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Despite Hard-Won Changes, Disability Accommodations Still Take a Backseat at the Emmys and Other Award Shows

The 2021 Emmys promo. (Image: CBS.)

As per tradition, the 2021 Emmys were a mess.

Despite the ongoing pandemic in which there are multiple variants of COVID-19 and many breakthrough cases, they chose to hold it mask-less, in-person, in an air-tight tent that might as well be indoors. Despite the record representation in both TV/film and nominees in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, all single-performance awards went to cis, white performers. Known for her role as Dana Scully in The X-Files, Gillian Anderson won a supporting actress Emmy for her portal of Margret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown and, as an open bisexual, carried the whole LGBTQ+ rainbow on her back in the single-performance wins.

And, despite an ADA complaint and public outcry for basic disability accommodations, the Emmys dropped the ball on that, too.

Citing California and federal law—and on behalf of disability rights activist and 2020 Netflix documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution co-director James LeBrecht—the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) and lawyer Michelle Uzeta filed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complaint against CBS Entertainment and the Television Academy (the Emmys) for the main stages of past awards ceremonies not being accessible for those in wheelchairs or with general difficulty walking. With the complaint filed some weeks back, Brecht was vocal about this issue before and leading up to the 2021 Emmys.

LeBrecht told The Hollywood Reporter that he’d made several efforts to work with the Academy and that some he spoke to seemed to understand the difference between compliance and inclusion. Still, enough changes weren’t made in the end, and there was little support for a plan of action—even with the main stage built from scratch this year. So, he took the legal route.

“I appreciated the efforts, but I felt like I needed to get the attention of people up at the top, too, because I just felt like if I’m talking about inclusion and you keep on coming back with compliance, you’re either not getting the message or you don’t care.”

A few days after filing the letter, LeBrecht announced that The Emmys agreed to changes and a front-facing accessible ramp. He encouraged all to #UseTheRamp.

Even with the stage built from scratch this year, there was not a forward-facing (a.k.a. easily accessible) ramp, to the dismay of LeBrecht and others in the disability rights community.

While The Emmys seemingly lied to LeBrecht and disability rights activists, they did hear something. Introducing the category best competition show, both Olympic track star Allyson Felix (who triumphed over Nike) and Paralympian swimmer Jessica Long graced the stage. Long is a decorated athlete with over 29 medals from the Paralympics alone. 

Like other marginalized groups, The Emmys seems to think presenting diversity is sufficient, rather than actual action.

Beyond the ramps

Ramps should have been introduced another year entirely, though, because the awards shouldn’t have been held in person, period.

The Emmys didn’t even allow for winners who couldn’t/wouldn’t show up to broadcast in. Is it a little wonky? Sure. However, the alternative is requiring hundreds of people to crowd in a tent. While they were required to get vaccinated and test before entering, they appeared to forget (or hope we forgot) that people can be asymptomatic, and there is a rise in breakthrough COVID-19 cases. This puts the elderly at risk (and many in that room were in the 65+ category) and those who are immunocompromised. Being immunocompromised is a disability, and consideration for that is thrown out the window for the illusion of normalcy.

Even aside from common decency and safety, there may be some unintended pros from doing the award show mostly, if not fully, remote. Glamour is nice, but the younger crowd, which the Emmys (and other award shows) wants to remain relevant with to stay on the air, is okay with a bit of DIY. The clean cuts and transitions are for the art, not the awards.

In addition to the lack of physical accommodations, the award show still lacks ASL interpreters.

Disability rep

According to the CDC, 1-in-4 people live with a disability, and yet they, like many other groups, are not represented in award shows. According to the last few years of Annenberg Inclusion Initiative studies from the University of Southern California, less than 3% of speaking roles depict physical, cognitive, and/or communicative disabilities. It is tricky to track something that is not always visible in a visual study; however, this is a gross underrepresentation, even accounting for a margin of error.

All this to say that these characters are not present, even with stories like Crip Camp and Special (a two-season gem on Netflix) in front of the camera. If they beat all the odds by being fairly represented AND nominated, they will be invited to an award show where basic ADA-compliant dignity is unlikely to be met.

(featured image: CBS)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. Starting as an Online Editor for her college paper in October 2017, Alyssa began writing for the first time within two months of working in the newsroom. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3. Still trying to beat Saxon Farm on RCT 3 (so I can 100% the game.)