When Gail Williamson's son Blair was 4 years old, he did something that
marked a significant moment in his and his mother's lives. Following a
series of developmental tests with a psychologist, Blair, who has Down
syndrome, turned to the nearby observation wall that was disguised as a
mirror. Spying his own reflection, he took a bow, apparently unaware that an
audience composed of clinicians was watching from the other side of the wall.
Though he may have been a young boy then, Blair demonstrated that an actor,
as with most people, likes to take pride when viewing his own reflection ‹whether it be in the mirror, or through inspiring portrayals in films, television or shows.) When Blair broke the so-called theatrical fourth wall and bowed, he was proudly saying to his imaginary audience: Hey look, here I am! It was as though Blair, now 21, had presciently acted out Gail's life's work for people with special needs.
For more than a decade, Gail has been advocating on their behalf by educating casting directors and agents on the idea that the best actors to play people with disabilities in the media are people with disabilities. She is the Talent and Industry Coordinator at Media Access Office (M.A.O.), a non-profit partnership of the California Governor's Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons, that assists and encourages the accurate portrayal and employment of people with disabilities in the media. Gail has closely worked
with the casting directors of TV shows such as "E.R", and "Touched by An
Angel". She's recruited and developed new actors, and lectured for media and disability groups, providing education on the growing media trend to include characters with disabilities.
"We need to create positive role models and images of special needs in the media,"Gail says. "We have to create openness within the entertainment community while enlightening parents and teachers on how to encourage children with special needs who are interested in performing."
"When parents have children with disabilities, many of them are so
overwhelmed that they tend to lose vision for the child's future," actor
Alan Toy observed. Alan contracted polio at three in the early 1950s while living in Key West, Florida with his family. He carved his own future by earning multiple degrees in theater and embracing an acting career. Alan also became a social activist, child counselor, and advocate for actors with special needs during Media Access's beginnings in the early 1980s. He has had roles in "M.A.S.H.," "Born on the Fourth of July," and dozens of other parts on TV, films, and the stage. Alan describes his line of work as being an empowering experience, helping to give the disability community "validity to have our voices heard." Others in the entertainment industry agree."What Gail is doing is remarkable and important," says John Wells, executive producer for the TV series "E.R." "Using actors without disabilities to play characters with disabilities should be unacceptable in Hollywood today as suggesting that white actors in black face play African-American characters."
"Mother of the Year"
Many have taken notice of her particular knack for helping develop
self-esteem and self-fulfillment. In 1999, Gail was singled out as the
"California Mother of the Year" by American Mother's Inc. This is evident, not just in her role as Blair's mother, but through her heroic maternal efforts in and out of the disability field.
"Ultimately, all children have special needs," Gail has said. In 1995 Gail and her husband, Tommie, legally adopted her six nieces and nephews, the orphan children of Gail's half brother who died of melanoma, and his wife who had died of Lou Gehrig's disease. The six teens, now aged 14-25, joined Blair and his older brother Tim, 24, in completing the Williamson household. The thought of five years of juggling the emotional and practical needs of eight adolescents may seem daunting to any parent. Yet, Gail met the challenge while attending to Blair's acting pursuits and those of many other young performers with special needs. Blair has been a professional actor for half of his life. He was 10 when he first saw Chris Burke, who also has Down syndrome, star in his own television show "Life Goes On." That was when Blair got serious about pursuing a professional acting career and, since then, Gail has solidly stood by Blair.
Gail takes on the active role of "stage mother" not just for Blair, but also for so many other children who wish to perform. Her excitement brims over when she discusses new films or shows which have employed people with disabilities: "Pumpkin," "Jewel," "C.S.I," and a Hallmark commercial called "Dave's Place." These days, Media Access has 90 children and adolescents, ages 2-18 in its file, and Gail is heavily involved with many of them. The California Governor's Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons highlighted Gail's talent as a self-motivator, allowing "her to use these skills with all levels of people within the industry. She works closely with directors, writers, actors, whomever it is that makes things happen for her clients."
Perhaps the very thing that buffers Gail in her extremely involved life is her practicality. Though she strives to achieve the ideal in her work, she is very much a realist, as can be gleaned from the "Parenting Creed" that Gail keeps as her guide: "Life isn't fair. Things are not always what they seem. Each child is an individual creation affected by outside stimulation that is sometimes beyond your control."
"The inclusion generation is coming upon us, so Hollywood has to be prepared for this," Gail says. "Unlike generations past, this one has been in school and in the community with children with disabilities. Just think, those classmates or friends will one day become employers. For those who will be leaders in show business, they will be aware of the importance of including people with disabilities and allowing them to make their own contributions as actors, or as behind-the-scenes professionals. We want to make sure that we have enough skilled people with special needs for that eventuality."
In typical forward-looking fashion, Gail wants to see the day when the need for a Media Access Office will no longer be necessary. When that time comes, Gail will once again involve herself in other pursuits that have an impact on many lives. The C. Morley Sellery Special Education Center in Gardena, California aptly summed up Gail's contributions: "It is truly amazing what one mother's vision for her child and others with disabilities can do for the disabled as a whole."