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‘Best Foot Forward’ Is a Story About, and by, People With Disabilities

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Casting the best actor for a task often means finding someone who matches the character description in a script, but Josh Sundquist didn’t know if that was possible for his series “Best Foot Forward.”

“It sounds silly looking back, but this was 4 years ago,” Sundquist recalled recently. “On the time, it simply didn’t occur to me it might even be possible to rent an amputee actor.”

Sundquist was helping to forged a fictionalized version of his younger self, the lead role in “Best Foot Forward,” which debuts Friday on Apple TV+. Loosely based on Sundquist’s memoir, “Just Don’t Fall,” the series centers on a 12-year-old boy who’s the one child at his school with a limb difference. Sundquist, who’s an executive producer on the series, lost his left leg to bone cancer when he was 10.

The character’s disability is on the core of “Best Foot Forward,” but Sundquist’s expectations were measured. “I just thought like, ‘Oh, in fact we’re going to must forged an able-bodied kid and have a body double,’” he said. “Because that was all I’d ever seen 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 the newcomer Logan Marmino because the fictional Josh, Sundquist’s perspective on what was possible evolved dramatically.

“By the point we got to where we were greenlit and we were beginning to search for crew, I used to be fully converted to the importance of authentic representation each in front of and behind the camera,” he said.

What happens in front of the camera often dominates the discourse around representation in entertainment. While the news media has in recent times paid some attention to the dearth of opportunity for actors with disabilities, there continues to be loads of room for progress.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 26 percent of American adults have a disability, but in line with a GLAAD report released earlier this yr, characters with disabilities, including children, constituted only 2.8 percent of series regulars across all scripted broadcast TV shows within the 2021-22 TV season. (The report didn’t take a comprehensive have a look at disability representation on cable and streaming services.) Earlier GLAAD research, from 2021, found that nearly all of TV characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors.

Even when disabled actors are forged, it often addresses only half of the issue, Sundquist noted. In lots of instances, in case you were to show the camera around, he said, “you’ll see that disability was only represented in a single direction.”

In making “Best Foot Forward,” Sundquist was determined to rent disabled people across the production, but finding crew members with disabilities was more difficult than he anticipated. Relating to actors, “agents know that sometimes you wish individuals with disabilities they usually have those people already on file,” he said. But when the producers contacted unions and guilds that represent crew positions, he said, they found that the majority of them didn’t track which of their members have disabilities.

So Sundquist resorted to putting call-outs on social media and connecting with disability advocacy groups like RespectAbility. “We’re not a staffing agency,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who runs RespectAbility’s Entertainment Lab, a workshop for professionals with disabilities working in TV and film. “We just found ourselves on this position where studios and individual productions are reaching out to us saying ‘We wish help with this.’” Seven individuals who worked on “Best Foot Forward” were Lab alumni, she added.

“Best Foot Forward” isn’t the primary show to have include individuals with disabilities on either side of the camera. Several shows over the past few years, including Sundance Now’s “This Close,” about two best friends who’re deaf, and Netflix’s “Special,” a comedy a couple of gay man with cerebral palsy, were created by and starred individuals with disabilities. Appelbaum said “Best Foot Forward” builds on the groundwork laid by those shows.

“What makes ‘Best Foot Forward’ really extraordinary is the intentionality behind bringing in disabled crew,” she explained. “Crew across all levels, from production assistants to directors.”

One among the show’s writers, Zach Anner, wrote previously for “Speechless,” an ABC series that ran from 2016-19 and was lauded for its realistic depiction of a teen who, like Anner, has cerebral palsy. Anner said there have been only a couple of writers with a disability for “Speechless,” “and that was very novel on the time.” On “Best Foot Forward,” he said, “it was half the writers’ room.”

“Nobody person felt accountable for representing a whole community,” Anner added. “It also freed us up to only be funny.”

Unlike on many productions, the writers and crew with disabilities on “Best Foot Forward” weren’t tasked with also educating non-disabled collaborators and advocating accessibility. That was someone’s actual job. Kiah Amara served because the production accessibility coordinator, a comparatively latest role in Hollywood that is usually filled by disabled professionals who seek the advice of on onscreen authenticity and the best way to accommodate crew members with disabilities.

