Ramy actor Steve Way has criticised the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for "violating federal law" for years by not providing essential accommodations for people with disabilities at the Oscars.
This year marked the first time the Academy introduced a wheelchair ramp at the prestigious awards ceremony. While it was a step forward, Way, who was born with muscular dystrophy, said it highlighted years of neglect.
“At this year’s Oscars, we got a ramp, we got an ASL [American Sign Language] interpreter – for one segment – and everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is great,’” Way said during a pre-recorded panel on disability representation that aired on Saturday at the ATX Television Festival.
“It’s progress, yes. But you’re also admitting that for the past 31 years, the [Academy] has been violating federal law by not having a ramp and interpreters.”
A wheelchair ramp was installed at the 93rd Academy Awards to provide access to the stage for filmmaker James LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida. LeBrecht's documentary Crip Camp, which he wrote and directed with Nicole Newnham, was in the running for best documentary feature, but lost the award to Netflix's My Octopus Teacher.
However, according to other speakers on the panel, the wheelchair ramp was only added in at LeBrecht’s insistence.
"Jim foresaw a possible nomination and said, 'I am not going to be separate and unequal,'" actor and playwright Ryan Haddad (The Politician) said. "And that's why we got the stage that we got."
When Haddad, who has cerebral palsy, heard the wheelchair ramp was the first in the history of the Oscars, it dawned on him how much he was used to being marginalised by the industry.
“Oh, I’ve become so desensitised to our invisibility in this industry. I’ve become so accepting of not even being allowed to be part of the conversation,” he said.
According to Deadline, the panel brought together several industry professionals with disabilities to reflect on the lack of representation in entertainment, discussing ways in which to rectify the problems.
The panel featured Loudermilk actress Sofiya Cheyenne, Everything's Gonna Be Okay star Kayla Cromer and NCIS: New Orleans script writer Katherine Beattie.
“When it comes to awards season, everyone knows that if you play a disabled character without a disability, you’re going to win,” Cromer said. “But when you’re [a real disabled awards contender], you’re doing all this press and still not getting acknowledged, and it’s a whole different thing.”
The panellists said they often feel disheartened with the limited representation of disabilities in TV and film.
“For some reason whenever it’s about us, when it comes to diversity and inclusion and equity, we’re always left out,” Way said. “We’re always the exception to the rule, and it’s really getting a little old.”
Way added he was eager to see more journalists with disabilities working in the entertainment industry, those who could reflect on stories from an experienced place.
“If we want our stories to be told authentically, then we have to have people who understand what that’s like to help us through that,” Way said. “I don’t think it's unfair for us to request that because I think anything less than that … is not just unfair to us, it just keeps perpetuating this terrible cycle that we’ve seen in the industry for decades.”
He added: “The industry is 'definitely starting to change', I don’t think we would all be speaking right now if it wasn’t changing. But we’ve got a long way to go.”