As Canada’s first Disabled broadcast producer, Michelle Asgarali is making history with Breaking Character
In film and television, authentic disability visibility is virtually nonexistent. Some might argue that there ‘aren’t enough disabled actors’ with only three percent of all on-screen talent being people with disabilities. Others (read: those a part of the disabled community) call attention to the fact that disabled stories are almost always told by abled actors, and awards season applauds them for doing so. How can disabled performers ‘make it’ if they aren’t even cast to tell their own stories?
Enter Michelle Asgarali, a Canadian television producer and creator of Breaking Character, a new docu-series following six performers with disabilities available on AMI-tv. Breaking Character is revolutionary not only for its disability-centric narrative, but also because its showrunner gets it on a personal level. Asgarali, who describes herself as “a brown gal with long dark hair, a gap toothed smile, and luckily this new power chair,” sat down with Glossi Mag to talk about the series, explain what exactly a producer does, and her dreams for disabled-inclusive productions of the future.
Breaking Character crew on set
Asgarali first pitched Breaking Character five years ago to AMI-tv and began pre-production in 2019, when the pandemic first reared its ugly head. These new circumstances pushed the production back and stretched the filming schedule to six months, which was unusually long. Already experienced with remote work and navigating access challenges, Asgarali adapted and was still able to bring the series to fruition. In fact, these circumstances allowed her strengths to shine through.
“It didn’t seem like this extra accommodation to be separated from everybody, which opened up so much for our own team,” Asgarali explains. “Like our editors work in different cities. We weren’t all forced to go into Toronto and work out traffic, you know?”
For her, it was most important to work closely with the six performers — Alexia Vassos, Dan Barra-Berger, Caeden Lawrence, Tai Young, Catherine Joell McKinnon, and Rachel Romu — whose stories she was going to tell. She wanted them to be involved in their own story creation process and avoid tokenizing narratives that left each performer as “the representative” of their community. It was largely also her role as producer to make sure that each of their access needs were reasonably satisfied throughout the process.
“I hope the community’s happy,” says Asgarali. “I don’t know if that will ever happen fully because there are so many different voices and experiences that we will never all be happy. But I hope that the community sees, engages and keeps the conversation going.”
It’s a bittersweet moment for Asgarali to be named possibly the first disabled broadcast series producer, not just in Canada, but the world. While she’s glad she’s part of progress being made, it makes her question if there are others that feared their identity was unwelcomed in the industry.
“I feel like there has to be truth that we exist in these situations, but nobody wants to talk about it,” says Asgarali. “I want someone to prove me wrong, basically. Prove me wrong that I am not the first. That would be the best feeling to have that come out.”
She credits the skills she learned and honed as a disabled person navigating the industry at any level to give her the skills she needed as a showrunner and producer. But her perspective as a visibly disabled person and power chair user is what gave her the ability to communicate and meet the needs of not only the disabled talent she was bringing on set, but the communities they come from.
Disability representation needs to extend from not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well. That’s why it was important to Asgarali to bring in individuals tied to the communities they were working with whose experiences didn’t translate to her own, and to give opportunities for those individuals to get the experience they needed in the industry.
“It’s not always easy to find people so we would bring them in as internships and in mentorships and just bringing up people within [communities like] the Little People community, in the Hard of Hearing or d/Deaf community where we could,” she explains.
Building Accessible Productions
Accessibility was one of the things that blocked Asgarali from pursuing other opportunities in the industry, such as directing. While now she wouldn’t trade being a producer for any other role, she dreams of organizing productions that are accessible for disabled folks to pursue the avenue of their dreams. And as she describes, the technology is out there to do it.
“One of the newer technologies that is coming out allows your camera and your sound and everything to be connected wirelessly. So there is the ability — the most expensive ability — to have a director, producers, that we can all be remotely connected on sets.”
Another solution she describes is a little more simple: having a wheelchair accessible production van. But communication, creating an environment in which people feel safe to express their needs, and being able to anticipate potential access issues is what Asgarali says is helpful in creating an accessible set. And those are all things that she can relate to in navigating productions. That’s why she could create an environment where the performers could be open and honest with her.
“It wasn’t just like that fear of, ‘you can’t say that,’ you know, if I tell them, then they’re not going to let me do something,” she says. “That perspective is there.”
Asgarali hopes that Breaking Character will offer both aspiring disabled creators and performers, as well as the industry, an example of what disability-inclusive television can look like.
“I also see it as a chance to bridge the gap between what the industry sees as a challenge to have people with disabilities [involved in productions] and what the disability community thinks of the industry, based off not wanting us in there. I don’t think either are completely true.”
You can catch the first episode on Wednesday, April 27, at 8:00p.m. EST on AMI-tv.