‘Best Foot Forward’ is a story about, and by, people with disabilities

Casting the right actor for a role often means finding someone who matches the character description in a script, but Josh Sundquist didn’t know if that was possible for his series “Best Foot Forward.”

“It sounds silly in retrospect, but this was four years ago,” Sundquist recalled recently. “At the time, it simply didn’t occur to me that it would even be possible to hire an amputee actor.”

Sundquist was helping to cast a fictionalized version of his younger self, the lead role in “Best Foot Forward,” which debuts Friday on Apple TV+. Loosely based on Sundquist’s memoir, “Just Don’t Fall,” the series centers on a 12-year-old boy who is the only child at his school with a limb difference. Sundquist, who is an executive producer on the series, lost his left leg to bone cancer when he was 10.

The character’s disability is at the core of “Best Foot Forward,” but Sundquist’s expectations were measured. “I just thought like, ‘Oh, of course we’re going to have to cast an able-bodied kid and have a body double,'” he said. “Because that was all I’d ever seen my whole life.”

To Sundquist’s delight, the production company behind the show, Muse Entertainment, was intent on finding an actor who shared the character’s disability. After casting the newcomer Logan Marmino as the fictional Josh, Sundquist’s perspective on what was possible evolved dramatically.

“By the time we got to where we were greenlit and we were starting to look for crew, I was fully converted to the importance of authentic representation both in front of and behind the camera,” he said.

What happens in front of the camera often dominates the discourse around representation in entertainment. While the news media has in recent years paid some attention to the lack of opportunity for actors with disabilities, there is still plenty of room for progress.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 26 percent of American adults have a disability, but according to a GLAAD report released earlier this year, characters with disabilities, including children, constituted only 2.8 percent of series regulars across all scripted broadcast TV shows in the 2021-22 TV season. (The report did not take a comprehensive look at disability representation on cable and streaming services.) Earlier GLAAD research, from 2021, found that the majority of TV characters with disabilities are played by non-disabled actors.

Even when disabled actors are cast, it often addresses only half of the problem, Sundquist noted. In many instances, if you were to turn the camera around, he said, “you would see that disability was only represented in one direction.”

In making “Best Foot Forward,” Sundquist was determined to hire disabled people throughout the production, but finding crew members with disabilities was more challenging than he anticipated. When it comes to actors, “agents know that sometimes you want people with disabilities and they have those people already on file,” he said. But when the producers contacted unions and guilds that represent crew positions, he said, they found that most of them did not track which of their members have disabilities.

So Sundquist resorted to putting call-outs on social media and connecting with disability advocacy groups like RespectAbility. “We’re not a staffing agency,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who runs RespectAbility’s Entertainment Lab, a workshop for professionals with disabilities working in TV and film. “We just found ourselves in this position where studios and individual productions are reaching out to us saying ‘We want help with this.'” Seven people who worked on “Best Foot Forward” were Lab alumni, she added.

“Best Foot Forward” is not the first show to have included people with disabilities on both sides of the camera. Several shows over the past few years, including Sundance Now’s “This Close,” about two best friends who are deaf, and Netflix’s “Special,” a comedy about a gay man with cerebral palsy, were created by and starred people with disabilities. Appelbaum said “Best Foot Forward” builds on the groundwork laid by those shows.

“What makes ‘Best Foot Forward’ really unique is the intentionality behind bringing in disabled crew,” she explained. “Crew across all levels, from production assistants to directors.”

One of the show’s writers, Zach Anner, wrote previously for “Speechless,” an ABC series that ran from 2016-19 and was praised for its realistic depiction of a teen who, like Anner, has cerebral palsy. Anner said there were only a few writers with a disability for “Speechless,” “and that was very novel at the time.” On “Best Foot Forward,” he said, “it was half the writers’ room.”

“No one person felt responsible for representing an entire community,” Anner added. “It also freed us up to just be funny.”

