Lights, Camera, Representation

Talent manager and disability advocate Eryn Brown wants to broaden Hollywood’s aperture.

October 27, 2022

Reading time min

Portrait of Eryn Brown

Photo: Chris Jon

In 2021, in a victory for disability advocates in Hollywood, the Oscars featured a ramp to the stage for the first time in history. That year also marked a new wave of visibility for disabled moviemakers, with the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution earning a nomination for Best Documentary Feature, which was followed in 2022 by Troy Kotsur, who is Deaf, winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in CODA.

Seeing Crip Camp was a “real awakening,” says Eryn Brown. “It made me realize how absent disability rights is from our history books in the discussion of civil rights.” Brown, ’96, has a vision for disability inclusion in Hollywood that she keeps in mind in her work as a talent manager, whether she’s helping writers formulate ideas for a film or providing notes on scripts that she’ll eventually try to sell to media companies.

But getting to this point wasn’t easy. Brown contemplated leaving the industry in 2008, she says, after she faced “countless indignities” at the Cannes Film Festival, culminating in an unacceptable choice: Be carried through the main entrance—where celebrities parade up the red steps in full regalia—or use a side entrance and enter separately from her clients.

Despite meaningful strides in racial and cultural representation, she says, the movie industry lags on disability representation. Studies show that only 3.5 percent of regular characters on broadcast series have disabilities, and 95 percent are played by nondisabled actors. Brown and her partners in activism are pushing for companies to hire more disabled actors, writers, and artists, and to implement comprehensive reforms to the industry writ large.

‘It is a mindset, a way of looking at the world differently, where it is truly inclusive of people, everybody being able to participate in content creation and consumption. Everybody should be able to experience art.’

On that front, her most successful project so far is 1IN4, a coalition of disabled actors, writers, talent managers, and other workers in the entertainment industry focused on increasing employment and authentic representation of people with disabilities. Its name references the 1 in 4 U.S. adults, or 61 million people, who has a disability.

One of the first things Hollywood needs, Brown says, is accessibility training, which, broadly defined, means teaching people how to make services, products, and events as open, usable, and enjoyable as possible for everyone. In Hollywood, that would run the gamut from including subtitles in movies to hiring access coordinators who create inclusive environments on set for people with disabilities, whether visible or nonapparent. True access, Brown says, is more than out-of-the-way ramps or restrooms. “It is a mindset,” she says, “a way of looking at the world differently, where it is truly inclusive of people, everybody being able to participate in content creation and consumption. Everybody should be able to experience art.”

Studies show that inclusive workplaces are more productive and have up to 72 percent higher retention rates among disabled workers. Employees with disabilities at those firms are also happier and experience less stress and anxiety. But getting companies to provide tangible support to the 1IN4 effort has proved difficult. Brown has had talks with major studios, but, she says, “the catch is that very few companies, very few, have donated to the organization.”

Brown’s roots in the entertainment industry got their start when she applied to Stanford. She wrote her college application essay on Madonna, taking inspiration from the 1991 documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare. On campus, she took classes with art and art history professor Alexander Nemerov, who introduced her to pop culture as a discipline of study. “I realized culture isn't something just in museums or any different language,” she says. “It’s in the work and in the existence of songs, music, movies, fashion, all around us.” A stint at Stanford in Paris clinched her interest in the movie business, and she decided to settle in Los Angeles.

‘Entry-level jobs become the executive jobs and storytellers who go on to tell those stories, which then create the culture that shapes how we think and how we feel.’

Brown says she spent her first years in the industry “just physically trying” to get into rooms and studios. Her résumé and cover letter would land her a first interview, but rarely a second. “It wasn’t until one of the agencies told me that they would not be able to accommodate me—and that it would take me too long to get coffee or go to the bathroom, and I wouldn't be able to walk clients to the elevator—did I realize that there was something bigger operating about why I wasn’t being hired.”

Initially, Brown wasn’t any kind of activist. “For the first 20-some years, the response that I got was, ‘I’m sorry, you have to deal with this,’ like it was my problem and my burden to change it,” Brown says. It wasn’t until she was in her early 40s that she realized she’d never seen a version of herself in any TV series, movie, or magazine—and a little longer to understand that increasing disability representation begins at the ground level. “Entry-level jobs become the executive jobs and storytellers who go on to tell those stories, which then create the culture that shapes how we think and how we feel.”

As Brown’s success in the industry accrued, her fears of “causing a scene” dwindled. Gradually she became more outspoken about her disability and the way others like her face additional barriers in Hollywood. “The systemic discrimination is so deep that we take as a major success every single person who gets a job.” In an industry that has long celebrated leggy blondes and all-American action heroes, Brown strives to build alliances and bring all kinds of original voices to the table. Her clientele hail from as far as Belgium, Chile, and Australia, and have included those who grew up under Chile’s military dictatorship and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime in Iran. “It’s people with points of view that challenge this bubble that we live in,” Brown says.

“I felt like she’s really good at giving me permission to say what I really want to do as an artist,” says client Vali Chandrasekaran, a writer and producer for Modern Family, an award-winning sitcom that ran for 11 seasons on ABC. Chandrasekaran was originally wary of being pigeonholed as an Indian American writer, but he has since embraced his identity and written about it in some of his work. In parallel, he says, Brown has taken on a more vocal role with respect to her own identity. “As the world changed, she also felt like, ‘Why am I hiding this? Why am I not being open about something that is a very big part of my life?’ ”

‘I think she’s brilliant. She’s trying to change the way that Cannes can work. Those things are a lot harder in a huge international industry.’

While Brown is known for her focus and resolve, she makes space for humor too. She’s “funny in a way that kind of sneaks up on you, and I think her taste in comedy is very similar to mine,” says Johnston, who co-wrote Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph. “It’s what I look for in a friend, honestly: someone who’s smart, but also can appreciate a joke.”

What Brown hopes to appreciate more of, in the years to come, are stories written by people with disabilities. Among her allies is U.K. screenwriter Jack Thorne, who co-founded Underlying Health Conditions, an organization that advocates for disability representation in the British entertainment industry. “I think she’s brilliant,” says Thorne, whose credits include the film Wonder, based on a novel by R.J. Palacio about a boy with facial differences, and the TV series Cast Offs, about six disabled characters embarking on a fictional reality show. “She’s trying to change the way that Cannes can work. Those things are a lot harder in a huge international industry, like the United States. I know 1IN4 are very dedicated to finding ways around that.”

Back in America, 1IN4 has launched a second edition of its Disabled Writers Program, which matches aspiring screenwriters with industry professionals from companies such as Showtime and Shondaland. The work ahead will necessitate major institutional shifts, Brown says, requiring not just the cooperation of companies but also the voices of the influential to redistribute the levers of power in Hollywood.

“When you don’t have the power, you can’t be the one to change it,” Brown says. “Now that my career is in a place where I have some influence, my hope is to use that influence so that the next generation doesn’t find themselves in a position that I did and do.”

Isaac Lozano, ’25, a former editorial intern at Stanford, is a fellow at the Nation.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.