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Hollywood Inclusion

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…]

Apple TV+’s Focus on Accessibility Connects New Viewers, Expanding Audience Share

Logos for Apple TV+ and See, with a photo of Jason Mamoa in character as Baba Voss

Credit: Apple

Los Angeles, Dec. 19 – As 2019 comes to an end, every major entertainment and tech company is launching a streaming service. Not to be left out, Apple recently launched its new original content service, Apple TV+. The service is notable from a disability perspective for both the content and the full user experience.

All content is subtitled and dubbed in nearly 40 languages, “including subtitles for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, or closed captions.” The real game-changer for Apple TV+ is that all series, movies and trailers are available with audio descriptions in eight languages, ensuring accessibility for blind viewers.

“We build accessibility into everything at Apple, and Apple TV+ is no different,” said Sara Herrlinger, Director, Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives at Apple Inc, in an exclusive interview with RespectAbility. “Whether it’s extensive audio descriptions and captioning, or providing accessibility features for exploring our service in different ways, we want to connect with every user and enable them to experience these incredible stories.” [continue reading…]

Finding Connection in The Parts You Lose: Framing Deafness in Visual Detail

Los Angeles, Dec. 19 – In the newly released The Parts You Lose, a young deaf boy named Wesley faces bullying at school and a father who cannot accept that his son cannot hear. He finds a father-figure in an injured fugitive (Aaron Paul) that he rescues, helping him recover in an abandoned barn. A heartfelt film with great acting and memorable scenes, The Parts You Lose’s central theme of a young boy looking for a positive male role model is relatable to all audiences.

“To me this story is universal,” Christopher Cantwell, director of the film, said. “Aside from Wesley’s deafness, he’s feeling emotionally isolated. He’s struggling to make friends. His family is under a lot of stress, which only amplifies and worsens his disconnection from a disappointed father. I think that story is something probably everyone can relate to… feeling cut off and in need of connection to others. We can empathize with the fear of growing up, and the hardening that often comes on the other side of that. The story isn’t about Wesley’s deafness, that’s merely a part of the aperture through which he sees the world.” [continue reading…]

Born This Way Impact to Remain for Years

The cast of Born This Way together in festive clothes

Credit: A&E

Los Angeles, Dec. 17 – After four seasons, the multiple-Emmy Award-winning A&E docuseries Born This Way will conclude with a holiday special on Wednesday evening. Ahead of the finale, Good Morning America will be featuring a segment on Born This Way Wednesday in the 8:00 a.m. hour.

What people view on television influences how they feel and believe, leading to how they act. And shows like Bunim/Murray Productions’ Born This Way, which follows the lives of seven diverse young adults with Down syndrome as they seek to build independent lives, launch their careers and form lasting friendships, breaks down stigmas surrounding interacting with people with disabilities.

Born this Way, whose audience quickly grew to 1 million viewers in the first season, with 40 percent of those viewers being new to the A&E Network, showed that including disability is profitable. After all, the disability market is valued by Nielsen to be more than one trillion dollars. [continue reading…]

Born This Way Star Brings Onscreen Stardom to Capitol Hill to Advocate for More Business Opportunities for Jobseekers with Disabilities

Emmy Award-Winning Docuseries to End with Series Finale Christmas Special, December 18

The cast of Born This Way, including their families, smiling together in front of Christmas trees wearing festive clothes

Credit: A&E

Washington, D.C., Dec. 5 – What people view on television influences how they feel and and believe, leading to how they act. And shows like Emmy Award-winning Born This Way, which follows the lives of seven diverse young adults with Down syndrome as they seek to build independent lives, launch their careers and form lasting friendships, are breaking down stigmas surrounding interacting with people with disabilities.

One of Born This Way’s cast members, Sean McElwee, brought his onscreen stardom to Capitol Hill to deliver a powerful message about entrepreneurship and jobseekers with disabilities. McElwee spoke about his personal “mission to show the world that people with Down syndrome can have a business and give back.” [continue reading…]

Star of Emmy Award Winning Reality Show Brings Small Business Message to Capitol Hill

Sean McElwee wearing a shirt that says We The People Means Me Too with an American flag and the Seanese logo on it, standing in front of the Capitol dome.

Sean McElwee

Washington, D.C., Dec. 3 – On Wednesday, reality television star, small business owner and disability employment advocate Sean McElwee will deliver a powerful message about entrepreneurship and jobseekers with disabilities. In remarks to be delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Business, McElwee will speak about his personal “mission to show the world that people with Down syndrome can have a business and give back.”

At the invitation of Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez, McElwee and his mother Sandra McElwee, will give testimony about the difference he has been able to make in his community since founding his own micro-enterprise two and a half years ago. Seanese is a t-shirt company with more than 130 designs on 12 different styles of shirts intended to deliver a message of disability inclusion, Down syndrome acceptance and humor.

McElwee rose to national prominence as a co-star on the Emmy Award-winning reality television show Born This Way. Over four seasons, the A&E show, created by industry legends Bunim/Murray Productions, followed the lives of seven diverse young adults with Down syndrome as they sought to build independent lives, launch their careers and forming lasting friendships. [continue reading…]

Celebrating International Day of Persons with Disabilities by Pushing for More Accurate Representation in Media

A woman holding a sign that says "Together we can bring Visibility to Disability", smilingWashington, D.C., Dec. 3 – From Capitol Hill to Hollywood to Canada, the entertainment industry is joining celebrations of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Individuals and organizations have been working with the entertainment industry to help them realize their potential in helping to influence how the public views people with disabilities. As the industry explores ways to ensure that the 20 percent of North Americans with disabilities are not excluded – and when included, done so in an authentic way – a new coalition is calling for more accurate representation of people with disabilities on North American TV.

Since the public rarely sees people with a disability featured in popular media, a group of disability-focused organizations from Canada and the United States have formed a coalition calling on the media to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. Launching on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the campaign, called Visibility for Disability, aims to change how people see disability by changing what they see in popular media. [continue reading…]

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