Shoshannah Stern on the Visibility of Disabled People in Hollywood

This week marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability. To commemorate the anniversary and the end of Disability Pride Month, celebrities, activists and politicians are coming together on Thursday, July 30, for Rock the Vote’s “Democracy Summer: The ADA at 30.” 

Co-hosted by This Close co-creator and star Shoshannah Stern, the livestream will feature performances by Jose Feliciano and others as well as personal stories from Paralympic Gold Medalist Alana Jane Nichols and more about the importance of advocating for issues that impact people with disabilities.

“As a child, the stories I wrote were never once about Deaf people. If you don’t see yourself reflected in the world, you start to feel like you should erase yourself. That becomes convenient because if you make yourself invisible, you don’t get a voice,” Stern said of the importance of visibility and the impact of the ADA. “My parents remember very well the world before the ADA, when our community quite literally didn’t have rights. Now, thirty years after the ADA, our work isn’t done. Voting ensures your voice is heard, and encouraging others to vote collectively makes our voice louder as a community that’s often marginalized. That’s why I’m thrilled to use my own personal voice to raise up Rock the Vote.” 

In an interview with ET, Stern explained what she hopes people get out of “The ADA at 30” event, the need for more visibility in Hollywood,  why disabled can’t be erased from storytelling on screen and her future on Grey’s Anatomy.  

ET: Since this year marks the 30th anniversary of the ADA, what do you hope viewers and participants get out of the “The ADA at 30” event?

Shoshannah Stern: The ADA is something that the general public really doesn’t know about. Being a Deaf person, I’ve had to explain it almost everywhere I go to make sure I get the accommodations that I should legally have. But there’s not enough awareness, so there’s almost always resistance. Even people who should know about it for their job simply aren’t educated about it. Sometimes the people that do know about it have some weird idea of how it should work, in ways that it really doesn’t. So disabled people are used to jumping through hoops even when they successfully apply it. While one in four adults have a disability, most of those disabilities are acquired later in life. Even if you don’t need the ADA right now, you might need it later, so raising awareness about it and electing leaders who support our rights is hugely necessary.

Given movements like #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, what do you think it will take for the disabled community to get its own movement or reckoning, particularly within Hollywood and the entertainment industry?

I honestly don’t know. I think one thing that’s finally being discussed is the exhaustion that comes with constantly needing to be a resource for other people to learn about people like you. You kind of have to step out of your personhood and become a sort of prophet for an entire community. That’s impossible, because no one person can accurately represent anyone but themselves. I think what needs to happen is just a general realization that disability and diversity are part of the same conversation. Hopefully the paradigm shift that’s happening right now will broaden people’s perspectives enough for that to finally be recognized. But we’ll see.

It’s been 33 years since Marlee Matlin won an Oscar. Given that she is still the only Deaf or disabled person to be nominated for and win an Oscar, do you think that Hollywood is doing enough to recognize Deaf or disabled people as legitimate performers?

No.

When This Close first premiered, it was heralded as a groundbreaking series and noted for being created by and starring Deaf people. Since then, we’ve seen shows like Special from Ryan O’Connell on Netflix. And it was recently announced Nyle DiMarco is developing a series about a Deaf man for Spectrum. But largely, series created by and starring disabled people are far and few between. Why do you think that is?

We’ve grown up with a specific frame that the world is seen through, and I think it affects us on an elemental level. Like recently, I went through boxes of stories I wrote as a child. They were all about hearing children, because those were the only stories I read or saw on television. So I unconsciously erased myself from my own story. Nobody sees themselves as different until they’re taught that they are. Then after that, a constant refrain is, “Well, we’re going to need a real star in this role, and someone with real experience to helm this show.” There’s an expectation that we should have overcome our disability enough times to have the kind of resume that’s expected of able-bodied people. But there are almost no roles or jobs for people with disabilities, so it’s a privilege to think that talent will rise to the top. The bucket isn’t accessible to begin with, so you have all these people waiting to get in.

What can Hollywood do to start changing that?

I think it starts with how we frame people and their experiences. There’s nothing groundbreaking about being deaf or disabled. We’ve been around since the beginning of time and been present for each and every historical event that’s ever happened. We just haven’t seen them. And calling a show or a person groundbreaking, while very flattering, unfortunately means nothing unless you build something on that ground. Another thing that should probably change is the idea that people can and should overcome their disability. That’s not a thing. It’s also kind of convenient, because then the onus is on the disabled to overcome whatever disability they have, so the rest of us can pretend it’s not there anymore. Disability is something that’s always going to be there. That’s why it’s a disability.

You made history by playing a Deaf doctor on Grey’s Anatomy this past season. Have you spoken to Krista Vernoff about whether we’ll see Dr. Lauren Riley again in the future?

Things changed really fast when the pandemic hit. They shut down before that could happen, and they ended up needing to throw out the story for the rest of the season and start over for this coming one. I think there’s a very exciting opportunity to tell the story of first responders who are on the frontline of this singular time, which is what Krista has decided to do. As a viewer and a writer I’m very excited to see that. As an actor, I can only hope there’s room for Dr. Riley in that. We’ll see.

You also returned to Supernatural for its final season. What did it mean to you to reunite with that cast and revisit Eileen Leahy?

Because we were so aware it was the final season, I made sure to stay present. That was a gift because it was a total honor, especially during such an important time in the show’s life. I never expected Eileen to come back at all, let alone for her to have as much as she did. I felt very grateful to receive what they gave me. It’s such a beloved show that’s very special to a lot of people, and I think the cast has everything to do with that. I loved what I got to do there with them.

Tony Award nominee Lauren Ridloff is set to play Makkari in The Eternals, making her the first Deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What will it mean to you or other Deaf people to see her on screen in a major film franchise like this? 

It’s tremendous. When you think of superheroes, you typically think of a white able-bodied man. I know I do. So the fact that the first Deaf superhero also happens to be a woman of color is very cool. I hope that little kids who watch Lauren kick ass onscreen will go on to write stories about themselves in every embodiment that they are. We can’t be erasing ourselves anymore.

 

RSVP for the Rock the Vote’s “Democracy Summer: The ADA at 30” here.

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