Preoccupations: An Actor and Comedian, Aiming to Dispel Stereotypes

IF the unemployment statistics still seem disappointing for those hoping to join or rejoin the work force, consider this: The unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities is 75 percent higher than for those with no disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As someone who was left walking with crutches since the polio epidemic of 1952, I know firsthand about the difficulties finding employment. Often, we’re fighting against negative stereotypes foisted on society by the powerful influences of film, television and other media. Just as often, we’re our own worst enemies, internalizing these self-defeating stereotypes.

In my years in the job market — as an insurance salesman, a teacher, a stand-up comedian, a motivational speaker and a stage, film and TV actor — I’ve suffered my share of humiliating rejections. But those rejections eventually helped me develop some successful job search strategies.

In 1970, fresh out of college, I had a rude awakening when I started looking for a job. But it taught me early on that when one door closes in your face, you should knock on another. I had applied to get a teaching certificate at one university, hoping to eventually work with first graders. The admissions person told me: “Children can be cruel. We do not think you should teach.”

So I applied and got into Newark State College, now Kean University, where I obtained certification. Then, when I did teach first graders, they weren’t cruel; in fact, they were more inspiring to me than I was to them.

A little more than a year later, I interviewed to become a special sales agent for an insurance company. The interviewer was reluctant to hire me. “People with disabilities are not perceived as good advertisements for life insurance,” he said. I suggested that my engaging personality would more than compensate for people’s perceptions. He gave me a shot and I became one of the company’s top salesmen in my first year.

It’s been a particularly uphill struggle pursuing an acting career, a passion of mine since high school. I grew up with no role models in TV or film — except in telethons, and then it was to garner pity — and there are still so very few. While African-Americans, gays and women have broken the glass ceiling of diversity in TV and films, roles for people with disabilities remain the last frontier.

As my manager, Doug Cosgro at Noble Artists in Los Angeles, told me, “There are only two rules in this town: always look great and never look bad.” So I try to look my best all the time. On stage, or even just out around town, I wear a tuxedo with a ruffled shirt and I accessorize with my crutches, choosing from a dozen options, formal to funky.

Studying method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute in New York, we did exercises making weird faces and awkward physical gestures. You have to be really secure with your body image to pull that off. Gaining security with my body eventually went to my head.

“Presence” is an elusive but much desired quality. To improve mine, I became a stand-up comic. There’s nothing like humor to relieve people’s awkwardness about seeming disabilities or disadvantages. So I opened my comedy club act by standing stage center, leaning on my crutches, and saying, “You’re looking at the pope’s most amazing miracle: I went to him with a speech impediment and he cured it.”

Confidence is also not so easy to achieve, but in another acting class I was told, “If you don’t feel positive, just act it.” In auditions and other interviews, I act the part of someone who is sure he’ll get the role — and I often do.

ONE thing I can’t take sitting down is being ignored. At industry film screenings, I’ve walked up to important directors and proffered my business card. “You’ll never see me because casting directors are too prejudiced to bring me in for auditions,” I’ve said, “so I’d like to give you my card and hope you check me out.” They haven’t called — yet — but sometimes just making the point slowly changes attitudes. I helped form the Performers With Disabilities Committee of the Screen Actors Guild when I realized that I couldn’t change these misperceptions alone.

When I was in elementary school, someone wanted to help me off a bus. I said, “You can help me off the bus now, thank you, but then you’ll have to be here every day.” Translation: “What am I going to do when you’re not here?”

I await the role that earns me an Oscar for best supporting actor, and I’ll walk up to the stage without anyone’s support. But thank you for offering.

As told to Perry Garfinkel.