It was two words. “Inclusion Rider”! The words were spoken by Frances McDormand in her acceptance speech for Best Actress at the 90th Academy Awards Sunday night. Ms. McDormand won the Oscar for a riveting role in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, a movie I just had a chance to see the other night. On a personal note, I am a huge fan of hers. By the way, this was her second Oscar, the first was for Best Actress in another riveting movie, “Fargo”. On another personal note, “Fargo”, the movie, came out in 1996 and to call it quirky would be an understatement. What’s funny to me is “Fargo”, the movie, a product of the minds of the Coen Brothers, was pretty “out there” back then. Most of the new productions on alternate television like Netflix, etc. make the original “Fargo” look mainstream today! I love it when people push the boundaries to challenge the world to catch up to what those doing the pushing already seem to understand. “Change Can Be Awesome!”
So here’s my first question: Do you feel like “Inclusion Rider” is just a politically correct gimmick or a potential game-changer? I must be transparent here – I would give Frances McDormand a standing ovation for bringing this forward, but because I clap with my feet, it would be louder and safer if I stay seated! Honestly, this takes me back to what got me into speaking in the first place…to “Change The Game”!
For some accuracy (I know, imagine “accuracy” on the Internet?), Stacy L. Smith invented “The Inclusion Rider” and she is not a lawyer or a talent agent. Ms. Smith is a Ph.D Professor at USC Santa Barbara and it was her area of study and instruction that led to her tracking “On Screen Representation Of Minorities in Movies”. Her research also includes representation of crews who make the films. Ms. Smith has hypothesized that in film and television, productions need to better reflect the true demographics of society which includes all those pesky “minorities” (that last part was me) and it should be reflected on both sides of the camera. I’m pretty sure some of you reading this either had a silent smile while the rest of you rolled your eyes, right? Not being critical of the “eye rollers” but this leads me to my second question…Why is this such a divisive subject? Allow me to speculate here – but feel free to send in your comments at the end.
This type of discussion usually and eventually devolves into “Politics” and that’s when it gets muddy and personal and typically divides our society right down the line of “Left & Right”. Not surprisingly, I think most of us see the world of actors and musicians and writers, etc. as “Liberals” or “Left Wing Hippies”! At the same time, and sticking to the field, “Movie and TV Studios, Producers, Agents”,etc. represent the “Conservative” or “Right Wing Establishment”. Our general population fits there pretty well too, but let me keep the focus on the specific subject of this blog…Inclusion!
Isn’t that a “warm & fuzzy” notion? Inclusion! Makes one imagine everyone gathering in the company parking lot before work every morning, joining arms or holding hands, singing Kumbaya, group hug and off to live another stimulating and meaningful day on the job, huh? Yes, that is sarcasm. Yet, there remains countless companies who employ “group bonding exercises” at the beginning of a work day to remind everyone of the importance of “The Team”. Some love that while others are repulsed and they just had a visceral reaction to the notion alone. But this is actually the heart of the problem. “Inclusion” is not and has never been about some “Left Wing” agenda by Human Rights Activists, although they tend to be the most vocal about it so a significant portion of society often get defensive and cynical about implementing “Workplace Inclusion Policies”.
Here is my take on inclusion. I was born without arms in 1960 and because of my parents and other special people I have been able to “overcome” my disability by using my feet for hands. I was “born” this way so when I claim, as I have my whole life, “I see myself as completely normal”, that’s not being politically correct or a Human Rights Declaration! It’s true for me – just as you are your own normal. I am one of the lucky ones who never let my challenges make me angry or bitter. Actually I give a ton of credit to my parents who never kept the harsh truth of life away from me and but more importantly…taught me to have self-respect and never believe I should have special treatment because of my disability.
One of my personal favourite stories I have told countless times is how my parents gently convinced the powers that be that I should attend St. Alphonsus Elementary School, right across the street from our house, as opposed the “Crippled Kids School” (that’s what it was known in vernacular and every manor of disability was housed there) across town. My parents wanted no part of that other school – I was an intelligent, normal kid that had the capacity to learn but more importantly, I needed to belong, to be included and I needed to learn that as importantly as academics. So I did go to St. Alphonsus and it was nothing but awesome. But I would offer something more encompassing; my peers had a front row seat to learning that the word of the day, “Inclusion” was simply a part of life. It wasn’t all of them and me! It was; “Oh, thats Alvin!” Not, “Oh, that’s the kid without arms”, so we went to school together, had fun together, sometimes, didn’t get along together, sometimes, fought with each other but we all progressed at our own speed, which is the essence of Inclusion. We are not all clones, are we? Yet for some people, getting comfy-cosy with someone like me isn’t easy! But if we develop workplace policies like this blog is highlighting, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t a “brand new idea”, we go through the growing pains, then settle in, and the notion of this being a threat or a “Human Resources Initiative”, just becomes “every day”, just like St. Alphonsus in the 60’s!
