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Deborah Calla Headshot

Awarding for Ability, Not Disability

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Last Friday, October 8th, I had the honor to produce the 2010 Media Access Awards. While the last thing Hollywood needs is another event where everyone slaps each other on the back for a job well done, this was an event, which deserved and deserves our full attention.

The Media Access Awards celebrates individuals and organizations in the entertainment and broadcast industries for their efforts in promoting the awareness and the accurate portrayal of the disability experience.

Funded by AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), CSA (Casting Society of America), PGA (Producers Guild of America), SAG (Screen Actors Guild), WGA West (Writers Guild of America West), Friends of California with Disabilities, Governor's Committee of Employment of People with Disabilities, the Reeve Foundation and the RJ Mitte Foundation and hosted by Emmy winning "KCBS" TV news anchor Pat Harvey, who shared being a caregiver to her sister, the Media Access Awards is more than a congratulatory event. It is a reminder that with the aging of baby boomers, wars and advancements in science, just in America there are today 56 million people living with some type of disability.

That is a staggering and sad statistic especially when this huge group is either non-existent or portrayed as stereotypes in the media. They are either problematic or inspirational. What we heard on stage from Robert David Hall, Danny Woodburn, Christopher Thornton and others, is their deep desire to change that.

The disability label, like any other label, keeps people in a box and robs them of opportunities that we able bodied people claim as our right.

"Breaking Bad" show creator Vince Gilligan said: "I just wrote Walter White Jr. (R.J. Mitte) character in "Breaking Bad" as someone who happened to have CP, cerebral palsy, not as someone who was defined by it." He cast RJ Mitte in the role who is an actor with Cerebral Palsy.

Weeks ago during an interview, I was asked about the reason for my involvement with the Media Access Awards. The intellectual reasoning is simple; I'm a socially responsible producer. But the greater reason is the gas in the engine. During my late husband's fight with cancer I came to know many people who had become disabled during their cancer struggle. Once survival was no longer in the forefront, all they wanted was to take their lives back, but often found we, the world, were not ready. Another reason, and a very hurtful one, was how my late husband was ignored by friends and acquaintances because they either had a tough time or didn't want to deal with a man whose appearance had become different; gaunt, skinny, bald, dragging his leg to walk. How that hurt him -- I'll never forget.

What we need to remember is that our media has a social responsibility and the power to educate and entertain. If we portray people with disabilities as complex human beings with dreams, desires, nobility and shortcomings like any other person, we will not only be tapping into a whole world of untold stories, we will be able to influence our society into being more tolerant and inclusive.

A perfect society where everyone is healthy and attractive is a paper thin society hiding the cracks that exist in each one of us.

Robert J. Ulrich, of UDK Casting receiving a casting award for his work and of his partners Eric Dawson, Carol Kritzer, in the hit show "Glee" said: "This is a movement with a bit of ground-speed. People like Ryan Murphy (Glee, Nip/Tuck) gets it. He continues to grow people with disabilities in poignant roles... he never writes down to the people." To illustrate Robert's point we showed a clip of Lauren Potter (Becky on "Glee") opposite lead cheer-monster Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), who reads her the riot act despite Becky's Down Syndrome. "You think you have it rough? Try auditioning for "Baywatch" and being told the show is going in another direction! Go hit the showers!"

All of us want and deserve the same things: inclusion and recognition of our humanity.

Congratulations to all the writers, producers, actors, casting directors and directors who get it.

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