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Headshots of 20 RespectAbility 2022 in-person Entertainment Lab Participants

20 Disabled Entertainment Professionals Selected for Fourth Annual RespectAbility Lab’s Los Angeles Cohort

Los Angeles, June 3 – As RespectAbility’s Entertainment Lab expands and returns with an in-person option, 20 individuals have been accepted into the Los Angeles Cohort of RespectAbility’s fourth annual Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities. RespectAbility, a diverse, disability-led nonprofit that works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities, piloted the Lab in 2019.

Now entering its fourth year, the Entertainment Lab aims to further develop and elevate the talent pipeline of diverse professionals with disabilities working behind-the-scenes in television, film, and streaming. Lab Fellows meet studio executives and other decision makers who advise them on various aspects of the industry and their craft. This also enables studios and production companies to learn about the talents and benefits of hiring disabled people to work in all aspects of the storytelling process. As such, Lab alumni currently are working at Disney, Netflix, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, Showtime, and more.

head shot of Lauren wearing an orange blazer, smiling and facing the camera color photo

Lauren Appelbaum

“The Entertainment Lab is a unique program that merges our work in the entertainment industry with RespectAbility’s founding mission to create more opportunities for people with disabilities who desire to be employed,” said Lab Founder and Director Lauren Appelbaum, Senior Vice President of Communications and Entertainment & News Media at RespectAbility. “One purpose for this program is to continue building the talent pipeline of young professionals with disabilities looking to work behind the scenes. We do not want anyone to have an excuse that they could not find a disabled writer, animator, director, or any other position.”

Following two years in a virtual format, the 2022 Entertainment Lab will return to an in-person Lab, June 7 – July 14, 2022, and also offer a virtual version August 15 – September 23, 2022, for those who would find an in-person Lab inaccessible. The 6-week, 18-session in-person Lab series includes talented people with disabilities interested in – and with experience in – development, production, and post-production, including careers as writers, directors, producers, and other production roles. 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.

A unique aspect of this Lab is the numerous studios and production companies that host the Lab around Los Angeles. Hosts include Bunim-Murray Productions, DreamWorks Animation, Endeavor, Lionsgate, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and The Walt Disney Company. Additional speakers include individuals from Netflix, Nielsen, Warner Bros. Discovery, and the Writers Guild of America West.

Delbert Whetter smiling wearing a suit jacket and glasses

Delbert Whetter

“All of these studios hosting Lab Fellows on their lots provides a level of comfort and familiarity for when our alumni return for job interviews,” said Delbert Whetter, who co-founded the Lab with Appelbaum. “Moreover, the importance of the interaction and information-sharing between influential Hollywood executives and decision-makers and these incredibly talented professionals with disabilities in an accessible setting cannot be overstated.”

Currently there are 82 alumni of the Entertainment Lab. Lab alumni work for a variety of studio partners including Netflix, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and The Walt Disney Company, as well as in a variety of writers’ rooms. Others have had films featured at festivals such as SXSW and participated in additional career track programs including with Film Independent and Sundance Institute.

Ashley Eakin smiling headshot

Ashley Eakin

“I got my start ten years ago as an assistant, but RespectAbility gave me the opportunity to interview for my first Staff Writer job because they had direct connections, and I ended up landing the job,” said Lab alumna Ashley Eakin, who recently directed Forgive Us Our Trespasses, available on Netflix. “RespectAbility’s Entertainment Lab gave us access to highly esteemed executives and creatives in many facets of the industry and is truly an invaluable resource, ran by a diverse and supportive team who have disabilities themselves. Having a disability can be an isolating journey – but having a community like RespectAbility behind us, always supporting us is of the utmost importance. We need programs like RespectAbility to bring more disabled voices to the table.”

The Lab is a 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award winner and 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.

Shea Mirzai smiling headshot in front of green plants

Shea Mirzai

“During the RespectAbility Lab, I found a community of likeminded people and allies all working toward the same goal – inclusion and representation for disabled people,” said Lab alumnus Shea Mirzai, who most recently served as a staff writer for HBO Max. Mirzai is a Person Who Stutters and Disabled film and TV writer who is the sitting Co-Chair of the WGAw’s Disabled Writers Committee. “Through the Lab, I’ve been put up for staffing positions in writers’ rooms and been put into contact with equity and inclusion offices on the studio level. I’ve even been asked to speak on panels alongside other creatives.”

A team of external Faculty Advisors, who also helped develop the curriculum, reviewed each 2022 applicant:Cheryl Bedford (Founder, Women of Color Unite), April Caputi (Casting Coordinator, Lucasfilm Animation, and 2019 Lab Alumna), Nicole Go (DEI Production Program Manager, Amazon Studios), Kathy Le Backes(Director, Content Advisement – Representation, Inclusion, Strategies & Engagement, The Walt Disney Studios), Noriko Louison (Sr. Research and Curriculum Manager, 9Story Media Group), Marc Muszynski(TV writer and 2019 Lab Alumnus), Andrew Reid (Director and 2020 Lab Alumnus), Diana Theobald(Director, Equity & Inclusion, Content, Warner Bros. Discovery), Nathan Varni (Executive Director of Current Programming, ABC), Brian Walker (CEO, Picture Motion Campaigns), and Delbert Whetter (Chief Operating Officer & Head of Business Affairs, Exodus Film Group and RespectAbility Board Vice Chair).

In addition to Appelbaum, the programmatic team includes RespectAbility Entertainment Media Team staff members Vanni LeLesley Hennen, and Jacquill MossNasreen Alkhateeb and Leah Romond, two alumni from the 2019 Lab who will once again be serving as Senior Production Advisors; as well as Lab Apprentice Isabella Vargas.

The 2022 Los Angeles Cohort Lab Fellows include:

To ensure accessibility, RespectAbility also will be running a virtual Lab in August/September 2022. Stay tuned for the announcement of these participants as well.

The Los Angeles Cohort of the 2022 Entertainment Lab is made possible with support by:

  • Platinum Sponsors: Murray/Reese Foundation and Netflix
  • Gold Sponsors: The Harnisch Foundation, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and The Walt Disney Company
  • Silver Sponsors: Hollywood Foreign Press Association Charitable Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, and NBC Universal
  • Location Sponsors: Bunim-Murray Productions, DreamWorks Animation, Endeavor, Lionsgate, Nielsen, and ROSIES Foundation

In addition, screenwriting software Final Draft, which forged a multi-year partnership in 2020 with RespectAbility, will provide free licenses of Final Draft 12 for Lab participants, as well as other educational resources.

RespectAbility is a diverse and disability-led nonprofit that works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. 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 VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. 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 and writers’ rooms 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 A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, 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. 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. To reach her, email [email protected]

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