Can We Recruit Meryl Streep and Her Supporters to Actually Do Something on Disability Employment?

Actress Meryl Streep accepts Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 8, 2017. (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)


By: Michael Bernick

We have a very vibrant and active “disability” (differently abled) community in California. But Ms. Meryl Streep, who presented herself as a champion for disability rights and employment in her recent Golden Globes Speech, has not been a participant in this community — at least in the 25 years I’ve been involved in disability employment. In fact, Ms. Streep and the journalists and activists who have rushed to praise her this past week, seemingly have done nothing for disability empowerment beyond speechmaking, tweeting and posting on Facebook about “compassion.” Can we change this?

There are many people in the entertainment industry who have been active in disability rights, especially employment. Actors for Autism, headed by Dr. Alisa Wolf, and counting among its board members Adam Shawn, Charlene Tilton, Brad Koepenick and Stan Taffel, provides vocational training for adults with autism in film, television and animation, and seeks to expand employment opportunities in the entertainment industry. The Art of Autism seeks to promote the artistic efforts of adults with developmental differences. The California State Employment Development Department has a Disability Employment Initiative that is trying to find assignments for actors with disabilities, and the Screen Actors Guild has a committee dedicated to employment for actors with disabilities.

These are a few of many examples, just within the employment field. The point is that there is no dearth of organized efforts already underway, and issues identified in the entertainment field.

Following the Golden Globes, several disability activists immediately identified the big gap between Ms. Streep’s speech and action. Emily Ladau, a fine writer on disability rights, did a posting, “I’m a Disabled Woman Who’s Not Celebrating Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech,” characterizing Ms. Streep’s speech as addressing disability “at a surface level without ever moving beyond.” She noted that “while non-disabled celebrities like Meryl Streep are getting kudos for trying to be the voice of the people by touching on an incident that has zero impact on policy, no real change is being made.”

It may be that Ms. Streep has been involved in providing funds or other support, but has been doing so quietly, without wanting to attract notice. If so, her willingness to do so anonymously only brings added credit to her. But, if she has not been involved — and especially as we know most of her supporters have not been involved — now is our opportunity to recruit them. And here are some of the points you and I might make.

First, there is the longstanding issue of neurotypical actors playing parts of individuals with developmental differences. Karin Willison, disability editor at The Mighty, a thoughtful disability rights website, has a good summary of this issue in a recent post on Ms. Streep’s comments. Ms. Willison references a Ruderman Family Foundation study finding that “only 1% of TV characters have disabilities — and out of that 1%, 95% are played by able-bodied actors.” Ms. Willison goes on to note that “although actors with disabilities can’t get work, actors without disabilities playing people with disabilities tend to receive dozens of awards and nominations,” and she adds, “the disability community refers to this as ‘cripping up,’ and it’s part of a long tradition of usually-white actors co-opting the stories of minority groups instead of supporting people from these cultures in representing themselves.”

Second, there is the role of writers and other creatives in the disability community as part of the creative process in television, movies and other media. How many movies, television shows or video games draw on the skills of writers with disabilities, even in storylines that involve characters with disabilities? How many of Ms. Streep’s own productions have employed actors or writers with disabilities? Has she ever asked about this before the Golden Globes speech? What about the producers and directors who cheered her speech?

Third, beyond the entertainment industry is the more general issue of employment of adults with disabilities. I wrote last month about the unemployment numbers for adults with autism: an estimated 60-70 percent of adults on the autism spectrum either unemployed or in marginal employment. The numbers are no different for other parts of the disability community. How many employment opportunities for adults with disabilities are Ms. Streep and her supporters providing outside of entertainment, in, say public relations or administration? Who does Ms. Streep employ in her personal retinue of assistants, gardeners, handypersons, home care and other personal services?

Some in the disability community are happy that Ms. Streep even mentioned disability in her speech. I think we’re way beyond those days, and should expect a greater accountability, a greater consistency of personal actions with political “compassion,” among Ms. Streep and her supporters. At least I hope so.

Can We Recruit Meryl Streep and Her Supporters to Actually Do Something on Disability Employment?