Step one on set, Amara said, is to survey the crew and gauge the best way to make the production as accessible as possible. “I’ll list things out like: ‘Check the box: Would you want access to a sensory-friendly room?’” Amara said. “‘Do you wish your scripts or documents in dark mode? Do you wish a dyslexia-accessible font?’” Then comes crew training that covers disability-related language and the best way to create an inclusive space.

“It’s not the disabled folks who must learn anything,” Amara said. “It’s all of the non-disabled folks who must proceed to be on this space of, like, ‘Here’s the best way to not be scared of considering that you just’re going to mess up.’”

Amara found, when consulting on past productions, that the reluctance to rent disabled crew often stems from an assumption that doing so will cost excessive money and time. This pervasive belief can lead some crew members to cover their disabilities. “They could select not to reveal it to anybody — it’s still very unsafe within the industry to be disabled,” Amara said.

That was something Sundquist was conscious of when attempting to recruit crew members with disabilities. “We were in a position to call and be like: ‘Hey, I heard you had some bad experiences on set. Sorry about that. We’re going to attempt to do higher on our set. Can we persuade you to come back on board?’”

In doing so, the production ceaselessly attracted “people whose résumés didn’t yet reflect their level of talent,” Sundquist said, who were then in a position to bring those things more in line by virtue of their credit on “Best Foot Forward.” He mentioned for instance Ashley Eakin, a limb-different director whose previous work had been limited mostly to short movies. Eakin directed two episodes of “Best Foot Forward.”

“By her coming into the show, then she gets into the Directors Guild, which makes it a lot easier to search out future directorial work,” Sundquist said.

The production crew also included evidence of the untapped skills that may lie inside folks that others might overlook. One example was Marissa Erickson, a production assistant who was tasked with corralling and transporting the kid actors from school to set. “In my hometown, Alameda, I normally work in a kindergarten as a teacher’s aide,” said Erickson, who added that she was excited to mix her previous production experience and her experience working with children.

Erickson, who has Down syndrome, was one among the crew members really useful by Appelbaum at RespectAbility, having participated within the organization’s 2019 Entertainment Lab. Appelbaum recalled a workshop by which Erickson participated alongside executives from a serious studio: “Marissa stood up and began talking about a few of the work that she has done, and I saw an exec, like, their mouth just drop.” Appelbaum said Erickson’s work ethic and experience upended the manager’s expectations of somebody with Down syndrome.

“I believe, of their mind, they were considering, ‘Yeah in fact we could hire someone who uses a wheelchair,’ but they weren’t considering that they may hire someone with an mental or developmental disability,” Appelbaum said. “Marissa clearly proves that unsuitable.” Recently, Erickson was offered three production assistant jobs concurrently. (She accepted a position on a Disney+ short film anthology series called “Launchpad.”)

Appelbaum and others said that with the intention to increase disability representation on film and tv sets, it was crucial for guilds and unions to survey their members for disabilities in addition to for demographic information like race and gender. The Writers Guild of America does, and the Director’s Guild of America began soliciting details about disability status in member surveys in 2021. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (I.A.T.S.E.), the union that represents crew members like grips, cinematographers, costumers and makeup artists, voted last yr to start holding an annual census in an effort to spice up diversity inside its membership. However it is unclear whether it is going to include details about disabilities. (The I.A.T.S.E. didn’t reply to a request for comment.)

“Without the information, it’s hard to get things to alter,” Appelbaum said. “When you’ve got the hard numbers, persons are rather more more likely to want to alter something.”

Until then, Anner, the author, is hopeful that “Best Foot Forward” might function a crucial step forward for hiring practices in Hollywood.

“For me, it kind of put an end to that argument that you just hear sometimes of individuals saying, ‘Oh, we looked for somebody with a disability, we searched for an individual of color, and we couldn’t find anyone,’” he said. “We are able to point to this and say, ‘No, there are plenty.’”

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