I met Danielle Perez during an event for the podcast The Bechdel Cast, where she was talking about “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” It was my first few weeks of living in Los Angeles, and as a disabled woman who was bemoaning the lack of disabled people in the city, to see a disabled woman of color not just onstage but rocking it was amazing.
Since that time, Perez has blossomed into a regular face in the stand-up world, and has been writing for television — her latest job is on the Netflix series “The Wedding Coach” — as well as making regular television appearances like in Ryan O’Connell’s Emmy-winning series “Special.”
When it comes to a discussion of representation, Perez approaches it differently because she became a wheelchair user when she was 20. But she was already cognizant of how television viewed her, as she is Afro-Latina. “I knew I was Dominican and I understood that we were Latino….[but] the Latinos I saw on TV were housekeepers,” she told IndieWire.
Before her accident, disabled representation was something Perez never thought about. She said the first time she probably saw a disabled character on screen was Jennifer Blanc-Biehn’s Melissa on the “Teen Line” episode of “Saved By the Bell.” “I do appreciate that episode, even all the way back then, this girl was like ‘You’re treating me like a prop,'” Perez said.
But the actress said it’s often hard to relate to that specific story because of its emphasis as a “very special episode” of TV with the implication that disability is a teachable moment for the able-bodied. This sense of othering is what Perez tended to notice about disabled narratives, from “Saved By the Bell” all the way to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” “They weren’t real people,” Perez said. “There were never people who had realized lives.”
Perez seeks balance between speaking about her disability with speaking about herself. Too often with minority performers, monetizing trauma is what is demanded. “Oftentimes there’s a lot of pressure to be really political as someone with a lot of intersections,” Perez said. “I’m not really a political comedian…but the fact that I am onstage, and I am given time to speak…that, in and of itself, is political.”
Perez always wanted to be an actor, even before becoming disabled, taking voice and dance lessons from a young age. But it surprises her now that she wanted to enter the industry at all considering the lack of representation. She explained that even in elementary and middle schools it was obvious there were unconscious biases about who was allowed to be a leading lady.
“I always got pushed to the chorus,” she said. “I don’t think it was as extreme as the director of the play being like, ‘We don’t want Black girls onstage, but those unconscious biases; if you’re always shown that Latinos are gardeners, or gang members, or housekeepers, how would you think to put them as a romantic lead?”
Even if Perez were to watch Spanish-language novellas, she was aware that those cast were predominately white or light-skinned. She tended to gravitate towards emulating fun leading ladies like Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani Thiessen) on “Saved By the Bell” or Melissa Joan Hart’s Clarissa on “Clarissa Explains It All.”
After Perez’s disability, she admits that she spent nearly a decade having fun and not really focusing on a career, despite what her peers were doing. A night watching stand-up comedy inspired Perez to get onstage herself. “I took the microphone and I just talked about my life and people were interested in what I had to say. People were laughing. I was commanding a room,” she said.
“I was like, ‘I need this for the rest of my life.’ Stand-up has truly saved my life,” she said. She also said stand-up gives her the opportunity for people to see life through her point-of-view, not based on what she looks like, but what she’s saying. “We have all these preconceived ideas of what a disabled person, and how they feel, and what their point of view is. [With stand-up] I am in control of that,” she said.
Perez said she doesn’t feel pressured to talk about her disability, but others tend to assume that’s her main focus. Perez told about being at The Improv when she was talking to an older comedian. “I had met him before,” she said. “He was like, ‘What do you do?’ I was like, ‘I’m a comic.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, cool. You talk about your thing [disability]?’ I was like ‘No, never’ and he was like, ‘Oh, that’s great! That’s a real comic right there.’ He didn’t even get that I was truly joking. Why would I get kudos for never addressing the fact that my life experiences are filtered through this?”
On top of that, Perez also reminds audiences how inaccessible most comedy clubs remain despite the presence of the Americans With Disabilities Act that requires businesses being accessible to the disabled. “Most of the venues I perform at aren’t accessible for performers,” she said. “I have crawled up and down stairs. I’ve done stand-up on my knees. I have crawled on the floor to use the bathroom.”
And there remains a hesitancy to advocate for accessibility, especially as a comedian just eager to perform. “The unfortunate thing is that when disabled people advocate for themselves they often are ignored, dismissed, [or] seen as hysterical,” she said. The mentality generally ingrained in disabled people in the media industry, as Perez lays it out, is that they’re there, that should be enough.
Earlier this week an open letter was put out by Keely Cat-Wells urging Hollywood studios to hire a regular disability officer to promote accessible sets. Perez certainly sees the benefit of having someone in a power capacity that not only understands accessibility, but can act as a bridge between accessibility, reps, and the studio. “I’ve had directors, a few days before shooting, [and] I’m getting a crazy phone call [saying], ‘Um, so the set’s not accessible’ and this isn’t my problem,” she said. “That is considered a necessary role on set, just as much as a line producer.”
But Perez is ambivalent as to whether the letter will change anything. Despite Amy Poehler and Naomie Harris signing on, questions still remain for Perez. “It depends on what repercussions the networks and studios will face if they don’t adhere to what’s being demanded. Until non-disabled actors, and production companies, and directors…start stepping up and saying, ‘We will not create for you…unless you sign on to this and adhere to this I don’t think much will change. We love awareness but where is the action?” Perez asked.
Perez isn’t a cynic when it comes to this subject, she’s a realist. The disabled community knows what changes they want, she said, and they’re calling for it. For herself, she’s making change happen, developing her own series and continuing to act, but she’s yet to abandon her love for the stand-up stage. “I think, no matter what, I will always be doing stand-up and making my own opportunities,” she said.