LOS ANGELES – Right down to its production design, the Oscars have not always felt like the most welcoming place for people with disabilities.
“I’ve always seen that stage with its stairs as a symbol that they don’t expect people who had mobility issues to be nominated or to win an award,” said Jim LeBrecht, the co-director and co-star of the Oscar-nominated documentary “ Crip Camp.” “It’s always been this kind of negative tacit statement."
This year shows signs of change. LeBrecht, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, will attend the April 25 ceremony. So will Robert Tarango, the deaf-blind star of the nominated short, “ Feeling Through.”
The victors' podium will be accessible for both. And LeBrecht hopes that will become a permanent change, both literally and figuratively.
The two films, along with “ Sound of Metal,” nominated for six awards including best picture, have their nominees hoping their Oscar moment can become a catalyst for Hollywood to stop using people with disabilities as sources of inspiration, objects of pity, or twisted villains.
“I think that the goal is to alleviate the fear,” Tarango said through a translator, “to open the doors so that executives don’t look at our ability to hear or not to hear and to see that somebody who is blind, deaf-blind, who has any kind of disability is just part of the world and can be part of these films.”
The academy, under pressure, has pushed for greater race and gender inclusion in recent years. Disabled performers and filmmakers can too often be forgotten in that discussion.
“It’s time that people need to recognize that diversity should include the disabled, the deaf-blind and the deaf community,” Marlee Matlin, an executive producer on “Feeling Through” and the only deaf actor to win an Oscar, said through a translator. “I hope that it’s not just the flavor of the year, that it goes beyond, and that this is a trend that will continue.”
Traditionally in Academy Award-nominated movies, people with disabilities appear only when an actor seeking an Oscar-worthy role plays one on screen.
That has led some disabled people to feel like “they're stealing our stories,” said LeBrecht, a sound designer whose friend, documentary director Nicole Newnham, asked that he direct “Crip Camp” with her. She wanted a disability-led perspective after he suggested she make a documentary about his summer camp and its essential role in the birth of the disability rights movement.
“If we just realize that the stories around disabilities aren’t just about overcoming adversity or tragedy," he said, “then I think we could see kind of the beginning of a golden age where finally people with disabilities show their true lives, their real life experiences.”
People with disabilities have long been among the least represented groups in film and television. Last year, USC Annenberg’s annual inequality report found that, only 2.3% of all speaking characters across the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 were even depicted with a disability, much less played by an actor with a disability.
“Feeling Through” director Doug Roland called stats like that “abysmal,” but said his determination to cast a deaf-blind actor in the film based on a real chance encounter he had on the street, was not made from any sense of inclusion.
“I wasn’t even thinking from what I now know is the conversation around authentic representation, which I’ve had like a real master class in over the last three years," Roland said. “I was just thinking, you know, I think this would just be a lot more impactful if we have someone from the community be a part of this.”
His search led him to the Helen Keller National Center, which helped him find Tarango, who was working in their kitchen. The center then helped him extensively through every step of the process.
“We bring a culture to this," Tarango said. “We bring our independence that people don’t often see. I was excited, excited and grateful honestly to Doug for picking someone who was deaf-blind, because I think that has helped in the success of the film.”
When Matlin won her 1987 Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God,” it felt like a major breakthrough. But a flood of roles and nominations didn't follow for deaf or other disabled actors.
“I thought, ‘OK, it will break barriers,'” Matlin said. “But then, the focus moved away.”
She said the lack of social media at the time made it very difficult to apply pressure and build momentum for a cause the way the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag did for Black actors.
Now, she says people with disabilities and their advocates are “able to speak out from wherever they are. They are able to lend their voice, their opinions, their views, their visions, their imaginations.”
“Sound of Metal” has been praised for its authentic examination of the world of the deaf, and its use of deaf actors in supporting roles. It has also received some deaf-community criticism for casting a hearing actor, Riz Ahmed, in the lead role of a drummer who must reckon with losing his hearing.
Paul Raci, a child of deaf parents who is nominated for best supporting actor for his role as a leader of a sober house for those who are deaf, understands the criticism, but said “for the most part, deaf people have accepted this movie with open arms.”
“It shows a deaf sober house, deaf people as addicts, which is a totally new idea to show deaf people as people that have the same foibles you and I have, the same challenges, the same journeys,” Raci said.
And he believes the larger conversation the movie has helped open will mean even move.
“You’re going to see more inclusion in casting in this town, in Hollywood," he said. "You’re going to see a lot more differently abled people, people that use wheelchairs, blind, deaf, there's going to be a lot more of those kind of protagonists. And you’re going to watch those journeys unfold on the screen.”
Associated Press Writer Brooke Lefferts contributed to this report.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton