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30 Talented Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities Accepted into RespectAbility’s Third Annual Summer Lab

Sponsors include A+E Networks, Final Draft, The Harnisch Foundation, NBCUniversal, Murray/Reese Foundation, Pop Culture Collaborative, Sony Pictures Entertainment, ViacomCBS and The Walt Disney Company

Los Angeles, California – RespectAbility, a nonprofit focused on fighting stigmas of people with disabilities in media and advocating for more authentic representation, is proud to announce that following unprecedented competition from around the world, 30 individuals have been accepted into RespectAbility’s third annual Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities. The Lab brings authentic and diverse portrayals of people with disabilities to the screen by creating a pipeline of diverse professionals with disabilities behind the camera.

Headshots of 30 participants in RespectAbility's 2021 Summer Lab

2021 RespectAbility Lab Participants

This 8-week, 24-session virtual summer Lab series for talented people with disabilities interested in – and with experience in – development, production and post-production, including careers as writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, animators and other production roles, will take place June 22 – August 12, 2021. Participants include people with physical, cognitive, sensory, mental health and other disabilities ranging in age from people in their 20’s through their 50’s.

“This program continues building the talent pipeline of emerging and mid-career professionals with disabilities working behind the scenes while also enabling hundreds of studio executives to learn about the talents and benefits of hiring disabled individuals,” said Lab Founder and Director Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s Vice President, Communications who leads RespectAbility’s Hollywood Inclusion efforts and authored the nonprofit’s Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. The Lab also was the Fan Favorite chosen by the Arc Tank audience for the Northeast Arc’s “The Arc Tank 3.0,” which was created to positively disrupt conventional methods of providing services to people with disabilities.

Lab alumni from 2019 and 2020 currently work for a variety of studio partners including Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures and The Walt Disney Company, as well as in writers’ rooms for Netflix’s Mech Cadet, CW’s 4400 and Showtime’s Dexter, among others. Others have had films featured at festivals such as SXSW and participated in additional career track programs including with Film Independent.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lab was restructured to a virtual format in 2020 and further refined for 2021. Sessions will be held on platforms such as Zoom. This year’s 30 participants include 17 individuals in an emerging track and 13 in a mid-career track. Many of the sessions are hosted by studios including Bunim/Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment, ViacomCBS and The Walt Disney Company. Additional speakers include individuals from the Black List, CAA, C Talent, Film Fatales, Film Independent, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, GLAAD, the Muslim Public Affairs Council Hollywood Bureau, Netflix, Sundance Institute, the Writers Guild of America West and Women of Color Unite. Lab participants also will have the opportunity to share materials they have produced or directed, as well as to participate in table reads of scripts, for feedback from peers and industry professionals.

New this year, Lab participants also will be matched with mentors – with a choice of professional mentors in their chosen career path or personal mentors who have a similar disability as themselves while working in the entertainment industry.

A team of external Faculty Advisors, who also helped develop the curriculum, reviewed each applicant: Ruhi Bhalla (Sr. Coordinator of Social Impact, MTV Entertainment Group), Cheryl Bedford (Founder, Women of Color Unite), April Caputi (Creative Associate, Freeform and 2019 Lab Alumna), Fanshen Cox (Head of Strategic Outreach, Pearl Street Films), Danielle Pretsfelder Demchick (Director of Casting, Nickelodeon), Ashley Eakin (Writer/Director and 2020 Lab Alumna), Jonathan Murray (Founder and Executive Consultant, Bunim-Murray), Marci Phillips (VP, Casting, ABC Entertainment), David Renaud (Producer, The Good Doctor), Shoshannah Stern (Writer and Creator, This Close), Joey Travolta (Founder, Inclusion Films) and Delbert Whetter (Chief Operating Officer & Head of Business Affairs, Exodus Film Group).

“Opening the inclusion umbrella is the right thing to do as well as economically sound given that the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion,” said Delbert Whetter, who co-founded the Lab with Appelbaum. “According to Nielsen Research, Americans with disabilities represent the third largest market behind Baby Boomers and the mature market.”

In addition to Appelbaum, the programmatic team includes RespectAbility Entertainment Media Team staff members Tatiana Lee, Vanni Le and Lesley Hennen; Nasreen Alkhateeb and Leah Romond, two alumni from the 2019 Lab who will once again be serving as Senior Production Advisors; as well as three Lab interns: Kiah Amara (2020 Lab alumna), Kelley Cape and Krista Ramirez-Villatoro. This team has doubled in size since 2020 as RespectAbility’s work in the entertainment industry continues to grow.

Participants in the program include:

Mid-Career Track:

Emerging Track:

RespectAbility will provide ASL interpreters and live captioning for all educational and related networking events during lab program hours.

This program is made possible with support by:

  • Platinum Sponsors: Murray/Reese Foundation, The Harnisch Foundation, Pop Culture Collaborative, Sony Pictures Entertainment and The Walt Disney Company
  • Gold Sponsors: A+E Networks and Final Draft
  • Silver Sponsors: NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS

RespectAbility is a nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with employers, elected officials, policy makers, educators, self-advocates, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, philanthropists and the entertainment and news media to fight stigmas and advance opportunities. Comprised of diverse people with disabilities, RespectAbility’s Entertainment and News Media Team 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, including the award-winning RespectAbility Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities, increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. To learn more about everything RespectAbility is doing, check out their website at www.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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