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Press Releases

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…]

Ensuring Disability Advocacy is a Civil Rights Issue with Neil Romano

Washington, D.C., May 22 – “For every dollar spent, 10 cents should be put towards employing people with disabilities,” National Council on Disability Chairman Neil Romano advised RespectAbility’s National Leadership Fellows about disability inclusion.

This advice came from Romano’s many years as an advocate for people with disabilities, ranging from starting his own public relations firm, Romano & Associates (1988), being a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities (2006-2008), and serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor of the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP, 2008-2009). Romano’s passion stems from being an individual with a disability himself. Romano is dyslexic and most recently has been diagnosed with cancer. [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…]

The Village Showcases Physical and Mental Health Disabilities

Watch The Village on NBC, Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. ET.

View Resources for Veterans with Disabilities

New York, NY, May 14 – NBC’s new breakout show The Village explores relationships between family members and friends who become family in separate but interconnected stories. The ensemble drama also does not shy away from tackling important social issues, including immigration, teenage pregnancy and veterans returning from war with both physical and mental disabilities.

A major storyline focuses on Nick Porter (Warren Christie), a former 9/11 firefighter and Army veteran who returned home with PTSD and an amputated leg. One common criticism regarding the representation of veterans in television and film is the portrayal often is of broken veterans. Viewers will quickly learn that while Nick has several issues to work through, he certainly is not broken. In addition, too many characters with disabilities are portrayed through the pity framework; The Village does not fall into that trap and showcases what Nick can do. [continue reading…]

RespectAbility Submits Public Comments on LA City Workforce Development Board’s 2020 Plan

Los Angeles skyscrapers and skyLos Angeles, CA, May 7 – RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities, submitted the following public comments last week to the City of Los Angeles Workforce Development Board. The Board is in the process of finalizing their new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Year 20/2019-2020 Annual Plan. This plan will guide how the City of Los Angeles invests critical federal resources, builds new collaborations and works to empower people with barriers to employment in the year ahead.

RespectAbility’s public comments, which were jointly written by the organization’s D.C. and L.A. based staff, focused on several critical issues. First, the comments outline key data points about the size and scope of the disability community in Los Angeles. Second, the comments outlined in extensive detail about critical best practices and proven models of empowering job seekers with disabilities to successfully enter the workforce. Third, the comments cover a range of other issues including adopting disability best practices into existing programs to support the reentry population, expanding entrepreneurship opportunities, and supporting the local community through parent engagement as well as community resource fairs. Lastly, the public comments go into detail about how to leverage the incredible power of media and Hollywood to empower people with disabilities by fighting stigmas.

The working draft of the City of Los Angeles Workforce Development Board’s 2020 plan can be found on their website here. Read RespectAbility’s comments in full below. [continue reading…]

The Employables Shines a Spotlight on the Amazing Skills of People with Disabilities

People with disabilities want to work, they have skills that they can bring to the table, and if given the chance at a position that fits their skills, they can excel. On A&E’s groundbreaking new series The Employables, premiering on May 15th, viewers will see these three facts come to life.

Each episode of The Employables will feature two people with disabilities who are trying to find jobs. The first episode features Jeff, an autistic man with a stutter, and James, a man with Tourettes. Their families are supportive of them, but they both want to be more independent. They have valuable skills but they just haven’t gotten the right opportunity.

One of the most important things that the show highlights is that both men have abilities that make them stand out from the crowd. Jeff and James meet with job coaches in the episode, and take comprehension tests with them. It turns out that Jeff would score better on a test on language comprehension than 91 out of 100 people. And according to his coach, James’ verbal comprehension is “off the charts.” Jeff and James are both given the advice to disclose their disabilities, because with the right accommodations, they could both be major assets to an employer.

The Employables showcases some of the challenges that people with disabilities face in trying to find jobs and be independent,” said Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s VP of Communications. “Highly skilled candidates who could be major assets to the right employer are not being given a chance.” [continue reading…]

Ali Stroker becomes the First Tony-Nominated Performer Who Uses a Wheelchair

Ali Stroker singing into a microphone on stage for Oklahoma!New York City, May 3, 2019 – This year’s nominations for the Tony Awards – a major award ceremony honoring Broadway shows and performers – broke new ground for the disability community when Ali Stroker became the first performer with a wheelchair to be nominated for a Tony Award. She is nominated for Best Featured Actress in a musical for her sexy take on Ado Annie in the groundbreaking revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! 

Stroker also has been nominated for the same category in the Drama Desk and Outer Circle Critic awards. She shares the nomination for Drama League’s highly competitive Distinguished Performance Award with Gregg Mozgala – from the Off Broadway hit Teenage Dick – who is the first performer with cerebral palsy to be nominated.

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

As Nearly 500,000 Women and Girls with Disabilities Live in New York City, Unprecedented Empowerment Training Is Created for Latinas with Disabilities

New York City, May 1 – Nearly 500,000 women and girls with disabilities live in New York City, with a stunning 44 percent of New York women with disabilities living below the poverty line. Furthermore, in the city itself, only 24 percent of Latina women with disabilities have jobs. Hence, ensuring the inclusion of diverse women with disabilities in civic engagement, nonprofits, foundations and government sectors is vital. After all, people who have struggled with challenges and know the solutions are best able to create progress.

Women with disabilities are underrepresented significantly when it comes to civic engagement in the nonprofit, foundation and government sectors. In the name of inclusion and equity, it is imperative that women – including women with disabilities – take a place and secure a space as active participants and leaders in these civic-centered sectors: as employees, volunteers and board members.

Carol Robles-Román sitting at a table holding an iPad, smiling looking to her left

Carol Robles-Román

With this backdrop, Carol Robles-Román, Esq., Hunter College’s General Counsel and Dean of Faculty and former NYC Deputy Mayor, will address critical issues impacting Latina women with disabilities in New York City on May 18, 2019 in a first of its kind program, Empowerment Training for Latinas with Disabilities. The session is part of a monthly six-part series created by RespectAbility, a national disability advocacy organization. However, it is unprecedented in its unique focus on Latinas with disabilities. Robles-Román and additional Latina speakers will talk about disability disclosure, mental health advocacy, self-advocacy empowerment tools and opportunities for civic engagement. [continue reading…]

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