Articles by Screenwriting Professor Shine a Light on Writers and Characters with Disabilities

In a recent two-part series of articles for Written By, the Writers Guild of America West‘s magazine, SFTV clinical associate professor of screenwriting Paul Chitlik highlighted the persistent challenges faced by writers with disabilities working in media and entertainment. We spoke to him recently about the ways that Hollywood can improve its track record in these areas.

You’re a longtime member of the Writers with Disabilities committee at the WGA West. What does your committee do?

The purpose of our committee is to get writers with disabilities hired in media and entertainment and to ensure that people with disabilities are visible and portrayed accurately in the media. We also encourage the industry to cast people with disabilities in roles in which their disability is part of the character, rather than casting able-bodied people in those roles. When I taught at UCLA, I set up a major conference for the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild on this topic, and it had great attendance and got some media coverage as well. It was clear that this was an important issue that wasn’t going away.

What drew you to this subject matter as a screenwriter and professor?

I was originally asked by UCLA Extension to be a consultant on what they could do for writers with disabilities. So I worked with the WGA and Written By Magazine to do a roundtable discussion with WGA members who identified as having a disability to bring attention to the issue. That’s when I became interested in the committee I now sit on. And then suddenly, I developed a disability myself—spinal stenosis and degenerative disc disease, which were relieved by spinal fusion. It made me realize that we’re all one step away from becoming disabled. It’s a minority group that many of us will join sooner or later, in one form or another.

Why is it important to have writers with disabilities in writers’ rooms?

According to the CDC, 26 percent of adults in the U.S. live with some form of disability. That’s a huge fraction of our population—nearly all of us know a person who has a disability, whether it’s visible or invisible. If we’re not bringing characters with disabilities into TV and film, we’re essentially acting as though a quarter of our population doesn’t exist, and that isn’t right. Let’s face it, those of us who are able-bodied don’t have to think about these issues as often, so it wouldn’t always occur to us to bring a character with a disability into a story.

So I believe we’ll get better and fairer representation if we’ve got more writers who have disabilities in the writing rooms. It’s one aspect of improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry. Writers with disabilities should have equal access to industry jobs based on their talent and hard work, not on, say, their ability to hear perfectly or to climb stairs. Their perspectives are valuable not only on the topic of people with disabilities but also in other areas they’ve worked in or written about.

Can you think of shows or films that have done this type of work well?

Television is catching up in its portrayal of people with disabilities. The Good Doctor’s central character has autism. Special, a show created by Ryan O’Connell, who also has cerebral palsy, is another good example. There are films, such as The Sessions by Ben Lewin, that feature people with disabilities. But what we also need is folks like these cast in everyday roles, like we see them in our lives: people in wheelchairs who play secretaries, people on crutches who work in customer service. In the show Breaking Bad, the actor RJ Mitte, who played Walter White’s son Flynn, has cerebral palsy and his character on the show has CP also, so that’s an example of appropriate casting for an “everyday” type of role.

We still have a long way to go, though. And we need to see more stories about people who have invisible disabilities, which are also very common: people who are diabetic, people recovering from a stroke or other illness. Again, these stories are part of the fabric of everyday life.

What do you wish able-bodied people understood about people who have disabilities?

A disability doesn’t fully define a person. It’s just one aspect of their humanity. They have interests, hopes and dreams, and likes and dislikes just like all of us do.

A few years ago at LMU, I produced a PSA for the WGA called Look Around, and in it I featured performers with disabilities, including those who were hearing impaired and visually impaired. It was a way to get writers to pay attention to lives like theirs and the stories that can be told through characters who share these qualities. There’s a huge opportunity to develop characters who have disabilities—the conditions they live with and the prejudices they face make for many interesting possibilities for storytelling and character development.

You can read Professor Chitlik’s two stories about writers with disabilities here and here.