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Hollywood Inclusion

A Father’s Boundless Love for his Son Leads to Film Exposing Cracks Within U.S. Medicaid System

When We Walk to Premiere in NYC at Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 14/18

New York City, June 13 – In his latest documentary, When We Walk, award-winning producer Jason DaSilva captures his personal life living with multiple sclerosis, from the toll it takes on his marriage to the challenges in accessing adequate medical care through the U.S. Medicaid system. This documentary feature will premiere in New York City at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 14 and 18.

When We Walk is DaSilva’s sequel to his masterpiece, When I Walk, which detailed his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, with his wife, Alice, by his side. This documentary premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won Best Canadian Feature at the Hot Docs in 2013 and an Emmy Award in 2015. [continue reading…]

Ali Stroker Shatters Stigmas, Becomes First Person Who Uses a Wheelchair to Win a Tony Award

New York City, June 10 – “This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena,” actress Ali Stroker said from the stage of the Tony Awards. “You are!”

Stroker made history at the Tony Awards by becoming the first person who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony. Winning Best Featured Actress in a musical for her sexy take on Ado Annie in the groundbreaking revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Stroker showed how actors with disabilities can successfully play characters not originally written as having a disability.

“This show exists for people to see things different,” Stroker told the New York Times minutes after her Tony nomination. “And to be able to do this role — and to be an actress in a wheelchair — it feels like I have arrived.” [continue reading…]

Ensuring the Full “Pavarotti” Experience for Blind and Low Vision Audiences

Pavarotti is the new Ron Howard documentary about Luciano Pavarotti, one of the most famous Italian opera singers of our time who sold more than 100 million records before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2007. The film showcases his early years, his philanthropy, and of course, his extraordinary talent, powerful music and his immense impact on the world. It is sure to captivate audiences worldwide when it opens in cinemas this Friday, June 7th.

But what is notable about the film from a disability perspective is that it is truly accessible to blind and low vision audiences, thanks to an audio description track from Michele Spitz. According to Spitz’s company website, Woman of Her Word, audio description tracks serve “as a visual description of key elements, essentially painting a picture with words to supplement the existing visual media.” And according to Spitz, “Pavarotti was my most costly and labor intensive audio description film project to produce thus far in my library of AD work of 56 films over the past six years.” [continue reading…]

Comedian Ryan Niemiller Wows America’s Got Talent Judges, Uses Platform to Push for More Disability Representation on Television

Los Angeles, California, June 5 – This season on America’s Got Talent, we already have seen two acts with disabilities audition. On the season premiere, autistic blind singer Kodi Lee earned the golden buzzer from Gabrielle Union, skipping straight to the live shows. In the second audition episode, Ryan Niemiller, a comedian with a disability in both arms, made it through to the next round with a standing ovation and four enthusiastic yeses. Both acts were extremely talented, but the differences in how they were presented is a great case study in how to accurately and positively portray people with disabilities.

Ryan Niemiller immediately won over the audience with his quip “So, obviously I have a disability. I think the technical term for it is being very handsome.”

“When I was growing up, there was nobody that looked like me on television,” Niemiller said to Simon Cowell about what he wants to do with the platform. “I want people to be able to look at what I’m doing.”

Niemiller’s plug for representation was important for viewers to hear. Although one in five Americans have a disability, among regular characters on primetime TV in the 2018-2019 season, only 2.1 percent have disabilities. [continue reading…]

The Employables Showcases People with Disabilities on the Job Hunt

Adam Fishbein, a National Leadership Fellow at RespectAbility, has Tourette Syndrome, one of the disabilities highlighted in A&E’s new show The Employables. 

Rockville, Maryland, June 5 – The entertainment industry recently has made meaningful progress in the accurate representation of people with disabilities in TV shows. Accurately portraying and including people with disabilities on screen is not just the right thing to do, it also makes sense economically – given that the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion according to Nielsen Research.

One of the latest additions to this trend is A&E’s The Employables. Each episode in this docuseries follows two unemployed individuals in their job search–one with Tourette Syndrome (TS) and one on the Autism spectrum. Through interviews with the individual, their family, and potential employers, The Employables effectively displays the struggles of the job search for people with disabilities. 

Someone on the Employables holding a bag walking down a sidewalk“I went from being on the dean’s list to becoming academically disqualified,” said James, a 35-year-old with TS in the first episode. “But it’s what we got. It’s the cards you’re dealt so you play the hand you have.”

However, The Employables also showcases the unique skills and talents of each individual and how these traits can benefit their employers as much as–and often more than–people without disabilities. For example, medical professionals conduct IQ testing. Each subject consistently scores above-average for traits such as perceptual reasoning, creativity and verbal comprehension. [continue reading…]

Jane the Virgin: “Early Diagnosis is Extremely Important”

Los Angeles, California, June 5 – When Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez)’s son Mateo is having difficulty reading, his teacher suggests testing, saying it “could be a learning disability, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, dyslexia or could be nothing at all.”

Ultimately, Mateo, who is six, is diagnosed with ADHD in last week’s episode of The CW’s Jane the Virgin. His doctor explains that Mateo “struggles with both inattention and impulsivity” and that his “executive functions are somewhat impaired, which is why tasks are not completed and he has trouble self-regulating. It’s just harder for Mateo to focus and prioritize than other kids.”

