How Cool is That? I Hired an Actor with a Disability
I do not know about you but I was glued to the television on Sunday, June 9, watching the 2019 Tony Awards which recognize achievement in Broadway productions during the previous season.
Nights like this, along with the Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes, are sacred in our household. Only those who pay attention and agree to hold the dishing until commercial breaks can be present...something that drives my husband, Greg, nuts.
While I am a big fan of host James Corden (of Carpool Karaoke fame) and thought he did a stellar job trying to use humor as a hook to keep the audience engaged, the show’s ratings hit an all-time low with only 5.5 million Americans tuning in. Some critics blamed it on the lack of a blockbuster show like Hamilton being in the mix while others questioned whether it was possible to attract younger viewers using this traditional format.
Despite all of this, the diversity of winners in some categories stood out as groundbreaking among most critics as well as diversity and inclusion nerds like myself.
The musical Hadestown, based on an ancient Greek myth, took home the most awards and many of them went to women. Jessica Paz was the first woman to win for Best Sound Design of a Musical. Also, Anais Mitchell won for Best Score of a Musical, and its director, Rachel Chavkin, took home the statue for Best Director of a Musical. Each was the only woman nominated in the category.
But it was Ali Stroker’s win as Best Featured Actress in a Musical that made history. She was the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony for her portrayal of the saucy, sexy Ado Annie in the revival of the Broadway classic Oklahoma. Her acceptance speech brought tears to my eyes. “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” she said. “You are.”
Unfortunately, this triumph was bittersweet after Stroker was unable to join her fellow castmates and producers on stage when Oklahoma won Best Revival of a Musical because there was no ramp from the audience she could access. How was it possible that plans surrounding Ali Stroker’s performance in the television production failed to consider how she would move freely in the venue?
In an interview published by the New York Times a few days after the show, Stroker was quoted as saying the Tony Awards and Radio City Music Hall “did the best they could” but that she had hoped there would be a ramp built for her. Stroker shared with other reporters that backstage areas are generally not accessible to performers with disabilities.
As someone who has worked to help raise awareness of the challenges people living with disabilities face in all aspects of life, I was dumbfounded by the glaring oversight. Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act has successfully eliminated many of the physical barriers preventing those with mobility impairments from entering buildings or using public transportation, what happened to Stroker is a reminder that the needs of people with disabilities remain an afterthought.
For some, this was further proof that people with disabilities continue to be treated like second class citizens in the United States. While this may be true in some situations, one thing I have learned over the years is that most of the time incidents like this are not intentional acts of omission but instead, result from a lack of exposure to different types of people.
Case in point: the impact coming out to family, friends, and co-workers has had on changing public perceptions about LGBTQ people. There is research showing a correlation between exposure to LGBTQ people and positive support of equal rights for LGBTQ people.
In fact, a recent article in the Washington Post noted that attitudes about the acceptance of LGBTQ people have shifted in recent years because more Americans know someone who is LGBTQ—what social scientists call “the contact hypothesis.” I am sure you have had an interaction with someone who made you question perceptions and attitudes about people different than you. I learned this the hard way.
When planning an event for a client at a private home, I learned that one of the guests was a wheelchair user and would be unable to gain access because there were stairs at the entrance. In the end, this guest cancelled thus eliminating an embarrassing situation for the client and me. From that day forward, I created a checklist for venue selection that included a question about the accessibility needs of attendees.
The point I am trying to make is when engaging with others, don’t make assumptions about who will be there. When in doubt, take the time to ask. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.