Signal Conversations: Musician, Actor, and Advocate James Ian

Signal Group

James Ian discusses how his experiences as an actor with disabilities motivated him to become an advocate, as well as the importance of disability inclusion in media.

James Ian is a singer, songwriter, and actor as well as a two-time Georgetown University alumni. A Maryland native, James now resides in Los Angeles where he pursues his passion for art while advocating for disability inclusion in the arts and entertainment industry. James lives with the rare neuromuscular disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 3 (SMA) and wants to show other people with disabilities they too can defy odds and stereotypes.

James recently performed and spoke at Georgetown University’s Business for Impact Disability Inclusion Forum alongside internationally recognized disability rights activities, Judith Heumann, and student activist, Anna Landre. Signal Group was proud to sponsor this outstanding opportunity to discuss new ways to increase employment for people with disabilities. 

James answered some questions for us about the important topic discussed: Disability inclusion in the media.

Q: How have your experiences as an actor with disabilities motivated you to become an advocate for others?

I’ve auditioned for roles where the characters are disabled, yet these roles ended up being given to more well-known, able-bodied actors. This is unacceptable to me. We all agree that you can’t cast a man to play a woman, or a white person to play a black person, so why don’t these same standards apply to disabled people? I want to help create a new standard, where filmmakers would never even consider giving a role of a disabled person to an able-bodied actor.

Q: How has your disability affected your ability to pursue your career?

For me, it’s definitely been a battle—but a rewarding one. Some days, it’s hard for me to even hold my guitar. But I can’t let it stop me or limit me. A lot of people out there with SMA can’t even walk, and so I am grateful for what I still can do. I admit, sometimes it’s frustrating when I get to a set that is not accessible and I, for instance, have to climb many stairs or physically jump onto a stage. But I work hard just like anyone else does in any other career. I network, train as much as I can, and rehearse.

Q: Why is disability representation in the media important?

The media has a very strong impact on how we think, whether we realize it or not. Its estimated that a quarter of people in the U.S. live with a disability—but people with disabilities’ (PWDs) representation in the media is far below that. PWDs need to be accurately represented in the media to address negative stereotypes and reduce harmful stigmas that ostracize this group.

Q: How did you become involved in the Disability Inclusion Forum?

I received both my undergraduate and law degrees at Georgetown, and I’m originally from Maryland. It’s truly an honor to be able to come back to this community and speak about something I’m so passionate about. Georgetown is a really special place to me, and I’m glad they supported a great conversation about an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention. It was awesome to work with the team at Business for Impact and Signal Group who connected me to the organization.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for people pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, especially those with disabilities?

First and foremost, keep your head up. Being disabled and in this line of work can be challenging, but we’re paving the way for so many others and it’s important that we keep fighting for our seat at the table. I recommend networking with other people in the industry as much as possible, especially if they also have a disability. Look for internships or programs specifically for people with disabilities. Take advantage of every opportunity and work hard to improve every day.

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