DISABILITIES

By Daniel J. Vance

  I've written about Mat Fraser. He's the multi-talented English film director, actor and musician who has been attempting to integrate persons with disabilities into mainstream television and film.

  Fraser was born with phocomelia, a birth defect in which his upper arms are poorly developed. His hands are attached to his shoulders by short, flipper-like stumps. His mother had taken the now-banned drug Thalidomide in pregnancy.

  Recently he told me why he co-produced "Born Freak," his award-winning film that documents the tragic history of disabled performers in freak shows. "There are 60 million people in England, and eight million of them have a disability," he said. "And none of them are on television. It's disgusting. [With "Born Freak"] I wanted to provoke people out of their complacency."

  Fraser has a point about English TV. In the same vein, American TV has had only a handful of disabled actors play characters with on-screen disabilities. Chris Burke, who played "Corky" on "Life Goes On," was one exception.

  But it's telling that over the last 40 years the best-known TV character with a disability has been Ironsides, the paralyzed San Francisco police lieutenant, played by Raymond Burr, who was an "abled" performer only acting out a role.

  The U.S. has more than 50 million persons with a disability. One major key to their acceptance and integration into society must be a mainstream media willing to open doors.

  At first I felt Mat Fraser's words were too radical. "The freak show was the last time disabled performers were welcome on stage by society," he said to me. "After that they were taken away from public view."

  But now I'm sure he's right. Since 1980, the State of California has tried through its Media Access Office to promote the employment and accurate portrayal of persons with disabilities in the media and entertainment industry. Some progress has been made, but not nearly enough.

  Persons with disabilities apparently aren't sexy enough for Hollywood.

  Likewise, in England progress has been excruciatingly slow. Mat Fraser is one bright spot: he has been chosen to play a teacher in an upcoming BBC special. And his role in a cellular telephone advertising campaign was the first time in England a person with a disability had been used as a "regular" performer in a mainstream advertisement.

  For more information see www.disabilityemployment.org (Media Access Office), www.matfraser.com or www.danieljvance.com.