Disabled Writers and Actors Strike for a Better Future

Hollywood is at a standstill. The Writers Guild of America, the union that represents 11,500 screenwriters, and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, representing 160,000 actors, are both on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. These are the writers and actors who make your favorite TV shows and movies, like Ted Lasso, Oppenheimer and countless other productions, yet the vast majority of them are living from paycheck to paycheck.

The WGA and SAG-AFTRA are fighting for many of the same issues. They seek protections against rapidly developing artificial-intelligence technology and are trying to ensure living wages for their members. With the explosion of streaming services, the writers and actors have seen their paychecks and residuals dwindle. 

The WGA has been on strike since May 2, and SAG-AFTRA since July 14. I chatted with WGA members David Radcliff and Jamey Perry, both wheelchair users, about why the strike is important to disabled writers. Perry is vice chair of the WGA’s Disabled Writers Committee, which works to advance the visibility and employment of disabled writers. Radcliff is the DWC’s co-chair, alongside fellow co-chair Shea Mirzai. 

Teal Sherer: David, weren’t you working as a staff writer on the new CBS show Tracker when the WGA strike started? 

David Radcliff: Yes, we were literally plotting my episode. The way our writers’ room is set up is, whoever’s episode is being worked on is leading the room that day. Our last day was a weird experience, because I knew everybody was thinking about the strike. We’d anticipated a strike was coming, and nobody wanted to think about Act 3 of my episode, or a twist — because we were all waiting for the twist in real life of, “Ha, you don’t have a job anymore.” 

TS: How has the rise of streaming affected the writers? 

DR: With the rise of streaming services, money earned from creative content isn’t trickling to the actual creators of the content. For many years, it was very possible for a writer to work consistently, year after year after year, on network shows and get residuals. There used to be 20 or 22 episodes a season. I remember X-Files was doing 24, 25 episodes a year — and that show went for nine years. Now you have a show on Netflix and your season is eight or 10 episodes long, no real residuals, and you’re probably going to get cancelled after two seasons.  

Jamey Perry: Writers’ rooms have also become smaller. There is an abuse of something called “mini rooms,” which consist of small groups of writers to work out a whole season of a series before that show is even officially (greenlighted). Because these rooms are smaller, and aren’t officially rooms, they can be held for cheap, and tend to leave out a lot of newer talent. There is really no longer a middle-class TV writer or screenwriter in our industry. There are people at the very top. And then there’s almost everybody else just absolutely scrambling at the bottom. 

Two wheelchair users, a woman on the left and a man on the right, with a nondisabled man in between look at the camera. The nondisabled man holds a sign that says, "On strike"!
Jamey Perry (left), Shea Mirzai (center) and David Radcliff (right) chair the Disabled Writers Committee for the Writers Guild of America.

TS: What impact is this having on disabled writers? 

DR: These issues impact underrepresented communities to an exponential degree. Of the few disabled writers who are working, we tend to end up at the lower levels, and then just stay there for a while, even if we’re lucky. I’m doing a staff writer job for the third time — that’s almost 38 episodes of television at an entry-level job. It’s hard to point to disabled folks who are at the upper levels — upper-levels being the folks who make big decisions about story and about casting and about everything. So much of this is intersectional too. If you’re a Black disabled woman, your odds of being in a writers’ room are even less. 

JP: It also makes it even harder for disabled talent to break into the field. Smaller writers’ rooms mean showrunners are less likely to take chances on new talent. We are also battling ableism. Though around 25% of Americans identify as having a disability, we’re less than 1% of the Writers Guild. That is clearly a result of systemic ableism. To believe otherwise would be to believe that disabled people can’t write, don’t have any stories to tell, or are not good in a writers’ room. 

TS: You both have been active on the picket lines, and you all organized the Disability Writes picket in June at the Sony lot. How was that? 

DR: Energizing. There were over 100 people there. There was something kind of powerful, having low-vision people, people in wheelchairs, neurodivergent people, and people who are Deaf all in one space. There were SAG-AFTRA disabled actors there, supporting us, even before their own strike. We’ve already had requests to do another picket and would love to plan a joint event with SAG-AFTRA, now that both guilds have struck.  

JP: One of the coolest parts about the picket was that Margaret Nagle, a nondisabled WGA member who’s a real ally, helped sponsor an accessible bathroom truck from (California-based nonprofit) Momentum. … Their trucks are specifically made for the entertainment industry because, as we know, accessible bathrooms aren’t always on sets. I have had to crawl up steps to use a bathroom. This truck costs $2,900 a day. That’s like the bagel budget of a big-budget show. So, here’s your reasonable accommodation. 

TS: Why should people with disabilities support the strike? How can they help? 

DR: The outcome of this strike sets a direction for labor in other industries too. We’re aiming to build a more equitable industry that has room for a broad spectrum of voices and pays them fairly. To grow careers, we need a healthier industry that fosters space and opportunity. Otherwise, disabled people will likely be among the first to be squeezed out, and potentially to be replaced by artificial intelligence that will work for cheap.  

JP: A big part of any strike is the public relations battle, and that is happening on social media. So, you can post positively about the guild, or you can amplify what other people are sharing and retweet. You can also donate to Entertainment Community Fund, which gives financial support to striking writers and actors, or to the World Harvest Food Bank, which is providing free groceries to striking writers and actors in Los Angeles. And anybody can come out and picket with us. Nobody is going to look at you weird — you’ll just get high-fives all day. 

You can follow the WGA on  opens in a new windowInstagram,  opens in a new windowFacebook and  opens in a new windowTwitter. To learn more or donate to Entertainment Community Fund and World Harvest Food Bank, visit entertainmentcommunity.org and worldharvestla.org.