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Hollywood Inclusion

Code of the Freaks reveals the not-so-secret code to disability representation in mainstream cinema 

Film will premiere as the Opening Night selection of The ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York and will be shown virtually on March 31, 2020, followed by a Q&A with Salome Chasnoff, Lawrence Carter-Long and Mat Fraser.

New York City, March 31 – Have you ever been online, just aimlessly scrolling through the web and found an article that makes a point you’ve been trying to get across for years, but have never been able to express: one of the moments where you can’t help but to exclaim that “they put it into words”? When it comes to the topic of disability representation in mainstream cinema, Code of the Freaks, directed by Salome Chasnoff, does just that, except for instead of being an 800-word opinion piece, it’s a brilliant, clever and expertly-crafted, hour-ish long film.

Touting a comedic disclaimer that “no people with disabilities were harmed in the making of this film,” Code opens with clips from the 1392 movie Freaks – from which it draws its name – and uses these examples as a jumping-off point for the discussion to come on disability representation in mainstream cinema. It takes clips from movies that include characters with disabilities and picks apart the way those characters, their stories and the situations are portrayed – including what the directors and writers got right, if anything, and what they did terribly (in most instances) wrong. It brings with it an important message in the fact that film, in many ways, functions as an educational medium – insofar as introducing people to experiences they might be unfamiliar with – meaning that what they ‘teach’ goes a lot further and deeper than one might think.

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SXSW Winner “Single” is not Here to Make you Feel Good – or to be a Love Story


Scene from Single with Kim and Jake on a blind date together inside a barLos Angeles, Calif., March 26 – Rarely does a film come along that feels entirely refreshing, not just in terms of the genre, but in everything it does: “Single” is one of those hidden gems. The new Ashley Eakin film, Special Jury Recognition Winner at SXSW 2020 for Narrative Shorts, shines with its gorgeous, saturated, Hollywood-polished cinematography, authentic representation and undeniable assertation that it is not a love story – while tackling the complexities of dating while disabled.

“Single” tells the story of a day in the life of Kim: a millennial looking to live her life and maybe find love along the way – or at least a chance to get off of Tinder. As the film opens, she can be seen acting like any other twenty-something: buying a bottle of wine, talking on the phone to her friend and telling her about the blind date she’s going on, set up by her mom’s friend from book club.

She also has one arm. [continue reading…]

Taking Time for Mental Breaks by Watching TV Series and Films with Great Authentic Disability Representation

an African American woman in a wheelchair posing for the camera, smiling

Tatiana Lee

Los Angeles, California, March 25 – I’m a person living with a disability. I was born with Spina Bifida, and I live in Los Angeles. Like many of you, I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. As of last week, my family and I are officially on stay-at-home orders. That means no leaving the house unless necessary, like for groceries and medical needs. This type of life is too familiar to most people with disabilities, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a difficult time. Some are self-isolated and can’t get the care they need. Having a chronic health condition makes you feel doomed to be in contact with anyone, even for everyday care needs.

I am very fortunate I have family that helps to keep me safe and healthy. It’s great to know I’m not totally isolated because I am with my mom and sister. That is not the case for many of my peers. It’s unsettling to live in a moment of constant uncertainty, especially during times of medical rationing, knowing that we (the disability community) will probably be the last to receive proper care. But we must remain strong and optimistic, and healthy during this time. [continue reading…]

Crip Camp Premieres on Netflix, Bringing Disability Revolution and Inclusion to All

Los Angeles, Calif., March 25 – The groundbreaking Crip Camp, winner of the 2020 Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival for U.S. Documentary, premieres today on Netflix. This film, which chronicles the early days of some of the disability movement’s greatest civil rights advocates, comes at an extremely important time as people with disabilities fight for equal treatment, including that hospitals are not pushed into medical rationing during COVID-19.

Read this reflection by RespectAbility Board Member Neil Jacobson, a former Camp Jened camper, and watch the documentary today:

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Unprecedented Opportunity for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities in RespectAbility Lab

Sponsors include Cast & Crew, Comcast NBCUniversal, Final Draft, Fox Corporation, Murray/Reese Foundation, Sony Pictures Entertainment and The Walt Disney Company

Summer Lab 2019 participants smile together around a statue of Mickey Mouse at The Walt Disney animation studios

Summer Lab 2019 participants at The Walt Disney Studios. Credit: Jeff Maynard

Los Angeles, California, March 12 – 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 the second annual innovative Lab series for emerging entertainment talent, as well as a track for mid-level career professionals. This 5-week, 10-session summer Lab is for 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.

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Changing Media Perceptions of Disability, One Film at a Time

Los Angeles, California, March 5 – “I don’t look like people in Hollywood. I’m small. I have a disability. I wasn’t sure if I could have a career.”

Writer-director Ashley Eakin is breaking barriers. Once ashamed of her physical disability, Eakin is now proud to be an advocate and filmmaker in this community.

Ashley Eakin smiling on the set of a film shoot in a child's bedroom“My journey into accepting this part of my identity has been a very long one. For over 30 years, I was an unknowing ableist because I was so ashamed of my disability. I was consistently hiding my bone disease, until one day I realized I had my own unconscious bias. Unfortunately, a lot of society does see disability in a negative context, which had influenced the way I felt about myself all those years. I think once I was able to confront that bias, and understand the history and type of culture I was born into, I started to accept that maybe it’s not my fault I feel this way. This was a big catalyst for my mission on wanting to change the way the world sees us.“ [continue reading…]

Increased Representation at the Academy Awards Makes History

Zack Gottsagen First Actor with Down syndrome to Present an Award While Tobias Forrest and Victoria Canal Broke Additional Barriers in Performance

Zack Gottsagen presenting with Shia LeBeouf on stage at the 2020 Academy Awards with captions on screenLos Angeles, Feb. 13 – When actor Zack Gottsagen presented an award alongside The Peanut Butter Falcon co-star Shia LeBeouf Sunday evening, he made history as the Academy Awards’ first presenter with Down syndrome. The Peanut Butter Falcon provides cultural relevance on issues important to the disability community such as independence while creating wide-reaching impact. The film has grossed more than $20 million and holds an approval rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes – showing that casting authentically can lead a studio to financial and critical success.

