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Empowering People with Disabilities to Be Viewed and Valued

A group of diverse people with and without disabilities smiling together outside

L-R Back Row: Sharon Pierre-Louis (ASL interpreter), Lauren Appelbaum (RespectAbility Vice President, Communications and Lab Program Director), Delbert Whetter (RespectAbility Board of Directors), Jonathan Murray (RespectAbility Board of Directors), Stephen Simon (City of Los Angeles Department on Disability), Diana Elizabeth Jordan (Actress and RespectAbility Volunteer), Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi (RespectAbility President), Harvey Reese / Front Row: Matan Koch (RespectAbility Director of California Office), Tatiana Lee (RespectAbility Hollywood Inclusionist and Lab Program Associate), Josh Steinberg (RespectAbility Program Associate). Credit: Nasreen Alkhateeb, 2019 Lab Alumna

While growing up I rarely saw people with disabilities on television or in movies. When they did make an appearance, it was usually as a character that needed saving or someone that the audience was meant to pity. This lack of authenticity in disability representation and portrayal in media leads to unfortunate caricatures or whitewashing of stories that demean, stigmatize and diminish our existence in society.

We believe that the world is ready for a more uplifting and aspirational narrative—one that authentically depicts people with disabilities as they deserve to be portrayed, as multi-dimensional characters with hopes, flaws, and dreams who are capable of being fighters, heroes, villains and champions in the stories that Hollywood puts on our screens.

Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn, and we are beginning to tell our own stories.

For example, in 2020, my work on the children’s animated program Madagascar: A Little Wild (currently showing on streaming platforms Hulu and Peacock) supported the creation of two adventurous chimpanzee siblings that use ASL, one of whom is deaf with a distinctive personality without being defined by his disability, and both of whom are integral to the show’s many zany adventures.

We are increasingly being asked to consult on projects with characters with disabilities, or incorporate disabilities in their storyline, on a scale far greater than we have seen from previous years. Many of our entertainment industry partners also have begun to recognize the importance of not only hiring consultants but also hiring writers and below-the-line crew with disabilities, and we have worked with many to create these hiring opportunities. This indicates both an awareness of, and a commitment to, the values that RespectAbility has worked so hard to advance in this industry.

Headshot of Delbert Whetter wearing a blue collared shirt and gray blazer

Delbert Whetter

RespectAbility is bringing more and more of these authentic characters with disabilities to the screen by creating a pipeline of diverse professionals with disabilities behind the camera through the Hollywood Lab training program. So much of our work is coming to fruition now!

And as a quick anecdote, I recently was selected as a Fellow in Film Independent’s competitive Fast Track program, which takes place contemporaneously with the annual American Film Market.

You will be pleased to know that RespectAbility’s work in the field came up often during the Fast Track program. In addition to my participation, a RespectAbility Lab alumnus also was selected this year as a Fast Track Fellow and won a prestigious Sloan grant from Film Independent. Several groups and speakers that had previously spoken at our Lab participated in the Fast Track program as industry representatives, all of whom recognized RespectAbility and its Lab participants/projects that were represented in Fast Track.

Two things became clear from my Fast Track participation: One, that our RespectAbility Lab is in really good company, and two, that the RespectAbility Lab is now a part of the various pathways to success that exist for emerging filmmakers in our industry.

It was hard not to notice that every single one of the Fast Track participants had received distinctions from film grants and awards and/or were active in the various artist development programs, labs and workshops offered in our industry by leading filmmaking organizations such as Film Independent, Sundance and the Producers Guild of America. They are terrific avenues for an emerging filmmaker to not only gain valuable support and resources from peers and mentors in the industry, but also to enhance one’s visibility as a professional. RespectAbility is quickly developing a reputation amongst these peer industry organizations in Hollywood for identifying and elevating filmmakers/professionals with disabilities who are worthy of notice.

Things look different this year. Our 2020 Lab was virtual, which presented us with new challenges that made valuable opportunities like in-person networking and tours impossible, but it also gave us new opportunities that Lauren Appelbaum and her team deftly capitalized on. The Lab’s virtual presence afforded us the rare and unprecedented opportunity to invite talented filmmakers with disabilities from all over the nation to participate remotely from their homes.

Despite the challenges this year, the power of supporting emerging filmmakers with disabilities remains the same and is more important now than ever before.

Meet the Author

Delbert Whetter

Delbert Whetter is co-chair of RespectAbility’s Hollywood Committee. He is an accomplished film executive and producer with several feature productions under his belt. Whetter is Deaf from a multi-generational Deaf family and the parent of two hearing children, one of whom is autistic.

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