On July 9, 2017, about 7,000 participants from the disability community marched and chanted with signs and their own voices in NYC, starting at Union Square and ending at Madison Square, as part of the annual Disability Pride NYC (DPNYC) Parade.
Disabilities seen in this parade included autism, mobility issues, vision, and many others. Members of the Deaf Community also participated in this parade with their own pride of carrying on American Sign Language (ASL).
For example, Paul Sweeney, one of the participants shared his experience about being in the parade for the first time.
“It was interesting to see many different people who have different types of disabilities such as autism and cerebral palsy. As a hard of hearing person, I sometimes feel alienated around those who can hear perfectly, so communication is my biggest barrier,” Sweeney said. “I will not mind coming back next year.”
The idea of having this annual parade came to life by Mike LeDonne, a jazz pianist, after he had a daughter Mary, who was affected with a rare genetic disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome.
The number of participants has grown from 3,000 participants back in 2015 to about 7,000 participants this year, said Amy Meisner-Threet, an actress who is also a wheelchair user. Threet is a member with SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and serves as DPNYC Entertainment Chair for The N.Y. Disability Pride Parade.
Various participants had their own voices such as fighting back for affordable and accessible housing in NYC, pushing for better accessibility with public transit and NYC subways, and more awareness about various types of disabilities.
“Drivers often make you feel like a burden for causing them to do their job,” Threet said. Even at an event like this, we try to include closed captioning during the performances on stage, provide ASL interpreters, and dialogue screens, Threet added.
“We still need to have more Braille material for our blind participants,” Threet said. “The goal of the Disability Pride NYC Parade from the beginning is to create visibility for an often invisible population. The parade is not meant to be a protest march, but a celebration of pride as to where we have come from and to share the hopes and goals of the future.”
For example, actor and disability rights activist, Danny Woodburn, continues to fight for more hirings of performers with disabilities in the entertainment industry.
“The parade right now is probably the most important aspect of our activism. People with disabilities need a united front and need to be present to have a public face,” said Woodburn. “We need to be seen out in the world so that we are not forgotten, not only by the public, but by lawmakers and industry leaders because still today when disparity studies are done and when industries wish to be more inclusive and diverse in the workplace and similar environments, we are still very often forgotten.”
Woodburn also served as the co-author of the Ruderman Foundation White Paper on Disability in Television, which showed that performers with disabilities are still underemployed in show business.
“I wanted to bring attention to the fact that we are NOT included in the diversity discussion. I want PWDs (performers with disabilities) to be even more emphatic when they are not included,” Woodburn said.
Joining this discussion about performers with disabilities, Anita Hollander also is another advocate who fights for more employment for PWDs. Hollander began performing at the age of 8 as a fully abled person, but she lost one of her legs to cancer at the age of 26.
Therefore, she has experienced the show business as a performer both as a fully physically abled person and then with a disability.
“It’s a shame that you are so talented, casting directors would tell me (during auditions),” Hollander said. “I want to raise awareness about disabilities, and remove the stigma of disability.”
Hollander now serves as SAG-AFTRA National Chair of the Performers with Disabilities Committee. “This year, we have done an amazing job in theater, film, and TV,” she said.
For example, Scott Silveri, executive producer and creator of ABC’s new sitcom, Speechless, decided to cast Micah Fowler, an actor who has cerebral palsy, to play the starring role of JJ on this show, Hollander added.
“I also helped to assign Fowler as the Grand Marshal for this year’s parade. I worked with his sister in theater,” Hollander said.
Together, Hollander, Threet, and other members of DPNYC arranged for Fowler and his family to attend this year’s parade. The process to accomplish assigning Fowler as the Grand Marshall took a lot of effort, Threet said.
Entertaining millions of viewers since its inception last fall, Speechless will be having its second season on ABC this coming fall.
“I interviewed (Scott ) Silveri at a media event at the White House, and I asked him if he’d cast more performers with disabilities on his show, and he said yes. We all fight for empowerment,” Hollander said.
Amy Meisner-Threet contributed to this article.