E.P. Kingsley: Passionate Crusade for Inclusion of People with Disabilities

Written by Pam Vetter for American Chronicle:

"'Sesame Street' is rare. For almost 40 years the writers, producers and administrators have been committed to including people with disabilities to truly represent society. But, how often do you see people with disabilities in commercials, television shows, film or theatre?" writer Emily Perl Kingsley asked.

"People with disabilities are America's largest minority with 57 million. They far outnumber African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans – any racial or ethic group you can think of and they are still ridiculously under-represented when compared to their actual percentage of the general population. When you add to that number all of the people who are affected by disabilities, such as the non-disabled spouses, parents, children, teachers, caregivers, and concerned friends, it swells to an even more enormous number. We are striving for equal opportunity and respect," Kingsley explained. "This is the new civil rights movement as disability cuts through all divisions of ethnicity, race, socio-economic status, gender, geography, and sexual orientation. It affects all segments of the population and is the only minority group that anyone can join at any moment."

Kingsley knows the statistics all too well. As a writer on "Sesame Street" for thirty-seven years, she was one of the first to help introduce young preschool viewers and their families to sign language.

"It was season two of ‘Sesame Street.' I helped to bring in the Little Theatre of the Deaf and they came on the show introducing everyone to sign language. Encouraged by ‘Sesame Street' producers, I was soon writing material to introduce disabled actors and became politicized about disability issues," Kingsley said. "In 1974, my son, Jason, was born with Down syndrome. I realized people like us had fallen off the face of the earth in terms of their representation in the media. No one reflected my family; in fact, no disabled people were seen anywhere in print media, commercials and rarely in the arts. It hit me in the face that we didn't count and that my son didn't rate as a human being. It was incredibly painful."

In the mid-70's, a mother wrote to "Sesame Street" to express her surprise and gratitude when her son with Down syndrome learned to recite the alphabet from the show.

"Everyone had told this mother that her son wouldn't be able to learn but 'Sesame Street' was her first indication that he could. We then realized that we were aiming our curriculum at a developmental age, not a chronological age. I began my own passionate crusade to include a curriculum for slower learners, to show kids with disabilities functioning as participating members of their communities. Children with disabilities are not being shut away in institutions anymore. They are growing up in families, they are in our neighborhoods, in school, in playgrounds, just like everybody else. ‘Sesame Street' has been a model of normal comfortable inclusion since the mid-70s. In fact, ‘Sesame Street' has a better record than any show in our history for consistently and constantly showing the disabled in a normal way," Kingsley explained. "For a child in a wheelchair to see another child in a wheelchair on TV, it validates that child. It also is validating to the siblings of children with disabilities who often have their own issues around acceptance and understanding of their disabled brothers and sisters. Most importantly, for all of the other kids and society, it helps create an acceptance to see them in a comfortable, normal way of existence."

Having someone such as Christopher Reeve appear on "Sesame Street" in his wheelchair was important in furthering the movement.

"We had a very explicit segment with Christopher Reeve where he talked about his accident and he showed the children how the wheelchair worked. When I interviewed him, I told him I'd like to use his son in the segment. He asked me to tell him why, to convince him because he and his wife didn't put their son in the media. I explained to him how important it was to show that people with a disability have lives, they are parents, they have spouses, and they have children. They have real lives. He agreed. In the scene, his son says to Big Bird that ‘We're going to the library,' and when his father arrives, he climbs up on his lap, right in the wheelchair, gives him a kiss and says, 'Hi Dad!' It demonstrates so clearly the ordinary warm Dad-son relationship between Chris and his son," Kingsley said.

Kingsley joined an organization in New York City focused on non-traditional casting, which today is the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts. Her son did some acting on "Sesame Street," "Fall Guy," and "Touched by an Angel."

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