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Disabled Actors See Discrimination, Seek More Roles

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was intended to provide greater access for the disabled to jobs, public services and to public areas. Hollywood actors say the law has had a positive impact, but that the entertainment business still offers too few roles to disabled performers.

There is some good news, says actor Robert David Hall, who plays Doctor Al Robbins on the popular drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The actor, who lost both legs in a 1978 car accident, has a role in one of the most popular shows on television.

"Doc Robbins is a character who is a talented, slightly off-center medical examiner, who also happens, strangely enough like myself, to be a double amputee," Mr Hall noted. "No one mentions it on the show, and God, I like that!"

In his role as coroner, Mr. Hall says he does his job well and that sends a message to viewers, that the disabled can be just as good at their jobs as anyone else. He says the message, however, has not gotten through to all of Hollywood's producers.

The actor chairs a committee on disabled performers for the Screen Actors Guild, an industry union. A report commissioned by the guild says 20 percent of Americans have a mental or physical disability, yet less than two percent of television roles show disabled performers, and just half a percent are speaking roles.

The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act opened many doors, outlawing discrimination against the disabled in the workplace. But the report says barriers still remain for disabled actors. Olivia Raynor of UCLA's National Arts and Disability Center co-authored the study. She says 60 percent of disabled performers try to disguise, as much as they can, the fact that they have a disability.

"There was also an element of faking it, that people with disabilities felt that at times they had to minimize or fake, and I think this particularly was true with people who are hearing impaired," she explained.

She says the hearing-impaired often watch lip movements to understand people speaking, but that hearing-impaired actors are reluctant to ask directors to look directly at them when giving instructions. She says they fear that drawing attention to their disability will make it harder to get work in the future.

Blind actor Rick Boggs works in commercials, movies, and on television shows, and has appeared in the series Ally McBeal and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. He complains that his agents will not send him to an audition unless a character is meant to be blind, and says that excludes him from many roles he could perform.

He calls that discrimination, and says others in the business have faced it before.

"Our African American brothers and sisters in the union are well aware of the struggle that we are going through," said Mr. Boggs. "They remember the times when an African American could not audition for a role unless it was specifically written as an African American part, and now people with disabilities are having to fight exactly the same fight."

William Peterson, a star of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, says his disabled colleague, Robert David Hall, got the role of medical examiner because he could play a complex character.

"We had to find someone who was smart, someone who had a sense of humor because it's a really gross job, someone who could handle the language, which in and of itself is almost an impossible task, and someone who we all had chemistry with. Well, it's a tall order. David fit all those things," said Mr. Peterson.

William Schallert, 83, walks with a cane today, the result of an age-related disability. A former president of the Screen Actors Guild, he says the effort to get more roles for disabled actors is partly about fairness.

"It's also about a larger social purpose, which is to show the diversity of our society, especially to the children who spend more time watching television than they do in school. If you don't do that, you're failing to fulfill an obligation as entertainers to bring life to the screen that has reality," he explained.

These actors say movies and TV shows that reflect the diversity of life also make for interesting and engaging entertainment.