Mindset Matters: The Oscars Were A Win For Disability Culture 

By Jonathan Kaufman, Forbes
April 29, 2021


The Oscars have always served as a cultural touchstone across the world, and the 93rd Academy Awards was a ceremony like no other in recent history where the boldness of disability was on full display. From the nominations, the staging, to the fashion, the emergence of disability was no longer an afterthought, but a vision that was being amplified on the largest stage. However, we must look beyond the glitz and glamour and recognize both the overt and subtle nature of this moment to see the lasting imprint it has left to prod businesses across various milieus to realize the inherent value of this community.

Let us begin with the obvious, the nominations themselves. Netflix’s Crip Camp, nominated for Best Documentary Feature chronicling the story of a summer camp for teenagers with disabilities in upstate New York that supplied the spark for a civil rights revolution. Then there was The Sound of Metal, nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture. A film about a young drummer who is losing hearing and confronted with life in the Deaf world. The film featured actor Paul Raci, a child of two deaf parents who during the ceremony was seen using American Sign Language. Then there was Feeling Through, a short film about a late-night encounter between a teen and a deaf-blind man. Executive produced by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, she cast the first-time actor Robert Tarango, who happens to be blind and deaf himself. He was discovered while working in the kitchen at Helen Keller National Center, a division of Helen Keller Services that enables individuals who are blind, visually impaired, deaf-blind, or have combined hearing and vision loss to live and work in the communities of their choice. It was this litany of films represented that captured a whole new way to see disabilities from a distinctive vantage point, a world full of beauty, drama, and power connecting these stories to the larger tapestry of the human experience.

Beyond the films, themselves were the images of persons with disabilities engaging in everyday life. Seeing James Lebrecht, the director of Crip Camp who was born with spina bifida having his red-carpet moment wearing a Gucci suit designed specifically for him to one of the stars of the film and iconic Disability Rights activists Judy Heumann wearing a customed designed pantsuit by Markarian was truly an extraordinary moment in the sense that as the camera’s gaze was on them, one not only saw a redefinition of beauty, but the capacity for the fashion industry to once again have proof of concept of a burgeoning adaptive clothing market. It should be a wake-up call to fashion houses and designers that this is a market that exists and is here to stay!

There needs to be a word said about the ceremony itself. Since the Academy Awards has been televised, this was the first time that it was using audio description during its broadcast. This gesture is a major sea change in that the Academy finally recognizes that to truly engage its audience in the broadest possible way they must be cognizant of potential needs. From a business perspective, they are making the overture to truly engage their customer base and as the film industry is going through a moment of transition, this was not purely about inclusive design, but also just smart business acumen. Another small detail that should not go unnoticed is the stairs. In past ceremonies, particularly ones at the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars have been held since 2002 winners ascend the stairs to reach the stage and receive their awards and give their speeches. This year part of the staging at Union Station where the event was held had a beautifully designed ramp that offered a much more accessible alternative. This should be considered as part of the mainstay for the ceremony for years to come not only as more filmmakers with disabilities enter this environment, but because it may be easier to navigate the complexity that often comes along with high fashion.

As the Oscars took a moment to reconfigure itself during the pandemic, it offered an opening to shed light on raising the profile of disability culture in new ways. This is a winning moment for the disability community that should not only be savored but seen as a galvanizing instant that can be the bedrock for the future of artists and businesses to rethink and engage with the disability community with creativity and innovation in the years ahead. ◊◊◊


A Message from the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences

THE VOICE ARTS AWARDS ARE OPEN FOR ENTRIES with categories for podcasts and voice acting for all genres. New this year are categories for Audio Description as well as Arabic and Portuguese language categoires. All ages are welcome. Just click the image below for more information and the entry portal. Good Luck!