by Matan Koch and Lauren Appelbaum
RespectAbility honors the life of former Board of Advisors member Steven James Tingus, who passed last week at age 59, shortly after the premiere of his new film “Triggered” at the acclaimed Indie Night Film Festival at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Tingus was hailed for his role and as a voice for social equality. He graced the stage thanking his co-producer and co-star Marcus Nel-Jamal Hamm for “walking the walk and talking the talk.”
A former Presidential appointee in charge of disability, aging, and health care research and policy, Tingus often called for making the business case for disability inclusion and served a term on RespectAbility’s Board of Advisors from 2016 – 2019. During his tenure, he participated in a series of PSA’s produced by RespectAbility to ensure philanthropists are inclusive of people with disabilities.
Despite being considered a ‘misfit’ at birth due to his muscular dystrophy and an easy target for derision and bullying, the determined child of tenacious parents was one of the first students with disabilities to be fully included in the California school system. He would later be inducted into the Davis Senior High School Hall of Fame, as well as complete a Master’s degree and the classwork for a PhD.
Tingus received the “Best New Freedom Individual Award” from the Jim Mullen Foundation. He also was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson to do Health Care Policy Analysis for the State of California Department of Health Services. He then served as Director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research for all eight years of the Bush administration, before going on to become Director of Resource Development for the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, Inc. and the associated nonprofit, Assistive Technology Network.
Tingus believed that the entertainment industry could be an incredible ally in creating social change. He enjoyed educating industry leaders on the business sense of hiring highly-talented and trained disabled people onscreen and behind the camera. He built a network of high-profile actors, producers, directors, and other key players in the entertainment industry, advocating for increasing storyline development and hiring and moving representation of people with disabilities.
In July 2017, Tingus moderated a conversation on Capitol Hill with Casting Director Leah Daniels-Butler, whom he previously had worked with on disability inclusion, during a RespectAbility summit. Earlier that summer, he cohosted an event along with Rep. Brad Sherman and Jonathan Murray to brainstorm how to move the needle forward on the employment of people with disabilities. This summit was featured A&E’s “Born This Way.”
Tingus also enjoyed performing in front of the camera. He appeared in the Twin Peaks revival and Lenny Kravitz’s “Here to Love” music video in 2002, in addition to his current appearance in “Triggered.” Behind the camera, he earned a producer’s credit for the multi award-winning documentary “Fireburn” directed by Joel Fendelman, a historically significant retelling of the 1876 “Fireburn” uprising in St. Croix portraying Black women risking their lives to advance justice and stem labor inequality. He also hosted Ideagen TV, an OTT podcast for the Tingus Entertainment Network (TEN) with programming that embraced inclusion in the entertainment industry.
Tingus’ influence even extended into the world of fashion. He served as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for LA Fashion Week. On October 10, 2021, he worked with Nicholas Mayfield to feature models with and without disabilities. In his own words, he helped create a “union of non-disabled and disabled individuals having a fun time showing off their spunk in cool urban clothes.” Showing his unique sense of humor, he quipped that “my outfit that weighed more than me,” finishing with the line “Damn fashion is not easy!!!”
On the ride home from the celebration of “Triggered,” he reportedly nodded, smiled, and proclaimed, “My work here is done.” Rest in power, Steven James Tingus.