Five Questions with Steven James Tingus
Can you tell us about your work in Hollywood advocating for people with disabilities and other health-related challenges to be accurately portrayed in film and television?
For more than two years, I've committed myself towards implementing disability policy and business sense into actionable goals in hiring talent behind and in front of the camera in Hollywood at the major studios and guilds. Sadly, only 2% of scripted TV shows have a character with a disability and, of these characters 95% of those characters are played by an able-bodied actor. I am trying to change that underrepresentation in TV/movies since 20% of Americans have a disability (57 million Americans).
You’ve also landed some on-screen roles. Not many BCAs have an iMDB page. What has that experience been like?
Amazing! At an early age, to the surprise of many, I wanted to enter the entertainment industry. However, back in the 1970s things were even worse when it came to disability (handicap) inclusion. It was for this reason and my skill for policy development that I entered public service/politics. Now, post-Bush 43 administration, I've been asked to be in such TV/cable series as Showtime's Twin Peaks: The Return, A&E's Born This Way, and independent movies such as CainAbel and Stolen Breath: The Truth Revealed. I would say that working with award-winning director David Lynch of Twin Peaks fame was the most interesting and rewarding experience I've felt in Hollywood. He personally sought me out to appear in his 25th Anniversary return of the show. He cares a lot about underrepresented groups and particularly made my TV debut quite memorable.
This month marks the 27th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush signing the Americans With Disabilities Act into law. We’ve come a long way, but as a national expert on disability policy, what do you see as unfinished business and needed policy improvements for people with disabilities?
While in California at the time of the development of the ADA, I served as a strong voice outside the Beltway. As President Bush 43's lead for disability research and policy for eight years, I can say that we have not come far enough in implementing the vision of that landmark legislation. Sadly, despite breakthroughs in architectural access and public transportation, 70% of people with disabilities actively seeking work are still unemployed. It's my belief that the ADA wasn't written to be business friendly. In fact, and from personal experience post-White House, the more educated, experienced and established you are, the harder it is for corporate America to hire you. Why? Because they think in the back of their heads that you're an HR nightmare and that you might sue due to workplace discrimination. In fact, most educated Americans with disabilities don't have that “sue factor” in them. All we want is an equal chance to perform and earn our way towards the American dream. It will surprise many, including my former boss 43, that I believe that the ADA needs to be amended to not only drop the label "disabled" which is a misnomer, and made more business employment friendly with tax credits for businesses to hire. Only then will we be able to make gains for people with disabilities.
What are your favorite memories from your time in the Bush Administration?
Two points stand out. The first was being asked by President Bush just 12 days into his presidency (February 1, 2001) to introduce him in the East Room as we unveiled the "New Freedom Initiative" together; the disability policy agenda I helped craft with other members of his disability policy team. Before members of Congress, the community and national press, we set the agenda for our time in office. Being disability astute, President Bush even had his team develop a speaking platform that was especially designed for my power wheelchair height.
The second time point that stands out, aside from my annual reports to him directly, was our last get together of political appointees at Constitutional Hall. I took the opportunity to publicly thank President and Mrs. Bush for their service and for his behind the scenes support for what I brought to the table in his Administration. Further, I made it known that being hired to work in his administration allowed me for the first time to be able to afford to hire a caregiver and live on my own, something that my now late parents and I would never forget.
What lessons did you learn in the Administration that help you in your work today?
Never lose your humility. Realize that while you can't please everyone, you have the opportunity to work across the political aisle to develop consensus in order to make effective change. Sadly, those days seem long gone. I will always cherish those days with my friend and former boss, President Bush, who unbeknownst to most people, kept it real and loved everyone.