1 percent had disabilities.
In this episode of Breaking the Bias, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal (virtually) sits down with Keely Cat-Wells, Founder & CEO of C Talent and Born This Way Foundation (BTWF) Advisory Board Member, for an unplugged conversation about the powerful role the media can play in positively representing, educating, and amplifying the voices of disabled people. Keely also shares how we can build belonging for people with disabilities by recognizing the diversity of their lived experiences, and addressing the current legal and systemic frameworks that contribute to a lack of disability representation and accessibility.
Read below for some key takeaways.
ASHISH: Can you share how you got into acting, and how your health diagnosis led you to found C Talent?
KEELY: “I was training to be a dancer. When I was around 16 years old, dancing was something that I wanted to do my entire life. I got into this prestigious dance college, but I got sick within just a couple of weeks of being there. Months later, I had to leave and was hospitalized for a very long time. Then long story short, I became disabled. Because of that, I really wanted to find a way that I could stay within the entertainment industry. I briefly looked at acting as an option. But at the same time, I really wanted to represent my friends who were at dance college. I was learning the ropes of being a talent agent while simultaneously performing on the side. I came to Los Angeles and lost an acting job. I used to say that I lost that job because of my disability, but I now say I lost that job because of Hollywood’s ableism, not because of my disability. This is what initiated C Talent. I noticed the lack of disability representation, education around disabilities, and a lack of accessibility. Everyone around me was saying, ‘diversity is the seat at the table,’ but I was saying, ‘what if we don’t have access to the door to get to that table?’”
ASHISH: What are some of the biggest stories you think are missing in Hollywood?
KEELY: “I see stories every day. I represent some incredible clients and they have created and written wonderful works that we’ve been trying to get into studios and production companies to be made. Some stories are very disability specific, because I think there’s two sides to it. On one side, yes, we are missing valuable stories about the disabled community. We have individual and interesting lived experiences about the way that we go about the world, because it wasn’t designed for us. On the other side, we are missing stories that anyone and everyone can relate to. The stories about love or the stories achieving great things, not despite disability, but because of it or because it happens to be a part of someone’s life. But it’s not the main focus. I think the stories that we really need to turn the camera on are the ones where disability is just incidental, and also the wonderful stories about disability that we’ve missed.”
ASHISH: Can you name one film that you like that presents disabled people in a positive light?
KEELY: “I think Disney’s Luca is great and really positive. It’s not about disability, but there is a main character in it who is a fisherman and he has one arm. One of the characters halfway through the movie says, ‘Oh, how did you lose your arm?’ Instead of the fisherman saying, ‘It was eaten by a sea monster.’ He just says, ‘I was just born like this.’ I was crying with happiness. Disney finally showed us such a great representation of what a disability should look like. I’ve noticed through some other scenes too, they had incidental, disabled people throughout the movie, or in one scene there just happened to be someone who used a wheelchair. Then in another, there was a boy with a leg brace and it had nothing to do with the storyline. They were just there. It was wonderful.”
ASHISH: How is your studio, Zetta Studios, revolutionizing accessibility?
KEELY: “I truly believe that if you create an accessible space, it will shift and lift oppression, and change the culture within that space. I think that oftentimes we talk about creating an inclusive environment that sometimes we just miss the very basic parts of accessibility. What if people don’t all have the same entrance? What if people feel excluded because they can’t sit at one of the lunch tables? I think a physical space has so much impact on that. The studio is really revolutionizing what accessibility looks like and what an inclusive environment looks like. By creating a space that is designed with everybody in mind, then we can start to have this location that influences everything that is made within it and hopefully beyond.”
ASHISH: In an interview with Forbes, you said that you hope to hire additional managers to your company, specifically people of color. How are you doing that, and what other things are you doing to increase diversity and inclusion in your industry?
KEELY: “When I first started to C Talent, I knew I wanted to hire a majority of people with disabilities (95%). I really wanted to take the opportunity of diversity with integrity, but something I missed was intersectionality. The Black Lives Matter protests were a big wake up call for me, as well as for many, to look at diversity. I wanted to look into diversity not only in the disability field, but then I realized that diversity goes so much further than one minority group or one marginalized community. In the beginning, we barely made an effort to become intersectional and look at all cultures and all minorities, but now this is a big focus for us.”
Related: Unconscious Bias Training, Explained
ASHISH: What does “empathy” mean to you?
KEELY: I think empathy is trying to see through the lived experiences of others, while still recognizing that you will never be able to experience what they have experienced. My boyfriend actually opened up my eyes to what he felt as a Black man during the BLM protests and that he was experiencing generational oppression. During that time, Irealized how privileged I am, living my life with no idea that that was even happening. Then, I thought of the education systems and this massive systemic problem that we consistently face. I was just looking at it from my perspective of people who have a disability, which is so important, but what about Black disabled people? What about, Asian disabled people? What about one of these other things that I just completely looked past? Empathy is trying to look past your own experiences and getting in the shoes of others while recognizing and making it very clear that you’ll never be able to physically experience what they have to.”
ASHISH: Can you tell us about the Fair Labor Standards Act, and your fight against this statute.
KEELY: “About a year ago, I learned about the law code called the 14 C, which is a law that still allows disabled people to be legally paid subminimum wage. On average around 300,000 people in America work on $3 an hour, which is obviously criminally low. There are even some people who earn 70 cents an hour and it’s legal. We are trying to eliminate the 14 C and make it very clear that disabled people are worthy of getting paid the same as everybody else. It shouldn’t be legal to pay people subminimum wage. This law also shows the way that society views disabled people which has a massive effect on people’s mental health and beyond. It has a domino effect on everything.”
ASHISH: What is one action step, or Microprogression™ as we call it at Consciously Unbiased, that people can take to build belonging for people with disabilities?
KEELY: “Accept access requirements as an ultimatum, not an option. They are not negative, they are not going to cost you a whole load of money, just do it. Don’t reply to people, frustratingly or in a grumpy manner when they ask for captions or they ask for an ASL interpreter, just accept it.”
Disney Movie: Luca
Sign up and join the Consciously Unbiased movement today!
Get the latest DEI news, events, and research straight to your email and let's create a social impact together.