INTEGRATION INSPIRATION: Meet the Hollywood agent to the stars with intellectual disabilities
Gail Williamson has spent 30 years fighting for cause of actors with intellectual disabilities. Abu Dhabi-based Special Olympics volunteer Jill Bordelon-Munir interviews the Hollywood pioneer.
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"People with intellectual disabilities learn some amazing life skills through drama," Gail Williamson says. "They learn body awareness. They learn to stay in the moment. They learn to listen so they respond appropriately. They use their speech. And all of these skills translate into any occupation, any social situation. They learn life skills to become employable people."
Williamson is a trailblazer and has been breaking down barriers for actors with intellectual disabilities for over 30 years now. She never loses sight of her goals and ignored the distractions and the detractors who said it was impossible for actors to act if they have an intellectual disability.
Williamson’s vision to show studios, casting directors and agencies what is possible when intellectually disabled people are casted for who they are fuels her passion. She only sees opportunities for these actors and wants to help them realize their potential.
Williamson’s clients include Jamie Brewer from American Horror Story, Gavin McHugh, who plays Christopher Diaz on Fox’s 9-1-1, and Lauren Potter of Glee. The casting agent has provided talent for CSI, ER and Scrubs.
Traditionally, actors with intellectual disabilities were overlooked or characters with intellectual disabilities are played by actors without intellectual disabilities such as in As Good As It Gets or Rain Man.
Williamson is an advocate for the plain and simple and wants her actors to play roles where their disability is not the storyline. But moreover, where a disability is the storyline, actors with a disability should be considered when casting these roles.
Time to make a change
The year of 1989 was transformational for Williamson and her family. Life Goes On premiered; this prime-time show was considered a ground-breaker by featuring a main character with Down syndrome played by Chris Burke, who has Down syndrome.
Williamson was well-versed in the challenges Burke faced to gain recognition. Her own son Blair has Down syndrome and he wanted to act but she could not find an agent who would represent him. She decided to change that. "Why shouldn't more people be able to turn on the TV and see people who look like them?" says Williamson.
She began as a volunteer at Media Access Office in the California Governor’s Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities and worked there for 12 years. It was here she developed a children's division and ‘developed her Rolodex and advocated for people with disability’.
Today she is a talent agent for Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates (KMR) Diversity Department. KMR specializes in representing character actors and talent who are intellectually disabled for film, television, commercials, theater, print and much more. She is also the founder of the non–profit Down syndrome in Arts and Media organization. (www.dsiam.org)
“I’m not an agent because I love being an agent. I’m an agent because I love the power of changing society through images,” she said in a previous interview with Respect Ability.
Disability is not the role
Williamson’s M.O. is not to wait to see if the script calls for an actor with intellectual disabilities but rather submit an actor with intellectual disabilities to be considered for any role.
Thanks to her efforts and those of advocates like her, the mindset of Hollywood is slowly being changed. Williamson even notes that babies born with Down syndrome are perhaps some of the youngest actors ever taught.
“These children suddenly find themselves meeting a host of new adults (therapists) who will ‘direct’ them in reaching the milestones of babyhood,” she explained. “It’s happening, and there are more and more people with disabilities like Down syndrome in television and films today.”
Williamson has been recognized for her hard work having received the The Norman Lear–Geri Jewell Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, the SAG-AFTRA-AEA Diversity Award in 2004 and The National Down Syndrome Congress’ President’s Award in 2009 among many other accolades.
Of course, she deserves all the recognition she has been given. Williamson has changed the playing field for intellectually disabled actors. Her main goal now, she tells us, is to eliminate the need for specialty agents.
Follow Gail’s lead
If Gail’s story has inspired you to help those with intellectual disabilities to feel more included in society, then why not volunteer for the most unified Special Olympics Games yet?! Be a trailblazer and volunteer for the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Visit meetthedetermined.com to find out how you can make a difference.