Dis This! Disability in America comes to SMC

56 million Americans are disabled according to Allen Rucker, the official speaker for the lecture, “Dis This! Disability in America,” sponsored by the Santa Monica College Associates and the SMC Center for Students with Disabilities. As he began his speech Rucker asked, “How many of you are disabled? Have someone in your immediate family that is disabled? Or just know someone close to you that is disabled?

Wow. I guess this is a biased audience,” sighed Rucker as he gazed at the numerous hands raised before him in the audience.

“One out of two Americans knows someone close to them that is disabled, and although it is not talked about that much, it is a reality of this culture that is only going to get greater and more influential as we move along,” said Rucker.

Disabled at the age of 51 due to transverse myelitis, Rucker suffers from a neurological disor-der caused by inflammation across the spinal cord.

Rucker is an outspoken advocate for the disabled in film and television, and author of the widely praised memoir “The Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life.”

Rucker discussed the changes that have occurred 20 years after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), how the disabled are doing in the education and job markets, and the way they are portrayed in the media.

“It's been 20 years since the historic Americans with Disabilities Act has passed, and you look around and wonder if anything has really changed, and believe it or not it has, but it’s been subtle,” said Rucker.

One of the most important issues to Rucker is unemployment.

Though unemployment is high across the country, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities is about 18 per-cent, making it twice as high as the nine percent for able-bodied individuals.

“Just think about the discouragement that they feel if they watch school teachers getting laid off. What chance do they have? There are so many signals out there, so many cues. Don’t try, don’t go out there, you are just going to be rejected and laughed at, or be ignored so don’t do it,” said Rucker.

Although most disabled individuals who want to work cannot, thanks to the ADA, the disabled population is far more educated now. They are also healthier than ever before, both because of medical advances and improved health practices.

But the representation of the disabled in film and television is marginal.

Rucker said it is best illustrated by a UCLA study for the Screen Actors Guild, which according to SAG's official web-site, exists to enhance actors’ working conditions, compensation, and benefits.

The study counted the number of speaking parts by a disabled person in a given television season, and found the number to be only 0.05 percent.

As a result, a movement to change this situation is growing within Hollywood’s unions.

Now many shows portray people with disabilities such as “Parenthood,” a show that depicts actor Max Burkholder as a boy with Asperger’s syndrome.

The popular teen drama “Glee” stars Lauren Potter who has Down syndrome.

An ABC Family show, “Switched at Birth,” features two lead characters who are hearing-impaired.

“Qualitatively there has not been that much change, but these are shows people remember, shows that make an impact on your life, and I believe it is powerful,” said Rucker at the end of his speech.

Following a car accident that left him in a wheelchair, Gale Williams, who attended the event, went to school with his disability and graduated from SMC in 1959.

Williams worked in software engineering for 35 years and focused on his ability to work on tasks rather than worrying about his disability.

One day while at Citibank, a co-worker said, "Oops, I simply forgot that you were in a wheelchair.”

Williams responded by saying, "I considered that a huge compliment because that showed that we were just working as people rather than an able-bodied with a disabled person.”

Although Rucker did not know much about Santa Monica College, he shared that he was aware of SMC's formidable Center for Students with Disabilities.

As Judy Neveau, Director of Community Relations at SMC, said about sponsoring such a lecture for SMC students, “September is Disability Month, so it was important to give weight to that, and give our campus and students an opportunity to hear directly from an active community member who is disabled.”