Yet, I also believe that there is still a completely natural protectionist nature in a lot of folks who might see “Inclusion” as a “Free Ride For Minorities” and unemployment for me! It’s a very good point. What I can tell you is I believe that most companies would only hire based on qualifications and there are plenty of checks and balances to protect everybody. If that’s me just wearing my “rose coloured glasses”, I respectfully disagree. My gut and experience tells me my story is not the only one and most candidates would believe the same thing I was taught. I (and my parents) had firmly resolved that I would earn my way in my life. I wanted to be a professional musician so I practiced my music (trombone, drums and voice) every day, literally for hours so I could be the best! The hard work payed off and in 1978, I played Lead Chair Trombone in the Canadian National All Star High School Jazz Band. When I realized the obstacles of being respected for my music and not the novelty, I decided to be a Broadcaster. For that I needed to go further my education. I moved by myself from Yorkton, Saskatchewan to Calgary, Alberta to attend Mount Royal College and take a two-year diploma course in Broadcasting.
But here’s what I find pretty fascinating. Turns out, Mount Royal College Broadcasting had never enrolled a student without arms! It was actually pretty funny in retrospect. To be accurate, I’d been accepted by the college already. I didn’t just “show up”. And this part isn’t stupidity or “my right of privacy”. It was just my way. My college acceptance was based on my marks from high school and remember the Honours Graduate part? I didn’t get that from sympathy or an “Inclusion Policy” at the Yorkton Regional High School. I earned it, not to make a statement, because that’s what people do. All people. Aren’t we all capable of earning our future? In a perfect world, indeed. But we all know the world is not perfect. But isn’t the “Pursuit of Progress” more important than the prize?
I did not ask MRC for a special acceptation. In fact, I had no idea this had never been done before. I had pretty big odds that the Armless Guy part was a first but hey, I was 18 years old, what did I know? So I drove the 1000 km to write the mandatory entrance exam which was not really an “exam you could fail”. It was quite simply a document to assist the admissions department in scheduling your classes. In essence if you were there, you were in. But here is the key. I hadn’t written anywhere in any of my applications that I had no arms. It didn’t matter in Yorkton. But you see, I didn’t realize what I was unknowingly about to accomplish. That wasn’t my “plan”! It wasn’t my parents “plan”! It just made sense. So I obviously graduated from MRC, but how did I get in?
Honesty, this is a great story. I’ll make it brief. The heads of the Broadcasting Faculty watched me eat lunch by myself in the college cafeteria. They were particularly fascinated by how I grabbed a tray (no table service), pushed it down the rollers, grabbed a sandwich and a milk with my feet, paid with cash in my shirt pocket I politely asked the cashier to help me with. All I needed was to have my tray carried to my table, and “Bon Appetite”! I didn’t notice them, but apparently, they noticed me. Seriously. They actually came over to my table, introduced themselves and were quite blunt. They were alerted to me by the admissions staff at the entrance exam and actually had a pre-lunch meeting about my fate. It was a legitimate concern. This was Broadcasting and in case you didn’t know this, that’s not just the voice part. It’s every facet of the industry. I’d have to edit reel to reel audio tape with a razor blade. I’d have to use a studio camera in the newsroom. I’d have to work a control board in a television studio. I’d have to play vinyl records.
So there they were. It was short and sweet. Any doubts they had about my ability to adapt to the course was extinguished. In fact, and they actually said this…”Maybe you can teach us a thing or two!
While in school, I became completely focused on my classes so I could graduate with the best marks I could achieve and indeed, made the Dean’s List and Graduated with Honours! But listen up, I focused just as much on social pursuits and that’s not code for “party”, although I did some of that too. I needed to work on my social skills, which I lacked, mostly because I spent all my time in high school “practicing” to be the best! In fact, I have encountered a great number of, in this case, handicapped folks who were severely lacking in social graces due to the fact that they were not included earlier on in life for any number of reasons. Life is full of situations we judge unfair for everyone, including the disabled. My point is we must all obtain the knowledge, skills and experience to “earn” a job. But what if all of these pursuits are blocked by a barricaded door of ignorance and insensitivity? Do we break the door down or slowly push it open an inch at a time?
