THE BLOG
07/26/2016 03:48 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2017

Entertainment That's Helping Society Gain New Perspective On Disability

I'm pleased to co-author today's post with award-winning television producer and friend of Easterseals, Jonathan Murray. Jon is credited with inventing the modern reality television genre. His critically acclaimed series, Born This Way, returns for a second season tonight on A & E.

This is the true story of seven friends, navigating the typical trials and tribulations of young adulthood--from first kisses and signing a lease to landing that big job. They also happen to have Down syndrome.

And they're thriving. They're leaving their childhood homes, holding jobs, starting families and living their best lives. This isn't radical thinking. It isn't inspiring. It's just reality.

And it's a reality 1 in 5 people in our communities are living. Although disability is a normal part of life--touching us all at some point--there's a significant need for stories that amplify the voices of this population. Not just to reflect the diverse society we live in, but to also promote social change.

For example, many people in the disability community want and are capable of jobs and independence. Yet, the unemployment rate among Americans with disabilities is nearly twice that of people without disabilities. The disability community is an untapped resource for businesses looking for skills-based, work-ready employees. Can the entertainment industry help society get past the stigma and gain a new perspective about people with disabilities and their potential?

As storytellers, we're in a unique position to shift public perception and bring attention to the issues facing our diverse society. In our personal lives, we turn to entertainment, reality television in particular, to escape our own "realities." In between the popcorn-worthy moments, there are true life lessons about our collective humanity. Characters become our living room companions--introducing us to people we might not otherwise have an opportunity to meet.

Vice President Biden attributes Will and Grace
for helping to educate the American public about the LGBTQ community. The show is credited as one of the biggest reasons American public opinion moved steadily in the direction of approving same-sex nuptials. Black-ish and Scandal, shows with successful African American leads, tackle the issues facing their specific community, and the greater community. Of course, this is just a starting point--there is so much change that needs to occur for every minority group, but these shows at least start a valuable and compelling conversation.

The disability community is still waiting for that boost from Hollywood. When disability is a storyline, a rare feat in itself, it's often a tragic plot point or sensationalized heroism. Even more troublesome, the character is usually portrayed by an actor without a disability.

The Los Angeles Times
looked at the top 10 scripted TV shows on cable and broadcasting networks for the 2015-16 season. In these shows, using the broadest evolving definition of disability, there were 20 characters who had a disability--either physical or psychological--while only one out of the 20 actors had one.

Born This Way set out to change the way the world views young adults with disabilities and their potential--looking beyond the disability and focusing on the person: a son, daughter, friend, sibling, girlfriend, boyfriend or fiancé.

For the cast, Down syndrome is a minor part of their lives. They don't define themselves by their disability, but rather by their aspirations and journey to pursue their passions and lifelong dreams. The parents also play a key role--balancing the fine-line between helping their adult children gain independence and finally "letting go." It's something everyone can relate to--whether personally experiencing disability or not.

We all benefit from employing someone with Megan's entrepreneurial spirit, learning from John's comfort in the spotlight and embodying Elena's true joy for life.

Today, July 26, we observe the 26th anniversary of the monumental Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)--a pivotal point in Easterseals' history. Prior to this law, it was legal to discriminate on the basis of disabilities. As pioneers of the ADA, Easterseals has never stopped working to make the world more inclusive. From transportation to assistive technology and employment, Easterseals is at the forefront of continuing the accessibility movement.

While it's important to celebrate the past successes of the ADA, it's even more important to recognize that we're not living in the same world as we were 26 years ago -- and that there is still a lot to be done. People with disabilities are incredible members of our communities. Millennials living with disabilities, those who grew up with the ADA, have high expectations for their future. They want and deserve careers and independence. All they need is opportunity.

And it starts with taking on the stigma. Taking on the inequality. Taking on the challenges that people with disabilities and the disability community face across myriad issues and the landscape of American society.

The second season of Born This Way premieres tonight at 10 p.m. EST on the A&E network.