By Chris Hadley and David H. Schwartz
Note: A version of this article is also available on The Huffington Post, and can be viewed here.
In mainstream movies and TV, characters with disabilities have all too often been subjects of pity, scorn and denigration. Even worse, actors and filmmakers with disabilities continue to experience inequality and discrimination in the traditional Hollywood industry; problems that have long affected the community as a whole.
Where the big studios and TV networks have failed, independently-produced web series like MY GIMPY LIFE, UPLIFTING DYSTROPHY, STARE AT SHANNON, DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER and others have succeeded, while giving talented performers, writers, directors and production talent greater opportunities to excel in the entertainment industry, and to produce content that’s both entertaining and realistic.
For Shannon DeVido, the star and creator of the acclaimed comedy series STARE AT SHANNON, bringing viewers true-to-life moments and stories from the perspective of people with disabilities through her own humorous experiences in each episode, is the biggest key to the success of her series.
“I think the way to combat stereotypes is to show an honest alternative to the skewed image the entertainment industry has created,” she says. “That’s why web series featuring disability are so important. They’re written and produced by people who live it, rather than able bodied people writing what they think people with disabilities feel and how they act.”
Meanwhile, DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER gives viewers a refreshing, realistic view of friendships between people who are Deaf and hearing, while demonstrating some of the awkward moments that can come for those unaccustomed to communicating with the Deaf on a regular basis.
“Part of the reason I wanted to create this show was because my friends and I were tired of seeing stereotypical portrayals of Deaf people,” explains series co-star/co-creator Craig Fogel. “We were looking for richer stories beyond the usual ‘how will I manage a relationship with my hearing partner?’, or, ‘how will I ever overcome this obstacle of not being able to hear?”
Co-star/co-creator Maleni Chaitoo’s frustration with Hollywood’s out-of-touch view of the disabled/Deaf community, and its highly inaccurate, stereotypical portrayal of such characters in movies and TV, was another key factor that led her and Fogel to create DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER.
“As a Deaf audience member, I’ve watched the TV shows and movies that feature Deaf characters lately, and I haven’t been happy with the stories I’ve seen,” she says. “These Deaf characters were created by hearing writers who didn’t have any experience interacting with Deaf people, and the lack of understanding of their native language and culture shows.”
“I’ve also seen a number of hearing actors taking these Deaf roles and, with their lack of ASL (American Sign Language) fluency, watching their performances is worse than sitting through a play with actors doing bad fake accents,” adds Chaitoo. “It has also bothered me that the topics or plot lines about Deaf people are not realistic, and are giving general audiences false information and wrong impressions.”
Despite these difficulties, much has changed for the better, thanks to the level playing field and creative independence provided by web series. “For web series specifically, there are many ways that the creation of characters (with disabilities) has improved,” explains filmmaker/human rights activist Dominick Evans. First and foremost, actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and producers with disabilities are able to create their own content, which was very difficult before.”
In addition, web series provide filmmakers with disabilities a chance to get their product out directly to viewers – with no gatekeepers standing in the way. “You don’t have to deal with all of the challenges that come with getting your work seen, such as dealing with distributors,” says Evans, who adds that actors/filmmakers with disabilities also have the opportunity to exhibit their talents before viewers of all demographics, as well as potential collaborators.
“A lot of times, new filmmakers are overlooked for ‘named/known’ creators, and very good work is ignored,” Evans explains. “Thanks to the web, you are in control of releasing your work, promoting your work, and so, a lot of creators (with disabilities) are finally getting their work seen by larger audiences…worldwide audiences.”
Whether they’re disabled or not, the benefits for actors and filmmakers in creating original content for the web also extend far beyond the boundaries of the small screen. In fact, adds Chaitoo, the personal impact that web series created by and for the disabled/Deaf community will have the greatest effect on a wide range of audiences.
“I think web series made by Deaf creators and creators with disabilities also benefit the Deaf audiences and audiences made up of people with disabilities— they can boost their self-esteem and help them feel less down after facing the struggles they experience every day,” she says. “Anything created by people with disabilities that comes from their experience can help build the bridges for people with various backgrounds to get connected.”
Evans hopes that, because of shows like MY GIMPY LIFE, STARE AT SHANNON, and DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER, major studios and TV networks will take the time to work alongside actors and filmmakers who are Deaf or have a disability, and give them a chance to contribute their stories and experiences to the filmmaking process.
“What traditional filmmakers need to learn is that disabled people have voices. We have stories to tell. We have the ability to be a part of the creation process,” says Evans. “Many of us are talented. Many of us can provide a unique perspective, severely lacking in the mainstream media. They need to work with us, because we know disability better than they ever could, and what they are doing, when their stories include disability, is almost always harmful to the disability community.”
DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER
STARE AT SHANNON
Follow Dominick Evans on Twitter