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Lauren Appelbaum

RespectAbility’s Entertainment Media Consulting Team

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Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum (she/her) is the Senior Vice President, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a diverse, disability-led nonprofit that works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities, and that advances policies and practices that empower disabled people to have a better future. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood, and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry.

Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies, writers’ rooms, and news organizations to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with 9Story Media Group, A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, DreamWorks Animation, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Nickelodeon, ViacomCBS, The Walt Disney Company, and Warner Bros. Discovery, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative.

Appelbaum also increases hiring initiatives of people with disabilities behind the camera and enriches the pool of disabled talent in Hollywood by 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 and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab.

Appelbaum is a sought-after expert and has been quoted by many national publications including Associated PressDeadlineThe Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, The New York Times, RealScreenReuters, TabletUSA Today, Variety, and The Washington Post. She has spoken on panels at the Association of Health Care Journalists Conference, ComNet, RealScreen Summit, Sundance Film Festival and SXSW, among others.

Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Appelbaum has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Syracuse University; she also has undergraduate degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She serves on several national and local nonprofit boards. Appelbaum currently lives in Maryland with her husband, daughter and dog. She travels nationally, often to the Los Angeles area.

Examples of Lauren’s Work

  • SCRIPTED EPISODIC CONTENT: NBC’s New Amsterdam overwhelmingly has been an example of best practices through the hiring of actors with disabilities, working with consultants to ensure accurate storylines and including conversations about diverse topics within the disability community. An important episode in season 2 featured Gigi Cunningham, a young Black actress with Down syndrome. RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee consulted on the episode’s script, which touched on so many hot-button topics, from abortion to conservatorship, conservative Christianity to inadequate health care in rural areas, and so much more.
  • CHILDREN’S CONTENT: In April 2021, PBS KIDS added a new character to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Max, who offered an authentic representation of Autism for children and adult audiences alike. Rachel Kalban, Vice President of Research and Curriculum at 9 Story Media Group, credited a conversation with RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum leading to the team focusing on the intersection of race and disability, ultimately making Max a Black autistic child instead of a white child, noting the systemic barriers and prejudice that lead to children of color being less likely to be diagnosed than their white peers. Since the launch of this character, 9 Story Media Group has engaged RespectAbility in several additional upcoming shows.
  • VIDEO GAMES: In May 2021, PlayStation launched the video game Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee served as accessibility consultants. This game not only included a central character with a prosthetic but also is an industry leader in terms of its accessibility for consumers. “The RespectAbility consultants helped us identify areas of the story where the characters’ disabilities could be perceived negatively and they suggested opportunities to show them as being resourceful, multi-faceted, and heroic,” said Insomniac Games’ Director of Experience Brian Allgeier. “It’s been amazing to see the outpouring of love for these characters, especially from the disabled community. We’re excited about continuing to create worlds that represent characters from a wide range of backgrounds, and we hope it continues to resonate with our fans.”
  • FAMILY CONTENT: RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee consulted on Netflix’s family show The Healing Powers of Dude (premiered January 2020) on the role of Amara (Sophie Kim), a middle schooler succeeding in both her academic and theatrical career. Kim is an actress with muscular dystrophy who uses a power wheelchair, authentically portraying a character who uses a wheelchair. We became partners with the writers’ room, providing consultants with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities, sharing our own experiences and anecdotes that ended up being included in the scripts. In one episode, the lead character’s parents build a ramp so Amara can get in, becoming a good “teaching moment” for audience viewers since most houses would not be accessible for wheelchair users. We worked closely with the production team as they found accessible housing for the actress, built sets with universal design in mind and ensured the character of Sophie was fully included. We also worked with the marketing team, being fully involved from the development stage through promotion.
  • UNSCRIPTED: In September 2021, Born For Business launched on Peacock. Created by our board member Jonathan Murray, RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum worked with the casting team and others to ensure authentic representation and accessibility for the four disabled cast members who have lupus, Down syndrome, spinal muscular atrophy, and anxiety. This powerful new docuseries shined the spotlight on the untold stories of four entrepreneurs with disabilities. Born For Business gives viewers an insider’s look at what it takes to launch and run a thriving small business. Prior, from 2015-2019, A&E’s Born This Way (Bunim-Murray Productions), an internationally syndicated TV series, chronicled the lives of seven men and women with Down syndrome who are defying society’s expectations by striking out on their own and pursuing dreams including jobs, housing, health and marriage. The widely popular show has earned 3 Emmy Awards and a Critics’ Choice Award. In addition to providing consulting advice, RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum also organized a Hollywood-style premiere on Capitol Hill, showing the pilot episode with members of Congress, cast members and an A&E executive speaking. We galvanized national disability organizations and created social media campaigns to motivate their members to watch and share. Most impressively, the show’s audience grew to one-million viewers in the first season, with 40 percent of those viewers being new to the A&E Network, showing that including disability is profitable. 

About RespectAbility’s Entertainment Media Consulting Team

Comprised of diverse people with disabilities, RespectAbility’s entertainment media consultants partner with studios, production companies, writers’ rooms and news organizations to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. Learn more about the team.

Meet the Author

Eric Ascher

Eric Ascher is the Communications Associate for RespectAbility. He is responsible for supporting RespectAbility’s Vice President, Communications in developing and implementing advocacy efforts and communications of various types. Ascher manages RespectAbility’s social media channels, website and emails; organizes and develops webinars; and supervises Communications Fellows.

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