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The Academy’s New Initiative Elevates Disability Inclusion

Initiative Highlights Importance of Behind the Camera and Development of Talent Pipeline

RespectAbility congratulates The Academy for their diversity and inclusion initiative. This has the potential to bring about some real change in the entertainment industry. We are especially pleased to see people with disabilities included, as too often disability is not included in diversity conversations.

It is important, however, to ensure that the narrative is good. It’s not enough to just be included – we have to be included in an authentic way. And by having one its categories focus on behind the camera roles, this initiative has an opportunity to prevent this – by truly hiring people with disabilities behind the camera in an inclusive way. This presents a huge opportunity to tell diverse, complex stories of the disability experience, and avoid falling into the trap of inspiration porn, which assumes that anyone with a disability must have it so much worse, and uses people with disabilities to make nondisabled people feel good about themselves or to make them do something, like exercise.

There are some other major tropes to avoid; for example, as noted in the Ford Foundation’s Road Map for Inclusion: the super crip, which reinforces the idea that disability is something that must be overcome; the villain, which plays on people’s inherent discomfort with those who do not look the same as them; the victim, which identifies the person solely by their disability and implies death is a better option; and the innocent fool, which often shows people with intellectual disabilities as people to laugh at, or as the butt of jokes.

Therefore, for the past few years, RespectAbility has helped ensure several studios do not fall into these pitfalls by providing consultations on scripts; conducting trainings for writers, producers, marketing & PR teams, and others; and providing connections to experienced individuals with disabilities ready to work on a film.

For the past two years, RespectAbility has been running a Lab specifically for diverse entertainment professionals with disabilities working behind the camera. We are so excited that The Academy’s initiative opens up an opportunity for our alumni to become attached to an Oscar-nominated project. Several major studios sponsored the 2020 Lab – including Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment, ViacomCBS and the Walt Disney Company. This means that many major studios already have access to this talent pipeline.

The initiative’s focus on internships and apprenticeships are so important for people with disabilities, as many are not eligible for internships. In fact, just seven percent of people born with a disability graduate college and internships often are only open to individuals in college. Apprenticeship opportunities can play a huge part in giving people with disabilities opportunities to succeed.

There are a few opportunities for improvement in future years. For example, the lead character category does not include disability – or LGBTQ+. That could be interpreted to mean that people with disabilities or those who are LGBTQ+ cannot be leads, which is inaccurate.

Furthermore, there is a focus on visible disabilities, which are more stigmatized. But it is important to note that disability is even broader than what was listed; more than half of people who have disabilities have a nonvisible disability.

Even with these concerns, this is a major first step to bringing about change in an industry that has been resistant to change. RespectAbility congratulates The Academy on highlighting this need.

For More Information
Lauren Appelbaum
RespectAbility’s VP of Communications
LaurenA@RespectAbility.org

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the Vice President, Communications, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. From entertainment professionals to presidential campaigns, journalists to philanthropists, she conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible. Behind the scenes in the entertainment industry, Appelbaum engages decision makers and creatives to improve the quality and number of authentic, diverse and inclusive presentations of people with disabilities on TV and film so audiences can see people with disabilities as vital contributors in America and around the world. She and her team have consulted on projects with Amazon, Disney/ABC Television, NBCUniversal, Netflix, and The Walt Disney Studios, among others. Appelbaum also enriches the pool of disabled talent in Hollywood by nurturing and connecting them to those who can assist with their careers, both on the creative and business sides of the industry. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit, which was created to help entertainment professionals to be as inclusive of people with disabilities as possible, and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working behind the camera. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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