Some 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) will soon be rounding out their first month on strike. With the explosion of streaming—and its recent contraction—TV writers have seen paychecks dwindle, competition for staffing positions grow as writing rooms shrink, and residuals, the royalties writers get when a program re-airs, evaporate.
The issues these writers face are compounded for marginalized groups, including writers of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and disabled people. While media representation of these groups has made enormous inroads over the last decade, in some ways enabled by the streaming boom, TV writing as a profession has become more precarious. Writers face less stability, shorter seasons, and less overall compensation for their work. For disabled adults, who represent some 25% of the U.S. adult population yet account for only 0.7% of WGA members, these inequities can be especially stark and compounded by ableism in the industry.
This is true even on the picket lines themselves, where disabled writers have had to advocate for the accommodations they need to participate. Jamey Perry, the vice chair of the Writers Guild of America’s Disabled Writers Committee, is paraplegic and has been active on the picket lines since the strike began on May 2.
Perry explained that she’s been able to do full strike shifts because of her new full-suspension wheelchair, which she was able to get through WGA insurance. Perry said the new wheelchair would have set her back $6,000 if she had paid out of pocket.
Some disabled writers can’t be on the picket line as much due to their conditions or are looking for other ways to plug in if showing up in person is too risky. Others need accommodations to make picketing possible, such as accessible bathrooms, chairs, shade, and water. The Inevitable Foundation, a nonprofit that professionally supports disabled writers in Hollywood, and has launched an emergency fund for disabled writers in the industry, even rented a portable, accessible bathroom so disabled writers could come picket.
There is a lot at stake for WGA members and other aspiring TV writers, who are excited and energized by the strong show of support for the strike but are growing increasingly stressed about how they’ll stay afloat financially if it continues. After several weeks, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has still refused to renegotiate, as other unions in the entertainment business make moves to strike too.
Like WGA members across the board, disabled writers find it harder than ever to break into the field. This is in part due to the rise of mini-rooms, or smaller writers’ rooms that meet for shorter periods and are expected to produce some or all of the season’s scripts without knowing if it will ever air.
“Writers’ room budgets are getting smaller and smaller while production budgets are getting bigger and bigger and CEO pay is getting bigger and bigger,” said Perry, who worked as a writers’ assistant in the last few years and has since been developing other projects. But she was not staffed when the strike began.
According to Saga Darnell, research and communications lead at the Inevitable Foundation, disabled people “are the smallest minority of writers in Hollywood.” While disabled people make up about a quarter of the population, they represent only 2% of characters on-screen and only 0.7% of WGA writers behind the screen.
For Perry, this massive discrepancy is why the WGA proposal for mandating minimum writers’ room sizes is one of its most important. “None of the other proposals matter if you can’t get hired in the first place,” she said.
Smaller writers’ rooms mean that showrunners are less likely to take chances on new talent. As Aoife Baker, a neurodivergent and disabled TV writer, explained, when studios only hire higher-level writers, they are usually “cis, white, able men because it’s so recent to start having anybody else that most people from marginalized groups are not at that level yet.”
Disabled writers face additional barriers, from discrimination and assumptions about their conditions to struggles to get the accommodations they need. According to the Inevitable Foundation, 33% of disabled writers reported discrimination, and 69% of disabled writers say they were excluded from certain opportunities due to their identity. Sometimes, after all the challenges of getting hired, disabled writers find they can’t even get into the room because they are located upstairs in a building without an elevator, Perry said.
Early in her career, Keisha Zollar, a Black disabled TV writer and actor, said she was intimidated to ask her employers for accommodations. “Instead of asking for the accommodations I needed, I tried to power through and made myself sicker,” she said. Now, after working on a number of successful productions as a writer and actor, she’s become confident enough to advocate for what she needs in the room. “There came a time in my early to mid-30s, where I was like, wait a minute, I need to stop suffering and say something and ask for what I need.”
Though the people she’s worked with have by and large been understanding, a few have been slower on the uptake. One showrunner asked her if she could plan which days she would be sick. “I can’t turn it on and off like a switch,” she said. In this situation, Zollar had an “honest conversation” with the showrunner, who was receptive once she understood it better. At another point in her career, Zollar had a serious health scare, and the showrunner gave her extra time to complete a script.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. “It’s so common for accommodations to be counted as a financial hit against the person,” said Baker. Studios and networks often assume that these accommodations will be expensive when the reality is they are much lower than they think on an average production. According to the Inevitable Foundation, accommodating a 25% disabled staff and production crew only increases a total series budget by 0.5%. These accommodations could include building ramps for wheelchair-users, providing an assistant for neurodivergent writers, allowing writers to work from home, or providing interpreters for deaf or hard-of-hearing writers.
If productions were made accessible from the get-go, added Baker, “that’s going to mean that you have access later to hire only the best of everybody. Instead of being stuck hiring only people who can get up these stairs, you can hire from the entire pool of talent in Hollywood.”
While not providing accommodations to disabled people might seem like a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the rules are murkier in workplaces, and suing an employer could be expensive and risky. On top of that, “a lot of people are extremely gun-shy when it comes to filing ADA lawsuits because they could end up at the Supreme Court, which is itching for an opportunity to eviscerate the ADA,” explained Perry.
The issue of residuals, which have also dwindled as a result of streaming, could also be especially hard on disabled writers, who are more likely to live under the poverty line and have higher overhead costs due to their medical needs. Health insurance is “a life or death issue” for disabled people, in Perry’s words. To qualify for guild insurance, WGA members must meet an income threshold by certain dates or risk being kicked off.
“With rooms as small as they are, and there hardly being any staff writer positions to start with, it’s really hard to keep your health insurance,” Perry said. She added that if she doesn’t sell something or get hired soon, she and her family will be dropped off the insurance.
And while it’s common for writers to have gaps between jobs, disabled writers may have more frequent gaps if they have health flare-ups. “Our only option really to survive at all is to have residuals to fill in the gaps,” Baker said.
But working in mini-rooms can often mean no residuals at all. Zollar has seen zero residuals from the mini-rooms she’s worked in because none of them moved forward. “I should have been paid a lot more for that project and my time,” she said. Streaming networks have even started removing shows from their platforms to avoid paying further residuals.
The strike isn’t expected to end any time soon. Most predict it will last longer than the last writers’ strike in 2007, which went on for 100 days. Yet as the AMPTP sharpens its knives, the WGA isn’t backing down either, as other unions vote to join them in their struggle.
“The fact that other unions are specifically joining with the WGA and tethering their demands to our demands and making it clear that this will be a multi-union effort, that has the potential to actually create real, lasting change for the whole industry,” Baker said.