Unlike on many productions, the writers and crew with disabilities on “Best Foot Forward” were not tasked with also educating non-disabled collaborators and advocating accessibility. That was someone’s actual job. Kiah Amara served as the production accessibility coordinator, a relatively new role in Hollywood that is generally filled by disabled professionals who consult on onscreen authenticity and how to accommodate crew members with disabilities.

The first step on set, Amara said, is to survey the crew and gauge how to make the production as accessible as possible. “I’ll list things out like: ‘Check the box: Would you like access to a sensory-friendly room?'” Amara said. Do you need your scripts or documents in dark mode? Do you need a dyslexia-accessible font?’” Then comes crew training that covers disability-related language and how to create an inclusive space.

“It’s not the disabled folks who need to learn anything,” Amara said. “It’s all the non-disabled folks who need to continue to be in this space of, like, ‘Here’s how not to be frightened of thinking that you’re going to mess up.'”

Amara found, when consulting on past productions, that the reluctance to hire disabled crew often stems from an assumption that doing so will cost excessive time and money. This pervasive belief can lead some crew members to hide their disabilities. “They may choose not to disclose it to anybody — it’s still very unsafe in the industry to be disabled,” Amara said.

That was something Sundquist was conscious of when trying to recruit crew members with disabilities. “We were able to call and be like: ‘Hey, I heard you had some bad experiences on set. Sorry about that. We’re going to try to do better on our set. Can we persuade you to come on board?'”

In doing so, the production frequently attracted “people whose résumés did not yet reflect their level of talent,” Sundquist said, who were then able to bring those things more in line by virtue of their credit on “Best Foot Forward.” He mentioned as an example Ashley Eakin, a limb-different director whose previous work had been limited mostly to short films. Eakin directed two episodes of “Best Foot Forward.”

“By her coming into the show, then she gets into the Directors Guild, which makes it so much easier to find future directorial work,” Sundquist said.

The production crew also included evidence of the untapped skills that can lie within people that others might overlook. One example was Marissa Erickson, a production assistant who was tasked with corralling and transporting the child actors from school to the set. “In my hometown, Alameda, I usually work in a kindergarten as a teacher’s aide,” said Erickson, who added that she was excited to combine her previous production experience and her experience working with children.

Erickson, who has Down syndrome, was one of the crew members recommended by Appelbaum at RespectAbility, having participated in the organization’s 2019 Entertainment Lab. Appelbaum recalled a workshop in which Erickson participated alongside executives from a major studio: “Marissa stood up and started talking about some of the work that she has done, and I saw an exec, like, their mouth just drop.” Appelbaum said Erickson’s work ethic and experience exceeded the executive’s expectations of someone with Down syndrome.

“I think, in their mind, they were thinking, ‘Yeah of course we could hire someone who uses a wheelchair,’ but they weren’t thinking that they could hire someone with an intellectual or developmental disability,” Appelbaum said. “Marissa clearly proves that wrong.” Recently, Erickson was offered three production assistant jobs simultaneously. (She accepted a position on a Disney+ short film anthology series called “Launchpad.”)

Appelbaum and others said that in order to increase disability representation on film and television sets, it was crucial for guilds and unions to survey their members for disabilities as well as for demographic information like race and gender. The Writers Guild of America does, and the Director’s Guild of America began soliciting information about disability status in member surveys in 2021. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the union that represents crew members like grips, cinematographers, costumers and makeup artists, voted last year to start holding an annual census in an effort to boost diversity within its membership. But it is unclear whether it will include information about disabilities. (The IATSE did not respond to a request for comment.)

“Without the data, it’s hard to get things to change,” Appelbaum said. “When you have the hard numbers, people are much more likely to want to change something.”

Until then, Anner, the writer, is hopeful that “Best Foot Forward” might serve as an important step forward for hiring practices in Hollywood.

“For me, it sort of put an end to that argument that you hear sometimes of people saying, ‘Oh, we looked for someone with a disability, we looked for a person of color, and we couldn’t find anyone,'” he said. “We can point to this and say, ‘No, there are plenty.'”

Leave a Comment