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Spotlight Q&A with Lauren Ridloff

Los Angeles, California, July 9 – American actress and former Miss Deaf America Lauren Ridloff is known for her 2018 Tony-nominated Broadway performance as Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, and as Connie in the AMC Television series The Walking Dead. Recently she appeared on NBC’s New Amsterdam as Margot, a black, deaf LGBT patient who recently received a cochlear implant. Ridloff called the storyline “unique” in an interview with RespectAbility. She said it is “so surprising to see this play out on a television hospital drama.” Ultimately, Margot “regains” her deafness after deciding to have the cochlear implant removed.

“I was concerned about playing a person with a CI because I do not have CIs myself,” Ridloff said. “I reached out to three friends who are “Deaf” and have CIs to make sure that they felt that this portrayal was fair. One wished I wouldn’t take this role. One thought I was a great choice. And the other friend who is a fellow actor also understood the stakes of playing someone outside of my realm.”

“There are so many people who are perfectly happy with their CIs,” she added. “There are also many people who identify themselves as capital “Deaf” (meaning culturally and proudly deaf) and have gone under the knife for a CI, either out of sheer curiosity or for enhancement of what they already have. And they’ve stopped using their CIs because it did not meet their expectations. This episode just adds another layer to the whole Deaf narrative.”

In addition, this storyline in New Amsterdam showcases diverse racial, gender and sexual orientations with disabilities on television, something that is often not done.

“It is so important to showcase people with disabilities with intersectional identities because that allows viewers to see beyond disability,” Ridloff said. “People with disabilities are multilayered—we are complex breathing human beings defined by more than just what we lack.”

Read the full interview below: [continue reading…]

Dignity in Entrepreneurship and Decision Making

Richard Phillips with RespectAbility Staff and Fellows smiling in front of the RespectAbility banner

Richard Phillips with RespectAbility Staff and Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, July 3 – On June 18, Richard Phillips Jr., a RespectAbility board member with extensive experience in both the public and private sectors, spoke to the RespectAbility National Leadership Fellows about the importance of dignity in all aspects of life.

Phillips spoke candidly about his personal experience, leaving high-level work at the Department of Justice to take over his family business, Pilot Freight Services, which provides transportation and logistics solutions for some of the largest and most complex companies around the world.  His experience turning that business around involved both family and professional challenges.  He focused on respecting the dignity of Pilot’s employees, customers and vendors was a key component to that turnaround. [continue reading…]

Sexism in the Journalism Industry: Daily Beast Columnist Eleanor Clift Speaks to RespectAbility Summer Fellows

Rockville, Maryland, July 1 – Earlier this summer, Eleanor Clift, a Daily Beast columnist and member of RespectAbility’s Board of Directors, served as the first guest speaker for RespectAbility’s Summer 2019 National Leadership Fellows. The hourlong discussion focused on activism in party politics, the current U.S. political climate and Clift’s experiences growing up at a time when women were fighting for equal employment opportunities in a longstanding patriarchal society.

Clift spent the bulk of her career at Newsweek, getting her start as a secretary before breaking into reporting. She has covered every presidential campaign since 1976 and was a longtime panelist on The McLaughlin Group.

Clift highlighted the rampant discrimination against women in her 2012 cover story for Newsweek about the television show, Mad Men. Clift pointed out striking similarities between Mad Men and the real-life situations she encountered. [continue reading…]

Pride Month 2019: More Than One-Third of LGBTQ+ Adults Identify as Having a Disability

Washington, D.C., June 28 – Throughout National LGBTQ+ Pride Month (June), the LGBTQ+ community has been reflecting on the ongoing struggle to secure, protect and expand their rights. The LGBTQ+ community and the disability community intersect in significant ways. According to a study published in 2012, fully 36 percent of women in the LGBTQ+ community and 30 percent of men in the community also self-identify as persons with disabilities. Digging deeper shows that 26 percent of gay men, 40 of bisexual men disclosed having a disability as did 36 percent of lesbians and 36 percent of bisexual women.

Identifying the full scope of the LGTBQ+ community remains a significant challenge due to continuing fears about disclosure and stigmas that remains a painful fact of life in many parts of the United States. The best available estimates put the total number of LGBTQ+ Americans at around 11 million individuals. Extrapolating from there, RespectAbility estimates that there are roughly 2.3 million women with disabilities in the LGBTQ+ community. That number is joined by approximately 1.4 million men with disabilities in the community. [continue reading…]

Ryan O’Connell: Special Creator Breaks New Ground for Disability and LGBTQ+ Representation

Los Angeles, California, June 28 – According to GLAAD’s 2018-2019 Where We Are on TV Report, while the 2018-19 television season includes 18 characters with disabilities, versus 16 in 2017-18, that number still vastly underrepresents the actual number of people with disabilities, representing less than one-sixth. Furthermore, while more than one-third of LGBTQ+ adults have a disability, GLAADs report found only four LGBTQ+ characters with disabilities.

Ryan O’Connell is helping to change that. His new Netflix series Special premiered earlier this year and broke new ground for representation of LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities. For Pride Month 2019, RespectAbility asked O’Connell a few questions about his life, intersectionality, and where he hopes Special will go in the future.

Q: On Special, you compare coming out as gay to coming out as disabled. Why do you think it was easy for you to do the first and harder to do the second?

In a bizarro way, I think it’s easier to be gay than disabled. I mean, look at all the Pride stuff going on right now. All the events, all the discourse, all the corporations showing their support. Can you imagine something on that scale for disability? I can’t! There still is limited dialogue and visibility around disability and until that changes self-love for a disabled person is going to be hard. [continue reading…]

Lenny Larsen: Globetrotting Entertainment Executive Refuses To Be Defined By His Disability

Meet Lenny Larsen, an internationally recognized producer and director of entertainment and experiences ranging from theme parks and live theater to film/television and interactive technology. With undergraduate and graduate degrees from Carnegie Mellon University in theater and entertainment technology, Larsen’s unique blend of imagination, technical savvy, and steadfast leadership places him among the leading creative visionaries in the entertainment industry. He is currently the executive producer behind two upcoming television series, owns two production companies, and is a sought-after speaker at conferences across the country and around the world.

Originally from Chicago, Larsen got his start directing and designing live stage productions for theaters throughout the Midwest. His passion for creating worlds on-stage led to a broader ambition for creating worlds where an audience could completely immerse themselves. Larsen entered the themed entertainment world working as a lead artist on Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Just a few years later, he would find himself traveling the world to meet with royalty, government officials and billionaire investors to cast creative visions for projects in their early stages of conception. Shepherding those visions as they moved through the design process from imagination into reality quickly became Larsen’s forte. [continue reading…]

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…]

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