Neither Gottsagen nor the film were nominated for an Oscar, however, which Emily Kranking raised in an article about the lack of disability being included in conversations about diversity at the Oscars. In 1993, Educating Peter, a film that follows third-grade student Peter Gwazdauskas, who lives with Down syndrome, won the Oscar for best documentary short. [continue reading…]

Neurodiverse Actress Kayla Cromer Breaking Barriers in Authentic Representation

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay premieres on Freeform on Thursday, January 16

Los Angeles, Jan. 16 – Newcomer Kayla Cromer is breaking barriers in the entertainment industry as one of the first people on the spectrum to play a character on the spectrum in a lead role. A neurodiverse actress and activist, Cromer stars as Matilda, a high school senior who is driven to succeed and is on the autism spectrum, in Freeform’s new comedy series, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.

Before Cromer started to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, her original goal was to attend the FBI Academy and become a criminal profiler – a passion of hers since her pre-teens. After being invited to model in a San Francisco photoshoot and one of the photos went viral, her modeling career took off. Cromer has appeared on magazine covers and editorials nationwide, which led to getting represented in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Now she is focusing on her acting career, with role models like Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom, who both have dyslexia. [continue reading…]

Netflix’s Newest Series Takes Disability Inclusion to a New Level

The Healing Powers of Dude Premieres on Netflix, Jan. 13, 2020

three pre-teens, one girl in a wheelchair, and two boys standing, one holding a dog

Amara (Sophie Kim), Noah (Jace Chapman) and Simon (Mauricio Lara)

Los Angeles, Jan. 13 – With one-in-five people having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 3.1 percent on screen and even less in children’s television (less than one percent) – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves in media today. A new show premiering today is bucking that trend. The Healing Powers of Dude, a family comedy about Noah (Jace Chapman), a middle schooler with social anxiety disorder, premieres on Netflix.

Its creators have lofty but achievable goals – to give kids who have anxiety a vehicle to tell their parents how they feel and to “overcome the stigma of talking about mental illness.”

“The more families and friends can talk about this issue, the better the chance people can get the help they need,” creators Erica Spates and Sam Littenberg-Weisberg told RespectAbility.

Spates and Littenberg-Weisberg created  The Healing Powers of Dude based off of true events in Sam’s family, allowing viewers to have the unique opportunity to experience what life is like for Noah as he goes through his daily activities. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety is classified as the most common health disorder in the U.S. Although general anxiety is classified as normal, anxiety disorders are more difficult to cope with. Eighteen percent of adults and eight percent of children in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder.

In addition to the character of Noah, his best friend Amara uses a wheelchair. The character of Amara is “fearless to help push Noah outside his comfort zone,” said Spates and Littenberg-Weisberg. “There are disabilities you can see, like someone in a wheelchair, and those you might never know about, like anxiety. We decided this could be a great opportunity to show kids and families the struggles people face on both sides, as well as challenge some of the prejudices and misconceptions people have.”

Ninety-five percent of characters with disabilities are played by actors without those disabilities. Amara, however, is played by Sophie Kim, an eleven-year-old with muscular dystrophy who has used a wheelchair since she was four years old. The production team committed early on to finding a young actress who uses a wheelchair, holding a nationwide search to find Sophie, and then adapting the role to her real-life experiences. “Representation is very important to us, as well as to Netflix,” said Spates and Littenberg-Weisberg. “We understand the power of seeing yourself represented in media and that the more you see it, the more it can become commonplace… [Casting Sophie] was one of the best decisions we made making this show. There was never a moment where Sophie didn’t show up to set ready to slay her scene. Nothing about her disability ever hindered production in any way.”

The show had a team of consultants. RespectAbility worked closely with the show on the character of Amara. “Working with RespectAbility has been an incredibly eye-opening experience,” said Spates and Littenberg-Weisberg. “Not only did they give us helpful notes on scripts to make sure we were representing Amara accurately, the people at RespectAbility were kind enough to share their own experiences and anecdotes to include in our scripts.” [continue reading…]

Golden Globes Awards Disability-Inclusive Content “Ramy”, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “Missing Link”

Ramy Youssef on stage at the 77th Annual Golden Globes Award speaking with his award for Best Actor in his handLos Angeles, Jan. 9 – During Sunday’s Golden Globes awards show, both host Ricky Gervais as well as various award winners pointed out the lack of racial and gender diversity among the nominees. While these are very important conversations, no major outlet has examined disability representation on screen – or behind the camera – of the Golden Globes winners. With one-in-four adults having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 3 percent on screen – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves in media today.

Ramy Youssef, winner of Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy, is important. His show, Hulu’s Ramy, breaks many diversity barriers – featuring both an Arab Muslim family as well as Steve Way, his real-life best friend who has muscular dystrophy.

“It’s very, very hard for people like me to be on TV,” Way said in an interview with Vulture. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone who looked like me on TV or in a movie? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten in front of a casting director and they just cut me off before I even do my lines. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve auditioned for a disabled person’s role and I was the only disabled actor, and I still didn’t get it.”

In addition, two winners of Best Motion Picture, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Missing Link, both include people with disabilities – as writers and voice actors. [continue reading…]

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