Washington, D.C., March 2 – After a long hiatus due to production delays relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, NBC’s New Amsterdam returns to the screen Tuesday evening. Since Season 1, New Amsterdam overwhelmingly has been an example of best practices through the hiring of actors with disabilities, working with consultants to ensure accurate storylines and including conversations about diverse topics within the disability community.
During summer 2020, Executive Producer David Schulner and Casting Director David Caparelliotis spoke to a group of 30 disabled individuals working behind the camera who were taking part in the 2020 Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities by the disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility. Caparelliotis and Schulner joined RespectAbility’s VP, Communications Lauren Appelbaum for a conversation on how New Amsterdam is a case study in best practice of on-camera representation.
“Representation matters, and I think that simple phrase sums up a lot of what we do,” Schulner said during the conversation with the Lab participants in July 2020. “The stories we tell are stories that I haven’t seen other places… If people see themselves as important enough to have stories told about them, then you’re shining a light on people who have been in the shadows for far too long.”
Actors Rachel Handler, who is an amputee, and Matthew Jeffers, who is a little person, were cast in roles as medical professionals, showing people with disabilities not just as patients but as people who are helping others.
“No roles were defined before we saw actors for them,” Caparelliotis said, explaining that “actors would define the roles.”
“Every actor has an individuality, has a place that they come from, and it just so happened that these two actors, when we called them in, clicked in the roles that we call them in for,” he added, saying that there is an “active effort on our part to forward this sort of authentic casting in this show as often as we can.”
In fact, Schulner said they have a wall of headshots of actors with disabilities that they want to write roles for “because these are amazing actors who just aren’t being used enough.”
An important episode in season 2 featured Gigi Cunningham, a young Black actress with Down syndrome. RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee had the honor of consulting on the episode’s script, which touched on so many hot-button topics, from abortion to conservatorship, conservative Christianity to inadequate health care in rural areas, and so much more.
Schulner, who identifies as a “straight, white, neurotypical male,” was intentional about hiring a diverse writers’ room to be able to tell diverse stories such as these. After hiring Cunningham, Schulner was cognizant that it was her first time acting on camera and that “the TV and film production machine, it’s not set up to help these actors.” As such, he called the president of NBC, asking for more time on set for Cunningham to do this role. Production was given a full extra day in order for Cunningham to feel more comfortable on set, which resulted in a very effective and moving episode.
Including people with disabilities on screen is not only the right thing to do but also financially valuable. According to Nielsen, the disability market is worth one trillion dollars and is the third largest market in the U.S.
“This is not social justice work – diversity equals better stories, studies have shown that diversity in the workplace equals better outcome,” Schulner said. “So, selfishly, hiring these actors, hiring these writers, hiring these directors – people with disabilities can only make our show and any show stronger, more exciting, showing different points of view. It’s essential to art and it’s essential to our society.”
As the success of New Amsterdam shows, including people with disabilities is a win-win for everyone. New Amsterdam airs on Tuesdays on NBC at 10/9c. Seasons 1 and 2 can be viewed online or on Hulu.
Thank you for this article which I only now found! I had never watched “New Amsterdam” until last week — when I watched it solely because they cast two of my favorite veteran actors, Timothy Omundson, survivor of a massive stroke, and John Christopher Jones, who has Parkinson’s. I hope you follow up with this show with its continuing track record of inclusion. The same episode had a major plotline for Sandra Mae Frank, too. Best of all, the inclusion doesn’t focus just on these characters’ conditions; these plots give them backstory, personality and goals for their lives. They get to be three-dimensional. I plan to keep watching the series just because of the great job it’s doing with inclusion while allowing the characters to be about more than their conditions.