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The Emmys: Seeing African Americans in Hollywood

Washington, Aug. 26 – For the first time in history, a TV show staring people with disabilities has been nominated for an Emmy Award – and one of the stars, John, is African American! The glass ceiling-breaking show is Born This Way, A&E Network’s critically-acclaimed and award-winning original docuseries. Born This Way was nominated for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program. In addition, two episodes were nominated for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program.

The show documents real life as John continues to pursue his dream of becoming a rap artist and entertainer, but has a lot of life skills to master before he is ready to live on his own.

Produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, the series follows a group of seven young adults with Down syndrome along with their family and friends in Southern California. Recently, the series was chosen as one of six honorees for the 2016 Television Academy Honors, an award that recognizes television programming that inspires, informs and motivates. That was a wonderful award.

However, the Emmys also really matter. Until now, no series starring people with disabilities of ANY background has ever been nominated for an Emmy Award – and Born This Way includes positive images of African Americans. We know that basketball star Magic Johnson has AIDS, dyslexia and ADHD. Hall of Famer Michael Jordan also has ADHD. Actor Danny Glover has dyslexia. And we are all aware of the successes of famous musicians Harry Belafonte and Stevie Wonder, both of whom are individuals with a disability. It is really important when people with disabilities can be seen by the ABILITIES they have.

Born This Way tears down barriers in many ways.

Not only does it star people with disabilities, those individuals are diverse. In addition to the fact that John is African American, Elena’s mother is from Japan and they show the immigrant experience. Cristina is a Hispanic woman. This is important for several reasons. One is that when disability is depicted in pop culture, it tends to be all white. Real story telling requires exploring people with multiple minority status (i.e. African American + disability). Secondly, far too many African Americans and Hispanics in America who have a developmental disability are not receiving the diagnosis, school accommodations and high expectations they need to succeed. Only 61 percent of students with disabilities receive a high school diploma. Also, there are currently 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America – and the majority of them are people of color.

The individuals who star in the Emmy-nominated show and their families are models of how disability can and should be accepted and addressed in minority communities. It seems almost impossible that it has taken until 2016 for such a thing to happen. After all, one-in-five Americans has a disability. But according to GLAAD, which tracks minority representation in scripted programs, only one percent of characters we see on TV have disabilities. Moreover, the Ruderman Family Foundation just released a major white paper, which found that more than 95 percent of those all too few characters with disabilities that actually are on television are played by actors without disabilities. This lack of self-representation points to a systemic problem of ableism—discrimination against people with disabilities—in the television industry. It also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people with disabilities given that there is no widespread outcry against this practice.

Thousands of people through the Television Academy get to vote on the Emmy Awards. We urge them to screen Born This Way and then vote for it, not for affirmative action reasons, but because it is a beautifully crafted show with themes that resonate for all of us, disability or not.

This is nothing short of a social justice issue where a marginalized group of people is not given the right to self-representation. We must change this inequality through more inclusive shows and casting, through the media holding the industry responsible, through the avoidance of stereotypical stories, and ultimately through the telling of stories that depict people with disabilities without focusing only on the disability. Born This Way, in starring people with disabilities, hits all the marks while also being a fun and fabulous show. It deserves the votes of people today!

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RespectAbility Staff
RespectAbility Staff

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