[Author's Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]
Eileen Grubba — Award-winning actress, writer, producer, and advocate for Performers with Disability (PWD) — has always beaten the odds.
A few months before her 5th birthday, Grubba was paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors didn't think she would make it, and when she did, they predicted she would never walk again. But she prevailed.
Vince Staskel, also an advocate for PWD, was born with cerebral palsy and is a friend and colleague to Grubba. He said Grubba "forced herself to walk through sheer will, and it took a lifetime of effort to keep her walking."
Once more, against all odds, she endured surgeries from the age of 14 all the way through 2016, and 2017 when they rebuilt her ankle two more times.
She also ended up with thyroid cancer from all the x-rays and radiation exposure as a child.
For the majority of her life, doctors thought it was the oral polio vaccine that caused her paralysis. But many years later, doctors at UCLA Neurology determined she had a C1-C4 spinal cord injury from a viral attack — not polio, but from the other vaccines given on the same day that caused Guillain–Barré syndrome.
As a result of her numerous ankle surgeries, Grubba now walks with a limp and uses ankle braces for exercise. A great accomplishment after many years of using wheelchairs and crutches. She has faced discrimination from casting directors, producers, and others after they noticed her limping. But she still pursued her artistic passion.
Said Staskel. "She never stopped showing up. She trained relentlessly through the last 20 plus years at the world-renowned Actors Studio where she is known to be a force on stage."
On March 15th, 2020, Grubba appeared at the Idyllwild Film Festival, where she received the "We Spark Award" for her humanitarian efforts in disability inclusion in entertainment.
She's a long-time member of the SAG/AFTRA National PWD Diversity committee, a Brand Ambassador for Global Disability Inclusion, and has served on panels and teams with Temple Grandin (Autism) Professor Stephen Hawking (ALS), and many more worldwide advocates.
She has spoken about disability inclusion at events nationwide, including for California State University: SB, Florida State University, the FBI, Picasso-Einstein, The Ruderman Family Foundation, Angel City Sports, and The Global Sisterhood, and her life story has been told many times including in Forbes Magazine, Ability Magazine, Inspiring Lives Magazine, Disability Talk in the UK, and many more.
As an actress, Grubba's impressive list of credits includes landmark television shows like CSI: Vegas, Watchmen, SWAT, Game of Silence, Sons of Anarchy, and New Amsterdam in an episode titled, "Good Soldiers."
According to Staskel, Grubba delivered a "knockout performance" in "Soldiers," as Elizabeth Archer, a cancer survivor paralyzed by the medical industry. "Her truly authentic portrayal of [the character] closely mirrors her own real-life experiences.
"The emotional reaction of her character to this situation is not only very personal to her but touchingly similar to many persons with disabilities. It's what an authentic disability representation looks like when a veteran actor is hired to play a character that has the same disability experience."
For Grubba, "Every minute on the show was like a dream come true. I was treated with such respect." The response was almost immediate after her agent submitted an audition tape to the show's casting office. "They saw my life experience hitting that role," she said.
For subsequent location shoots in New York, "every single person" Grubba encountered on the set was "wonderful." For the first time in years, she didn't have to explain her limp, or why she needed to wear her own shoes or sit down occasionally.
While she was doing hospital bed scenes, the show's wardrobe designers went so far as to fix her worn-out ankle brace — with new velcro straps — to fit her particular needs.
But Grubba most fondly recalls one especially-joyful experience with New Amsterdam.
Grubba was excited to meet one of the show's producers and writers, Shaun Cassidy, the former 1970s pop-teen idol sensation. "Just like every other girl in my age range," she recalled, "I had a crush on him when I was a child. My sister was in love with him too."
Mostly, though, Grubba wanted to meet the individual who created the character that mirrored so closely her real-life experience. "I honestly could not believe it when I read the sides for the audition," she says.
On working with Cassidy, Grubba said, "It felt like someone knew me and wrote it for me. I was excited to meet and ask him what inspired this character. He was so kind, open, and generous with his actors — and very collaborative."
After Grubba initially read through her scenes with fellow cast members, Cassidy asked if there was anything she or other cast members wanted to change, to strengthen the story or any particular scene.
"Writers are not usually that open," Grubba relayed, "but he wanted [the script] to be the best, most authentic it could possibly be — and he wanted it to work for all of the characters."
Cassidy also made a point of letting Grubba know how pleased he was with her work. "Given that it was such a vulnerable role for me to portray," she says, "digging so deeply into my own real-life experience, he [and director] Rachel Leiterman, could not have made me feel safer, or more valued, respected, appreciated, and welcome."
"Shaun was such a sweetheart," Grubba continued.
When Cassidy learned Grubba's sister was excited that she was working with him on the show, he asked Grubba if she wanted to take a picture to send to her sibling. And it was Cassidy who reminded Grubba before she left the set which, she described as "so generous."
"After all of my years in this industry, I would almost never ask anyone to take a picture with me on a set, because it can be frowned upon. But he offered and was so thoughtful to make sure it happened. He's such a special and caring human being."
But the entire Amsterdam team was "amazing," she added. "The actors were fantastic. The experience was one of the best in my entire career, and something I will remember for life."
Grubba admits that attaining and maintaining a positive perspective is "an ongoing exercise, especially with all the challenges, the losses of loved ones, and the heartbreaks along the way. It has to be a part of my daily routine to find a way to keep my head up and keep a smile on my face."
