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A trend toward more inclusive casting practices in Hollywood is also taking hold in Israel’s entertainment industry.
On Sunday, April 25, the 93rd Academy Awards were indicative of this progress. The Oscars ceremony featured an ASL interpreter in the event’s media room for the first time, in addition to various components of the ceremony also being inclusive, such as closed captioning, audio descriptions, and its first-ever accessible stage with a ramp. This was in addition to the disability-themed production “Crip Camp” being nominated for the Best Documentary Feature and Marlee Matlin, the only deaf actor to win the Academy Award, presenting the Oscars for Best Documentary Short and Best Documentary Feature. The evening was a powerful manifestation of progress in the entertainment industry, which can set an influential paradigm for all sectors in the realms of inclusion and social justice.
Ahead of the ceremony, the Ruderman Family Foundation announced a new $1 million grant to the Academy Foundation which will help the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences champion new perspectives on filmmaking and film history, as well as an accessible and equitable experience for audiences of all backgrounds.
Last year, the Foundation had already launched a partnership with the Academy to promote more opportunities for people with disabilities. We have also partnered with the Sundance Film Festival and its parent organization, the Sundance Institute, to make disability inclusion and diversity a priority at the festival itself and during the entire year.
Hollywood’s growing willingness to create opportunities for people with disabilities is reflected in the Foundation’s research. In 2016, we found that only 5% of top show characters with disabilities on American television were played by actors with disabilities. But last year, we published a new study which documented that 22% of all characters with disabilities on network television were portrayed authentically by an actor with the same disability as of 2018.
Inauthentic representation in television and film reinforces the continued segregation of people with disabilities in society; countering that injustice should be a top priority for the entertainment industries in the US and Israel. Authentic representation and the broader inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life is also strongly aligned with Jewish values such as tikkun olam (repairing the world), and accordingly, our Foundation has undertaken this mission from both our American and Israeli headquarters.
For the past three years, the Foundation has been a partner in the production of the Israeli documentary series Perfect, whose creator, Assaf Greenbaum, has paralysis on the left side of his body. Perfect chronicles Greenbaum’s journey to accept his own disability with the help of a group of other people with disabilities who authentically discuss their daily lives. It offer viewers a rare look inside living with a disability.
The Foundation was also a partner in the production of the series Vicky and I, which cast a deaf actor in a major role, marking the first time that an actor with a disability appeared in a prime-time television show in Israel. The series was nominated for five awards at the 2017 Awards of the Israeli Television Academy, including Best Comedy Series and Best Screenplay for a Comedy Series.
IN 2017, we awarded the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion to Academy Award-winning actor Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, for her actions to promote the inclusion of actors and people with disabilities in Hollywood. As part of the efforts surrounding her award, Matlin led a roundtable discussion on the issue of authentic representation that included the participation of dozens of Israeli film and television industry executives.
This follows a similar strategy that is implemented by the Foundation in the US. NBCUniversal recently adopted our guidelines to open auditions to actors with disabilities for each of its new film and television productions. CBS Entertainment made a similar commitment in 2019.
The Foundation also amplifies the voices of Hollywood influences who are passionate about disability inclusion, such as actor Octavia Spencer, who last June appeared in a public service announcement on the Foundation’s call for inclusive and authentic casting; actor Taraji P. Henson, who last October received the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion; and filmmakers Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly, who were honored by the Foundation last year for their activism on the issue of authentic representation.
Whether it be in the US or Israel, the entertainment industry carries vast potential for driving greater inclusion in society. Entertainment shapes popular culture in a way that affects every person, in one way or another. That is why the Foundation chose entertainment as a vehicle for igniting change. We developed relationships with actors and studios, emphasizing that disability is an essential part of diversity, after years in which both the American and Israeli entertainment industries had only defined diversity based on race, gender and other minority groups.
As an attorney, my appreciation for the important role civil rights plays in our society has also motivated this work. The disability community is a socially, economically and politically excluded and segregated class. By extension, disability rights are civil rights. That is why the Foundation will not hesitate to use every tool in its arsenal to stand up for those rights, including the practice of making bold public statements on the issue of authentic representation and not shying away from potential controversy.
Ultimately, we hope that Israel’s entertainment industry increasingly embraces inclusive casting practices and creates more opportunities for people with disabilities, which represents a crucial embodiment of Jewish and human values alike.
The writer is a social activist, philanthropist and president of the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation, which champions the inclusion of people with disabilities.