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Inclusive Casting and Production with Nickelodeon Digital Studios

Five speakers plus ASL interpreter on zoom at Nickelodeon's RespectAbility Lab session.Los Angeles, Sept. 17 – As a part of RespectAbility’s 2021 Summer Lab, participants spoke with several members of the Nickelodeon Digital Studios team to learn about the inner workings of the company’s video production and casting processes. Nickelodeon prides itself in creating content for children that is diverse and inclusive. The team spoke excitedly about their projects and videos that include children who have both visible and nonvisible disabilities.

Marc Cantone, Sr. Director, Preschool Digital Content, and Skylar Apter, Supervising Producer, Editorial & Development, at Nickelodeon Digital Studios, outlined how their department works. Much of their work is in coordination with shows found on Nick Jr, including Blue’s Clues & You! and Blaze and the Monster Machines. For example, this YouTube video featuring Blaze also features young disabled athletes. Released after this conversation with Lab participants, RespectAbility team members consulted on this video.

Danielle Pretsfelder Demchick, Director of Talent & Casting at Nickelodeon, says her main goal is to make sure that “what people really see is making sure that the world in front of us is reflected in front of the camera. So that’s intersectionality, that’s all types of disabilities, that’s all types of gender identities, all racial ethnic backgrounds…The world around us is a colorful rainbow and we should see that in what we’re watching.”

Some of Nickelodeon’s initiatives include their determination to include ASL in their programming. The long-running show Blue’s Clues & You! now introduces from 5-10 new ASL words in each episode so preschoolers can begin to learn the language. Another example is the show’s Mail Time, which has sections that are inspired by the Paralympics. Nickelodeon invites child athletes with disabilities to showcase their skills and tell Josh all about them. These children excitedly show their moves, normalizing disabled children’s joy while highlighting their talents.

The Nickelodeon team also spoke about a video that they produced entitled “The Blue’s Clues Pride Parade Sing-Along Ft. Nina West,” which really highlighted the intersection of queerness and disability. This is something that many children’s shows steer away from, but Nickelodeon is not shying away from inclusion and representation. In fact, they take pride in being an example of intersectionality in children’s entertainment.

“I specifically enjoy casting for disabilities because I’m in fact a part of the disability community,” said Elizabeth Hay, Casting Associate at Nickelodeon who is working on the Performers with Disabilities Search for the network. “I have cerebral palsy and I think it’s really important for both sides to reflect it, not only in talent but to actually have someone on staff that has an idea of what that experience is like. Especially when we are dealing with a spectrum of abilities and everything that goes into that.”

RespectAbility’s third annual Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities brings authentic and diverse portrayals of people with disabilities to the screen by creating a pipeline of diverse professionals with disabilities behind the camera. 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. 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 and Sundance Institute.

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Finn Bradley
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