‘Best Foot Forward’ is a story about people with disabilities

Choosing the right actor for a role often means finding someone who matches the character description in the script, but Josh Sundquist doesn’t know if that’s possible with his “Best Foot Forward” series. are not.

Sundquist recently recalled: “It sounds silly, but this was four years ago. “At the time, it simply didn’t happen to me, maybe even hiring an actor with an amputee.”

Sundquist helped make a fictionalized version of his younger self, starring in “Best Foot Forward,” which premieres Friday on Apple TV+. Based on Sundquist’s memoir, “Just Don’t Fall,” the series revolves around a 12-year-old boy who is the only child at school with a limb disability. Sundquist, who executive produced the film, lost his left leg to bone cancer at the age of 10.

This character’s disability is at the heart of “Best Foot Forward,” but Sundquist’s expectations were measured. “I just thought like, ‘Oh, of course we’re going to have to pick a kid with a good body and double the body,’” he said. “Because that’s all I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”

To Sundquist’s delight, the production company behind the show, Muse Entertainment, was intent on finding an actor who shared the character’s disability. After casting newcomer Logan Marmino as the fictional Josh, Sundquist’s view of what could happen has evolved considerably.

“By the time we got to the green light and started looking for the crew, I had completely converted to the importance of authentic representation both before and after. and behind the camera,” he said.

What goes on in front of the camera often dominates the debate around representation in entertainment. While the mass media have In recent years a little attention Regarding the lack of opportunities for actors with disabilities, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 26 percent of American adults have a disability, but according to one GLAAD Report Released earlier this year, characters with disabilities, including children, make up just 2.8% of the official series across all scripted TV shows during the 2021-22 season. . (The report does not take a comprehensive look at the manifestation of disability across television and cable services.) Previous GLAAD studyfrom 2021, found that the majority of TV characters with disabilities are played by actors without disabilities.

Even when actors with disabilities are cast, Sundquist notes, it often only solves half of the problem. In many cases, if you turn the camera around, he says, “you will find that the disability manifests in only one direction.”

When making “Best Foot Forward,” Sundquist was determined to hire people with disabilities during production, but finding disabled crew members was more difficult than he anticipated. When it comes to actors, “agents know that sometimes you want people with disabilities and they already have those people on file,” he said. But when producers contacted unions and associations representing crew positions, he said, they found that most of them weren’t tracking any of their members with disabilities.

So Sundquist resorted to putting out social media appeals and connecting with disability advocacy groups like RespectAbility. “We are not a staffing agency,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who runs RespectAbility’s. Entertainment Lab, a workshop for disability professionals working in television and film. “We’ve just found ourselves in this position where studios and individual producers are reaching out to us and saying, ‘We’d like some help with this.” The seven people who work on “Best Foot Forward” are Lab alumni, she added.

“Best Foot Forward” is not the first show to feature people with disabilities on both sides of the camera. Several shows from the past few years, including Sundance Now’s “Close this,” about two best friends who are deaf and Netflix “Especially,” a comedy about a gay man with cerebral palsy, created by people with disabilities and starring. “Best Foot Forward” builds on the foundation of those programs, says Appelbaum.

“What makes ‘Best Foot Forward’ really unique is the intent behind bringing in the disabled crew,” she explains. “Crew at all levels, from production assistant to director.”

One of the show’s writers, Zach Anner, previously wrote for “No Words,” an ABC series that ran from 2016-19 and praised for myself realistic description of a teenager who, like Anner, has cerebral palsy. Anner said there were only a handful of writers who had a disability of “Unable to speak,” “and that was very novel at the time.” In “Best Foot Forward,” he says, “it’s half the writers’ room.”

“No one feels the responsibility to represent an entire community,” adds Anner. “It also frees us up to be funny.”

Unlike many other productions, the writers and crews with disabilities on “Best Foot Forward” were not tasked with educating non-disabled collaborators and advocating accessibility. It’s someone’s actual job. Kiah Amara served as accessibility production coordinator, a relatively new role in Hollywood, often filled by disability professionals who advise on screen authenticity and accessibility. Team members are people with disabilities.

The first step on set, Amara said, was to survey the crew and assess how to make the production as accessible as possible. “I would list things like: “ Tick the box: Would you like to enter a sensory-friendly room? “” Amara said. “’Do you need your script or document to be in dark mode? Do you need a font that is accessible to dyslexia? ‘” Then there was crew training that covered disability-related language and how to create an inclusive space.

“It’s not people with disabilities who need to learn anything,” Amara said. “All non-disabled people need to continue to be in this space, like, ‘Here’s a way to not be afraid to think you’re going to mess up.’

Amara found that, when consulting on previous products, the reluctance to hire disabled crew often stems from an assumption that doing so would cost too much time and money. This pervasive belief may lead some crew members to hide their disability. “They can choose not to reveal it to anyone – it’s still very insecure in the disabled industry,” Amara said.

That’s what Sundquist was aware of when trying to recruit seafarers with disabilities. “We might call and say, ‘Hey, I heard you had some bad experiences on set. Sorry for that. We will try to do better on our set. Can we convince you to get on board? ‘”

In doing so, production often attracts “people whose resumes do not reflect their level of talent,” says Sundquist, who were then able to bring those things to life through recognition. their title on “Best Foot Forward”. He mentioned as an example Ashley Eakin, another prolific director whose previous work was mostly limited to short films. Eakin directed two episodes of “Best Foot Forward.”

Sundquist said, “When she joined the show, she later joined the Directors Guild, which made it a lot easier to find future directing work.

The production team also includes evidence of untapped skills that may lie in people that others might overlook. One example is Marissa Erickson, a production assistant tasked with arranging and transporting child actors from school to set. “In my hometown, Alameda, I used to work in a kindergarten as a teacher’s assistant,” Erickson said, adding that she was happy to incorporate her previous production experience. and experience working with children.

Erickson, who has Down syndrome, was one of the crew members featured by Appelbaum at RespectAbility who participated in the organization’s 2019 Recreation Lab. Appelbaum recalls a workshop Erickson attended with executives from a major studio: “Marissa stood up and started talking about some of the work she had done, and I saw an executive. , like, their mouths hanging open.” Appelbaum said Erickson’s work ethic and experience changed executives’ expectations of someone with Down syndrome.

“I think, in their mind, they’re thinking, ‘Of course we can hire a wheelchair user,’ but they don’t think they can hire someone with a mental disability,” says Appelbaum. intellectual or retarded. “Marissa has clearly proven that wrong.” Recently, Erickson was offered three simultaneous production assistant jobs. (She got a spot on Disney’s + short anthology series called “Launchpad.”)

Appelbaum and others say that to increase the representation of people with disabilities on film and television, it is important for guilds and unions to survey their members about disability as well as inform demographic information such as race and sex. Conducted by the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America to begin collecting disability information in membership surveys in 2021. The International Alliance of Theater Workers (IATSE), the union represents crew members such as controllers, cinematographers, costume and makeup artists, Vote last year began holding an annual census in an effort to increase diversity among its members. But it’s not clear if it includes disability information. (IATSE did not respond to a request for comment.)

“Without data, it’s hard to change things,” says Appelbaum. “When you have tough numbers, people are more likely to want to change something.”

Until then, writer Anner remains hopeful that “Best Foot Forward” can serve as a major step forward for Hollywood recruiting.

“For me, that ended the argument where you sometimes hear people say, ‘Oh, we’re looking for a disabled person, we’re looking for a person of color, and we can’t find a person with a disability. see no one,’ he said. “We can point to this and say, ‘No, there are many.”

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