Since childhood, Grubba has sought guidance from others who have been through worse. "I observe how they do it," she said. "And I try to migrate towards people who are happy or at least work hard to keep going and being productive people.
"I look for positive inspiration daily, and try to surround myself with positive, happy, supportive people."
Part of that process involved removing herself from less supportive relationships, "damaging people," in order for her to, as she said, "survive and keep my head above water."
She chose to distance herself from some she cared for because they frequently added to her "pain, made things harder through already daunting challenges, or only saw my faults and pointed out my errors too often, never once realizing or appreciating that I was fighting for my life."
While Grubba has faced several struggles and opponents, she has also been blessed with several role models in the personal and professional arenas; namely, her parents. Her mother was an "empowering, positive force" in her life, while her father was supportive of her "work, dreams, and talents."
"They expressed their support often but died too soon," she lamented. "I have never forgotten their words in the years I needed them most. And thank God, I believe my Guardian Angels definitely steered some beautiful people into my life through the years, who have been guiding forces for me."
Multiple members of the Actors Studio have also served as Grubba's mentors. "They are older, wiser, and have sort of been like parents to me through the years," she said. "They have always been honest with me and help me see through things when I am stuck or struggling."
Through the years, such individuals have included actors Allan Miller, Barbara Bain, Martin Landau, Carmen Argenziano, Lou Antonio, all of whom, Grubba said, taught her how to utilize and channel her pain and life experience into her work.
"They gave me the outlet of artistic expression and how to really use it," she explained. "They raised the caliber of my work, exponentially, because they recognized how much life I had to bring to the table, and showed me how to use it."
Certainly, Grubba is also grateful to Staskel for helping her "navigate all of the resistance that comes when battling for the inclusion of people with disabilities.
"Vince has been a wealth of information, strength, and support. He was one of the earliest advocates — and has lived one hell of a life, and shared so much of his wisdom with me."
Grubba admits it's not always easy to be positive. 2019 proved to be particularly challenging. While recovering from three back-to-back surgeries, she lost two close friends, "the most loving and supportive," she said. "My body and spirit really struggled this time," she admits.
"Not to mention the financial challenges that come with being a performer with a disability, who fights every year for health insurance. It's a lot, and life doesn't stop hitting. But we can't stop fighting back."
Grubba was raised Catholic. While in church years ago, she was inspired by a priest who said, "Our job is to keep swinging for the fence with everything we've got, for as long as we can swing."
"I get up and figure out whatever it is I have to do, to keep swinging," she said. "If that means turning on happy music or reading positive inspirations, or if I'm having a particularly bad day, put it into my writing, or on the stage, or pick up the phone and talk to someone who understands — someone who cares."
"Thank God for the wonderful friends in my life. I'm not sure I'd still be swinging without them."
Grubba's energy is boundless, and she holds no pity parties. And if she feels one being scheduled, she remembers something her mother once told her to reject the notion: "If you are ever tempted to feel sorry for yourself, reach out and help someone who is doing worse. It will put things back into perspective."
Consequently, Grubba spends her life reaching out to "help anyone I see who is going through a challenge." For one, she has a dedicated following on social media platforms, such as Facebook, where she hosts the group, "Everyday Warriors," a page radiant with inspirational thoughts, stories, images, and links.
"Many in the group are survivors who have also been through hell."
For Grubba, it's the challenges that make us stronger. "We have to acknowledge the struggles and be truthful about it."
"We have to keep the kind of people around us who love us even on a bad day, the ones who allow us to be wherever we are, to express whatever we are honestly feeling, to not only accept us at that place, but also to make us feel loved and supported, maybe help us see the light, and that it's possible to get through anything."
"And that doesn't mean there won't be scars," she clarified. "But it does mean that if we keep going, we will find our way. If you have a dream, hold on to it with everything you've got.
"There is a reason that your dream has been planted inside of you, and usually, that reason is for the benefit of the whole world, not just you. We are all connected and we are all here for a greater purpose."
Part of Grubba's greater purpose is advocating for the inclusion of those in the entertainment industry with disabilities — of every age group — to "encourage all the kids coming up behind me to know that they have a right to their dreams. To know that there is nothing 'wrong' with them."
"Our society, as a whole," she said, "...needs to open its collective mind and realize that every human being is equal, regardless of their challenges, regardless of their disabilities.
"Every human being has a purpose and a value that will add to each of our lives," she continued, "if the path is cleared and we are allowed to live out our dreams."
As Martin Landau once told Grubba about her dreams, "You have the potential to be one of the greatest actresses of our time. I'm telling you this not to make you feel good, but so you understand. Never give up. Don't let them stop you. You're sitting on a volcano and know how to use it. Just keep going."
To that end, Grubba says, "I have kept going through all of this because I never want another child to experience what I experienced as a child with a disability.
"I never want another young adult to come into an industry with a dream and be told they're not welcome and not allowed to play, and not given equal opportunity, because there is something different about them.
"I want the world to see the value in people who have struggled, the value in a person who has lived with a disability, the strength of their character, the depth of their soul. I want people to finally realize that we have kept our game-changers out of the game far too long.
"Our best stories come from adversity. Our greatest leaders, world-changers, are those who have been challenged the most, and never gave up. I want every kid with a disability to grow up in a more welcoming world.
"It's why I never gave up and will keep swinging until my last breath. And hopefully, the next generations will pick up the torch and keep going. I know they will because we already see it happening."