Filmmaker Dominick Evans is Fighting for Disabled Representation
By Alyssa Klein
Why act in someone else’s story when you can write your own? Such is the question Dominick Evans asked himself. At the time, Evans was a young actor struggling to make it out of bed after a fractured tibia and an even more fractured insurance industry left him bedridden for much of his 20s. When he finally did make it out of bed, Evans set out for film school to write and direct his own stories.
His hope was, and continues to be, to tell stories of folks not often seen in media—like himself, a non-binary trans disabled filmmaker, writer, gamer, activist, dad and self-proclaimed nerd. Above all, Evans is a fierce champion of representation, both on screen and online. He’s perhaps best known for founding #FilmDis (short for “film disability”), a Twitter chat about disability in the media that serves to foster both representation and inclusivity of the disabled community and within the disabled community. That was back in 2014. Since then, Evans has continued his work in advocacy on behalf of disabled and queer individuals, and writing stories on their behalf too.
The filmmaking part hasn’t been easy. Fundraising has been a particular challenge. But nonetheless, Evans remains determined. In 2019, he has his eyes set on directing a short film about two queer disabled women living in a nursing home.
Here, the #FilmDis creator and filmmaker shares his own story.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity and readability.
We Have Stories is all about storytelling. How did you become a storyteller?
I always wanted to be involved in film or television in some way. When I was little, I wanted to be a dancer. And then when I was four, my doctor told me I was never going to be normal and I was never going to walk normal. I immediately thought I can’t be a dancer if I can’t walk. Of course, now we see so many disabled dance companies, so that’s obviously not true, but back then I didn’t really understand. And so for most of my first 18 years, the focus was on “you need to be cured” and “there’s something wrong with you.” But I wanted to perform. So my focus switched from dance to acting.
I was an actor until I was in my early 20s. I did musical theater, I did television spots, I sang. I was part of Toledo Opera Youth. I was a performer. That’s where it started. After going into a wheelchair at 16 it became blatantly harder to get roles. I was really lucky that I ended up getting the lead in my high school musical. I had community theater directors that were really willing to include me. In fact, one director had his crew build a ramp because the stage was not accessible. He wanted me to be in his show because he thought I was a good singer. I was really really lucky. A lot of [disabled] actors don’t have those stories. But when I got to college, everything changed. Nobody wanted to let me in anything. The stages weren’t accessible. I did two shows my whole college experience. It became very clear that disabled people were not really wanted in the theater, or would not even be considered. It didn’t matter how talented you were.
[And then] I fractured my tibia, and that kicked me out of school for a while. While I was recovering I thought maybe I don’t want to be an actor so much as I want to be telling the stories. And if I really want to act, I can write that story. The more I got involved behind the scenes, the more I realized I’m really a much better director. And I think I’m a much better director because I was an actor.
What’s your journey as a filmmaker been like since then?
Well first I had to get out of bed. I was stuck in bed for seven years. I had all these pains in my shoulders and my hips because my wheelchair wasn’t made for my body. It was made for someone over six-feet tall. I couldn’t sit up because of it, and my insurance wouldn’t buy me a new wheelchair.
Eventually I got pain medication and forced myself out of bed. I returned to film school and got a film degree. But that was full of problems too. No one wanted to work with me because I was the disabled student. The professors were supportive, but the students weren’t. I was bullied by a student who harassed me and made it hard for me to do my projects. I almost quit the program, but the professors pleaded with me to not quit. I managed to be the first wheelchair user to get a BFA in the program.
So from the get-go, my experience was full of exclusion and ableism. And that’s kind of been my experience in Hollywood too. I made a couple of short films on my own, and I’m currently working on a new film. But raising money has been hard. People don’t want to invest in disabled filmmakers—not when there aren’t enough of us out there showing them that we’re capable of doing this. I’ve had to turn towards grant-funding and crowdfunding campaigns.
What can you tell us about the films that you’re working on?
I’m currently working on a short film that I would eventually like to use as a precursor for an anthology series. We plan to shoot in Los Angeles, hopefully next year. It’s a short about two women who meet in a nursing home. They are disabled and they are queer. We’ve left the audition open to anyone. There’s no specific race because I would like to audition disabled women of color, a disabled Black woman for the lead role specifically.
In the interim of not getting film work, I’ve kind of focused on discussing and fighting for representation in the media. While Hollywood is very exclusionary towards disabled people, if you’re not cis, white and male, then you’re even less likely to have a role or have representation as a disabled person. Two percent of characters on television are disabled. And of those, 95 percent are played by non-disabled actors. And of those, 30 percent are people of color. But they’re also male. Black women that are disabled don’t have any representation on television. Native American women who are disabled don’t have any representation on television. LGBT disabled people don’t have any representation.
Tell us more about your work fighting for representation in the media.
I started the #FilmDis hashtag in 2014 because I was frustrated about the lack of representation of disabled people in the media. While it’s called #FilmDis and a lot of the discussion focuses on film and television, we’ve covered video game representation, comic book representation, book and literature representation (although we try not to step into that territory too much because there’s a #CripLit discussion which focuses more on that).
We had a discussion early on that was led by Black disabled people and disabled people of color. It was very important for me as a white disabled person not to lead that discussion, but to let disabled people affected by racism as well as ableism lead. That was one of my favorite discussions we’ve ever had.
Why does representation matter to you?
We look to the media in all its forms, especially the internet, to understand that which we don’t have experience with. So if people have never met a disabled person, they may be exposed to disabled people in the media. They’re then going to internalize what those messages about disabled people are and they’re going to apply it to disabled people.
My son is a a great example. My son is autistic. When he tells people he’s autistic or when people find out my girlfriend and I have an autistic son, the first response is “oh, you mean like Rain Man?” Because that is what they equate being autistic to. They also equate it to puzzle pieces. People try to say he has a piece of his puzzle missing because the media has cooked up this idea. Or you know, when people hear I have a neuromuscular disability, they still go to the Jerry Lewis telethon where they were told people like me don’t have a future, we don’t become adults, and we don’t have families or children or jobs, or that they have to cure us. And that’s what a lot of people think of people like me. For years I couldn’t even ride the bus to school without being inundated by people asking inappropriate questions, people touching me without permission, people literally standing over me and praying for me, thrusting money in my hand. I link those experiences with representation, because representation shows that disabled people are poor and unfortunate and we can’t take care of ourselves and we need people to pity us, feel sorry for us and give us money.
A lot of times we end up seeing films that are what non-disabled people think disability is like. Because they’ve also internalized all these negative messages in the media, they often come at it from a place of fear. They’re afraid to become disabled themselves, because you know we’re “poor, unfortunate souls.” Instead of being an example of what disability is really like, a lot of these films and series are the non-disabled vision of disability, which is “we don’t want to become disabled ourselves.”
Representation means including disabled people, letting us tell our own stories, letting us be in the writers room. I challenge hashtags like #ShowUsYourRoom. Where are the visibly disabled? Where are the people that feel safe enough to disclose if they have a disability? They’re not there in those rooms, or they’re afraid to come out and say it.
Is there something you’ve been wanting to talk about recently?
I just wish that Hollywood would give disabled writers and directors opportunities. We’re here and we have stories and we could really make disabled characters so much better.