David Radcliff wants to get more people with disabilities into the rooms where the stories are made.

In Hollywood, representation doesn’t just mean who’s in front of the camera, but behind it as well. Who’s directing the movie? Who’s running the show? Who’s in the writers room?

Radcliff, a 36-year-old Omaha native with cerebral palsy, just finished his first season as a staff writer for Nathan Fillion’s cop series “The Rookie,” which airs Tuesday nights on ABC.

He recalls what showrunner Alexi Hawley told him when he got the job last year: “I’d like to build a writers room that looks the way the world looks.”

“I think the unusual and unpredictable curves of my career trajectory are a function both of the nature of Los Angeles and of the reality of my disability,” Radcliff said. “The vast majority of people with disabilities in this country and in the world are unemployed.”

(In 2017, more than 80 percent of Americans with a disability were unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

“On some forums online, I see employers openly ask, ‘Why would I hire someone with a disability when I can hire someone without one?’ ” Radcliff said. “That is crushing because it points to a bias most people won’t even admit to themselves. But the reality is, a disability in one area doesn’t make any difference in other areas. What should my inability to walk have to do with my ability to create and collaborate?”

Radcliff was born premature, which he believes contributed to him getting cerebral palsy. He gets around with his wheelchair or crutches.

His idea that he could write for a living came from Westside High School. Radcliff says he owes a lot to his former journalism instructor, Rod Howe, and, earlier than that, his fourth-grade teacher, Jill Assman. She used to write encouraging words in his earliest work.

“I remember one thing she wrote on some of my work was, ‘Please don’t forget to dedicate your first book to me!,’ ” Radcliff said. “Which I’m happy to do — I just haven’t written that book yet.”

Radcliff headed west after high school: the University of Southern California for his bachelor’s, UCLA for his M.F.A. From there, the jobs were all over the place.

Transcriber for pharmaceutical company execs. Writer for a magazine on disability-related topics. Entertainment reporter. Festival promoter. Screenwriting instructor. Brand strategist. Nickelodeon script analyst and Netflix film analyst.

Regarding that last one, Radcliff’s job was to watch “the movies and shows that are about to roll out on Netflix and provide information that is then used to feed the algorithm. That way, Netflix is able to tailor content toward a viewer’s specific interests.”

Last year, Radcliff was accepted for the Disney Writing Program, which offers a yearlong salaried position writing for a TV series made by Disney, ABC or Freeform. That series ended up being ABC’s “The Rookie.”

The show, which got picked up for a 20-episode first season, is a cop drama with a twist. The rookie of the title is John Nolan (Fillion), a 40-year-old who leaves behind his quiet life to pursue his dream of becoming a Los Angeles police officer. Because of his age, John sticks out like a sore thumb and has to overcome the preconceptions of his much younger fellow recruits.

Working on the show, Radcliff found himself relating to Nolan’s struggles.

“I really do understand some of what our main character is going through,” Radcliff said. “Everyone who is viewed as ‘different’ is used to the experience of microaggressions from a supervisor, or is used to battling uphill against diminished expectations. That’s what John Nolan is going through, and it’s certainly what I’ve experienced, too, as a disabled person.”

The experience on “The Rookie,” however, has been a good one — though the writing room wasn’t exactly what he expected.

“Contrary to popular belief,” he said, “a writers room is not glamorous at all, other than the fact that we get free lunches on our show. Most of our days are spent in a windowless conference room ‘breaking’ the story of an episode.”

To “break” a story means to work out the sequence of events, the theme of the episode, character motivations, etc.

“Writing in TV is far more about talking and listening and respectfully debating than it is about writing,” Radcliff said. “Before any individual writer goes off to write a script, we really have to go through this very extroverted and sometimes intense process to arrive at the outline for the episode in question.”

Ideally, the end of each process will result in a compelling episode of television. Radcliff said that’s been the case with “The Rookie,” a show he’s eager to get home and watch every Tuesday night.

Writing the show is a group process, but Radcliff will get his first “Written by” credit on  tonight's episode of “The Rookie.”

If Radcliff’s involvement on “The Rookie” is a good sign of increasing diversity, there remains much work to be done.


The crew for ABC’s “The Rookie” celebrate its premiere on Oct. 16, 2018. David Radcliff, center, is an Omaha native with cerebral palsy who just finished his first season as a staff writer. At top, a scene from next Tuesday’s episode, which Radcliff shares main writing credit on.

Radcliff, who is a member of the Committee for Writers with Disabilities at the Writers Guild of America, West, said that the industry has made progress in certain areas, but still has a long way to go.

“I’m encouraged to see that shows like ‘Speechless,’ ‘Atypical’ and ‘The Good Doctor’ are helping broaden the view that stories with disabled characters not only deserve to be told, but can be told in more complex and less mawkish ways than we usually see,” he said. “The next big step, of course, will be to get more people with disabilities in the rooms where the stories are created. Right now, I think the number of writers with disabilities working in TV is in the single digits.”

Radcliff believes that preconceptions of disability are informed by the media, usually for the worse. On TV or movies, for instance, one rarely sees a teacher or doctor or guy next door with a disability.

“Those absences help inform people’s assumptions in really negative and subtle ways,” Radcliff said. “They can even shape how people with disabilities feel about ourselves.”

Everyone should want things to change not just out of goodness and inclusion, he said, but also their own self-interest.

“I like to remind folks that disability is the only minority group everybody joins eventually,” Radcliff said, “whether through age, illness or accident. So it’s a good idea to get comfortable with us early.”