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder that is characterized by an individual’s consistent inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. While everyone experiences these symptoms at one point or another, what classifies these behaviors under ADHD is when it begins to affect normal day-to-day functioning and/or development. ADHD is typically diagnosed in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 6.4 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD in the United States – 11 percent of children ages four to 17. ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Type, also known as ADD, is a type of ADHD that does not involve hyperactivity. People with ADD may have trouble finishing tasks or following directions and might be easily distracted. But the symptoms are generally less noticeable for ADD than ADHD, and as a result many people with ADD are unfortunately overlooked. [continue reading…]

Blind Autistic Singer Earns Season’s First Golden Buzzer on America’s Got Talent

Los Angeles, California, May 30 – On the season premiere of America’s Got Talent, a 22-year-old blind autistic man sang for the judges and earned the golden buzzer, advancing straight to the live shows. Kodi Lee’s voice and piano skills were exceptional, and it is wonderful to see people with disabilities succeed and be represented on reality television. But unfortunately, the way America’s Got Talent portrayed Lee could have been better.

It is clear that Lee deserves the golden buzzer due to his singing and piano-playing abilities. However, all too often people with disabilities are made to be inspirational characters simply for having a disability, falling into the trap of “inspiration porn,” which assumes that disability itself is so terrible that the mere act of living a normal life with a disability is inspirational. Like anything that turns another human being into a simplified foil or object of pity, the ultimate result is to deny the complex humanity of the person with a disability.

The original title that America’s Got Talent used for the YouTube upload of the clip was “Kodi Lee Defeats Autism And Blindness With Music.” This title was problematic, to say the least. It implied that autism and blindness are burdens that need to be overcome. Disability is not a burden, rather, the societal obstacles that people with disabilities face are burdensome. Thankfully, the title was changed on YouTube to “Kodi Lee Wows You With A Historical Music Moment!” This puts the focus back on his talent. [continue reading…]

“Identity: The Musical” Stars Actors with Autism, Examines Social Issues

Netflix’s “Atypical” Creator Robia Rashid Honored During Opening Night

text in image: The Miracle Project presents: Identity: The Musical, an original musical created with and starring individuals with autism and of all abilities, May 23-May 26, The Wallis, Beverly HillsBeverly Hills, California, May 24 – In its premiere during the Evening of Miracles Gala, “Identity: The Musical” left audience members thinking about what being “perfect” actually means.

Written and performed by actors with autism and of all abilities, “Identity: The Musical” is set in an era where decisions are made by data, as “data sees everything,” leading to a person’s identity, including careers and spouses, being determined based on online habits, including social media check-ins and posts from their first 21 years of life. In this world of perfection, government has eliminated pollution, crime and poverty but also self-determination. This show imagines an alternative world in which everyone – regardless of ability – is forced to conform to pre-determined destinies based on this data collected from birth.

Many individuals with developmental disabilities and neurological differences are made to believe that their potential roles in society are limited and have been pre-determined by their diagnosis.

“Individuals with autism are so often labeled for what they cannot do instead of what they can do,” said The Miracle Project’s Founder Elaine Hall. “This musical is an allegory if everyone was labeled that way.” [continue reading…]

Overcoming Shame and Stigma of Mental Illness Through Film

Washington, D.C., May 20 – May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which aims to break the stigma surrounding mental health. Bedlam, a film that premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, breaks down this stigma while providing both important facts and relatable stories for all viewers. And this week previews of the film will be highlighted during WE RISE, a 10-day pop-up immersive experience that brings together Los Angeles’ diverse community to embolden individuals and families to find help, reach out to help others and demand systemic change in order to address the critical need for early intervention, treatment and care for mental wellbeing.

Mental asylums once were created with some good intentions but ended up leading to neglect and human warehouses. When these were closed, it shifted the care of people who are mentally ill from state governments to the federal government before shifting back to the states, which did not want control due to the cost. The result? On any given night, 350,000 mentally ill people sleep on the streets of America – 20,000 in Los Angeles alone. It is estimated that 25-50 percent of adults experiencing homelessness are chronically mentally ill. Jails and prisons have become America’s largest mental institutions.

In Bedlam, psychiatrist and filmmaker Kenneth Rosenberg takes viewers behind the scenes at a Los Angeles County Psych ER during a five-year period, unveiling disturbing realities for hundreds of thousands of homeless and the lack of care available for psychiatric patients. They often are warehoused in overcrowded jails where underequipped first responders provide the front line of care. [continue reading…]

Unprecedented Opportunity for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities in RespectAbility’s New Summer Lab Program

Sponsors and Partners include Bunim/Murray Productions, Comcast NBCUniversal, The Walt Disney Company, Sundance Institute and more

five diverse women and one man standing and seated smiling for the camera

Top Row (L-R): Stephanie Thomas, Delbert Whetter. Melissa Yingst and Lauren Appelbaum
Bottom Row: Angela Rockwood and Andrea Jennings

Los Angeles, California, May 20 – Great entertainment requires authentic stories and genuine representation of all people. This includes diverse people with physical, cognitive, sensory, mental health and other disabilities. Hence, RespectAbility, the nonprofit that produced The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit, is thrilled to offer an innovative lab series for emerging entertainment talent, as well as a track for mid-level career professionals. This 5-week, nine-session summer lab program is for people with disabilities and/or strong disability connections interested in development, production and post-production, including careers as writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, animators and other production roles.

“What we see on screen influences how we act in real life, but that is dependent on filmmakers choosing to include individuals with disabilities in diverse and accurate portrayals, which then helps remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with individuals with disabilities,” said Program Director Lauren Appelbaum, who leads RespectAbility’s Hollywood Inclusion efforts as the organization’s vice president, communications. “One purpose of 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 writer, editor or any other position with a disability.”

Several sessions will meet at various studios where program participants will have the opportunity to learn about possible career paths and have networking opportunities. Furthermore, entertainment professionals in positions of power to hire will meet a group of qualified individuals and potentially shift their mindsets in equity goals for hiring. After all, opening the inclusion umbrella is the right thing to do as well as economically smart given that the disability market is valued at more than $1 trillion. According to Nielsen Research, Americans with disabilities represent the third largest market behind Baby Boomers and the mature market. [continue reading…]

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