I did graduate from Mount Royal in 1980 and again, played the game. I went to college to get a diploma and it still looks sweet on my office wall. But I didn’t get it to frame it and display it. I “earned” it to say to potential employers…”I Am Qualified” I prepared high quality audition tapes and applied for several “on air jobs” across Alberta and Saskatchewan and in keeping with my philosophy, didn’t acknowledge anywhere in my job search that I had no arms! Please pay attention here by closing your eyes (really) and imagining what a guy without arms sounds like! By the way, this wasn’t a conscious strategy to “protest” employment of the handicapped. This was “my operating system of life”! I was shocked to get several replies and people were interested in an interview. Really? Best part? I had a choice! My favourite opportunity came from CFMQ-FM Radio in Regina, Saskatchewan. It was FM! It was “Album Rock/Adult Contemporary”, a designation in radio that quite simply meant “Dreamland For A DJ”!
Hey a job is a job, right? I would have been willing to take anything but now I got to choose! Isn’t that awesome? It took two tough years of study and commitment, but now I had control, not the other way around! Or was I dreaming? I set up a face to face interview with the Station Manager in Regina, put on my bad suit and tie, drove two hours from Yorkton, found the station and was giddy as I admired the huge sign outside the building; “FM 92…The Rock of Regina! Cool! I asked for the boss and the receptionist led me to his office. She knocked on his door and said; “Your One O’Clock is here!” From inside, “Show him in!” Okay, time for Imagination again. I walk in, suit jacket on, sleeves in my pockets and the boss stands up to shake my hand! Let that sink in for a moment. So I did what I always do in a moment like that. I confidently stated; “I don’t have any hands so apologize, I can’t shake yours but nice to meet you”. I can still remember the look on his face. He stumbled but answered…”You are Alvin Law? I loved your audition tape. You didn’t sound like you were handicapped!” You can’t make this stuff up!
After a very long and frank discussion, I got the job! I would be the “All Night Host” of a Show I’d call; “All Night With Alvin”. It was surreal. All I needed for “accommodation” was telescoping swivel chair on wheels in the studio so I could reach the albums and commercial carts (this was 1980!), the mixing board and turntables.
My point is quite simple. I am not “boasting”. I broke new ground in my small world three times in my life and I wasn’t even 20 years old! I had done it with dignity, class, professionalism and not one hint of “The world owes me!” This issue is not about “Payback”, it’s about society moving forward and, hopefully, erasing policies of the past that, let’s be blunt, were orchestrated by a bunch of middle aged white guys with their hand on the tiller (how you steer a sailboat) and never letting anyone else have a turn. Well, time for someone else to steer!
Inclusion is not about politics or human rights…it’s about human beings and whether we like it or not, I believe we are all “related” by our humanity! When Frances MacDormand uttered the phrase “Inclusion Rider” she was referring to a “Personal Policy” for actors to employ when accepting a job and while it may appear to be yet another “Shot Across The Bow” from the #MeToo, #IBelieveYou, or any recent Hashtag Movement, it has been over 50 years in the making. I know this because I have been a part of the “Movement” and frankly, been promoting it my entire speaking career that began in 1981.
I found it ironic timing that a recent Calgary Herald featured a story about a city lawyer who was born blind and is off to Pyeongchang to volunteer with the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games and Team Canada! Bob Fenton has spent his life with similar challenges that this blog suggests and I love a quote he gave in this article: “The barriers imposed on people with disabilities are not imposed by the people themselves, so part of our job is to teach the public these barriers need to be removed because people with disabilities contribute to every aspect of society; just as much as anybody else”.
Frances McDormand’s professional life is in movies and television. I’m pretty sure most of our society would see that life as pretty exotic and in a world of their own. But they’d be wrong. Not only have I spent my life around “Celebrities” on telethons I’ve appeared on but I have worked with countless crews on countless productions for stage and screen and these are quite simply, human beings earning their paycheque from the stage and screen industry. While this subject emanated from The Academy Awards, it’s a microcosm of life.
Have you ever thought what it would be like to be the “odd” one? From the outside looking in. What strategy would you employ? Would you want to fight back so you can get what you have earned? Or after over fifty years would you just let it go? What I respect so much about Frances McDormand and her statement last night was just those two simple words. She didn’t wear the latest “protest colored wardrobe, pin or ribbon”. She didn’t launch into an angry tirade. She eloquently and with class and dignity said those words…Inclusion Rider! Will this work in the corporate world? We have had affirmative action strategies in the past – some worked better than others. But we know for the health of the world, everyone needs to be included and considered for who they are – not how others see or judge them. All yours truly is hoping for is this is not a “Gimmick” but a “Game Changer”. Isn’t it about time?