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Toby Forrest sat in a room ready to audition for the TV show Glee. It was for the part of Artie Abrams, a singer in a high school glee club, who also happens to use a wheelchair.

Forrest, now 39, an actor since 2003 and a front man of the band Cityzen since 2009, injured his spinal cord at the fifth cervical (C-5) in 1998 from a diving accident. He never thought he'd be an actor, but there he sat ready to audition. He thanked the producers and casting directors for seeing a person who uses a wheelchair, but he knew better.

"I could have fathered everyone in the room," Forrest says. "I'm glad that they would consider me for a 17-year-old, but it's not going to happen."

The role eventually went to Kevin McHale, an able-bodied person. Forrest understands why sometimes able-bodied actors get the role for someone with a disability.

"It's nice to have an authentic person, but if the character is black, blind and in a wheelchair, what becomes the most important thing -- that he's black, that he's blind, that he's in a wheelchair or that he's a good actor and can bring the character to life? It's always that he's a good actor," Forrest says.

It may be a dog-eat-dog world in Hollywood, but for actors with disabilities it's even more so. Casting directors may not envision them for a part if it doesn't specify a disability or they have to deal with able-bodied actors taking roles with disabilities.

Dog-Eat-Dog World

Jennifer Kumiyama, 34, an actress and singer in Long Beach, Calif., who was born with arthrogryposis (congenital joint contractures), has dealt with this and takes a similar position to Forrest's when it comes to competing with able-bodied actors for roles about a person with a disability.

"It's all about getting the part and being the best for the part," Kumiyama says. "And if you're not the best for the part, disability or not, then you have to expect not to get the role."

Kumiyama sincerely thought McHale was disabled. When she found out the actor was actually able-bodied, she was a little disappointed.

"I would like to think they tried their hardest to look for someone with a disability," she says. "But at the same time it's their job to pretend, to play something that they're not. When it comes down to it, they're looking for a great actor and singer and Kevin McHale is a great actor and singer."

Time for Change

While able-bodied actors often play the part of a character with a disability, the opposite is rarely true.

Actress Teal Sherer, 33, says there are a lot of great casting directors who are open-minded about having a person with a disability play a role that doesn't specify the character has a disability. But Sherer, who has a L-2 spinal-cord injury from a car accident when she was 14 years old, says there's room for improvement.

"A lot of time actors with disabilities don't have a chance to show our talent and be considered like everyone else," Sherer says.

Instead of sitting by, she decided to do something about it. Sherer co-created and starred in her own web series, My Gimpy Life on YouTube.

In the show, Sherer shows her perspective of what it's like to be a person with a disability trying to make it in show business. She laughs at her own experiences, like trying to audition in spaces that aren't accessible, while still shedding light on problems people with disabilities face.

Advocacy and education are almost part-time jobs when it comes to performing in Hollywood.

Making an Impact

Sherer, who currently lives in Nashville, Tenn., but travels to L.A. to film, works to educate people not just through My Gimpy Life, but as a member of the disability committee for the Screen Actor's Guild. Forrest is a former member.

The committee makes sure portrayals of people with disabilities are accurate. The volunteer committee works to ensure people with disabilities are treated fairly, such as ensuring audition spaces and sets are accessible.

"It's really about inclusion, access, discrimination and just trying to encourage producers and casting agents to look at performers with disabilities especially for roles," Forrest says.

Forrest even uses his audition time to address issues pertaining to people with disabilities.

"I go in and make suggestions if I see something that doesn't seem right, doesn't seem accurate," Forrest says. "I may not get the job, but at least I can educate them when I'm in the room."

Kumiyama also takes advantage of the short time she's allotted in an audition to make a big impact.

"It can be a mind-opening experience having someone come in with a disability for a role that doesn't call for it," she says.

The way Kumiyama sees it, even if she doesn't get the role she was auditioning for in that moment, directors might think of her for a different role.

The more often casting directors see people with disabilities auditioning, the more likely they are to accept and picture people with disabilities for a role.

Representing a Community

Kumiyama has also spent time doing advocacy work for people with disabilities outside of audition spaces.

She was asked by Long Beach, Calif., Mayor Robert Garcia to be a commissioner on the Citizen's Advisory Commission on Disabilities to represent the disability community in statewide issues such as transportation and accessibility in addition to her advocacy work as Miss Wheelchair California 2010 and Miss Wheelchair America runner-up 2011.

"The purpose of Miss Wheelchair America is to provide the country with a visible spokeswoman to represent the needs of the disability community and also to celebrate the disability community," Kumiyama says.

When Kumiyama was Miss Wheelchair California she did plenty of public speaking.

"Groups like Boeing would hire a speaker and it's to let people know the many differences when you talk about disability," Kumiyama says.

Making It

Kumiyama gained experience being in front of a large crowd early in her career. She was booked as an ensemble member in Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular at Disneyland's California Adventure theme park, a role she still plays 12 years later.

The Aladdin show performs four times a day, four days a week with each audience holding 2,000 people.

In 2012, she and Forrest were cast in the drama, The Sessions, about a polio survivor and the topic of people with disabilities and sexual relationships. The director, Ben Lewin, is a polio survivor and uses crutches to help him walk.

Both actors loved the experience of being on the film's set.

"The director has a disability, too, so it's not like you're that super special, which is all you want as a performer and as a human being --you want a little bit of respect and to be treated just like everyone else," Forrest says.

Not all set experiences have been as enjoyable.

For one gig, Forrest was one of several actors portraying people who use wheelchairs, but he was the only person who legitimately uses one.

"They could have hired every one of my friends in L.A. They would have brought their own wheelchairs, they would have been authentic, they wouldn't have charged anymore," Forrest says. "They were just lazy."

Worth the Struggle

But neither Forrest, Sherer or Kumiyama let negative experiences overshadow their love for acting.

"You'll hear probably a million 'nos' before you hear that one 'yes,'" Kumiyama says. "But it's all worth it--it's part of the struggle. You have to be brave enough to struggle and know that it's the nature of the beast to audition, audition, audition and not book. But you're going to book. Keep going."

Sherer agrees and stresses the importance of honing one's craft.

"Focus on your craft, on your acting skills," she says. "Get into a really good acting class, take an improv class and just study as much as you can."
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Author:Diimig, Caitlyn
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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