Promoting authentic, diverse, and inclusive portrayals in TV, Film and the News Media
Since producing the Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit in 2018, RespectAbility has become a trusted resource within the entertainment industry. RespectAbility’s Entertainment and News Media Team has conducted trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. In addition, RespectAbility team members have consulted on more than 300 TV episodes and films by partnering with studios and production companies from development all the way through production, to promotion/publicity and impact/outreach campaigns, often from the very early stages of a writers’ room, in addition to ad hoc requests.
Our goal is to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities.
RespectAbility team members have conducted trainings for and consulted on projects with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, CAA, DreamWorks Animation, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Sony Pictures Entertainment, ViacomCBS, The Walt Disney Company, and Warner Bros. Discovery, among others.
This is accomplished by RespectAbility’s five full-time programmatic Entertainment & News Media staff and a team of more than 30 trained alumni of RespectAbility’s pipeline programming who now serve as project consultants. 100% are disabled entertainment industry professionals while 70% are women or nonbinary and 52% are people of color.
In addition, RespectAbility team members serve on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. These collaborations allow us to ensure the disability lens is added to larger existing DEIA conversations.
Our Entertainment Lab aims to help develop and elevate the talent pipeline of professionals with disabilities working behind-the-scenes in television and film, while introducing them to studio executives and other decision makers who will advise Lab Fellows on various aspects of the industry and their craft, and in turn, enabling studios and production companies to learn about the talents and benefits of hiring people with disabilities.
Ensure All Stages of Your Production are Disability-Inclusive and Accessible: From Development to the Writer’s Room to Physical Production to Marketing
Contact us to Access a Database of Disabled Writers and Crew For Hire
Our entertainment media consultants partner with studios, production companies, writers’ rooms, and news organizations to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. Since 2015, RespectAbility team members have consulted on more than 300 TV episodes and a dozen films by partnering with studios and productions from development all the way through production, promotion/publicity and impact/outreach campaigns, often from the very early stages of a writers’ room, in addition to ad hoc requests.
With Hollywood striving to boost diversity and inclusion, opening the inclusion umbrella for America’s largest minority – the one-in-five Americans with a disability – 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, consumers with disabilities represent a $1 billion market segment. When you include their families, friends and associates, that total expands to more than $1 trillion. Americans with disabilities represent the third largest market behind Baby Boomers and the mature market. 1.2 billion people on earth have a disability.
However, storytellers often make glaring, yet easy to avoid, errors when covering our community. The purpose of the toolkit is to help entertainment professionals who wish to ensure they are as inclusive of people with disabilities as possible. The creation of this toolkit would not have been possible without the financial support of California Endowment.
National Disability Employment Awareness Month Entertainment Media Summit
Throughout the month of October 2021, RespectAbility showcased entertainment industry leaders and supporters of disability inclusion for advancement as well as community building. Through a combination of forward-facing panels and breakout networking rooms, participants learned about writing, directing, producing, self-advocacy and more. Join us October 12 – 14, 2022 for the 2022 NDEAM Entertainment Media Summit.
Examples of Best Practices
- SCRIPTED EPISODIC CONTENT: NBC’s New Amsterdam overwhelmingly has been an example of best practices through the hiring of actors with disabilities, working with consultants to ensure accurate storylines and including conversations about diverse topics within the disability community. An important episode in season 2 featured Gigi Cunningham, a young Black actress with Down syndrome. RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee had the honor of consulting on the episode’s script, which touched on so many hot-button topics, from abortion to conservatorship, conservative Christianity to inadequate health care in rural areas, and so much more.
- CHILDREN’S CONTENT: In April 2021, PBS KIDS added a new character to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Max, who offered an authentic representation of Autism for children and adult audiences alike. Rachel Kalban, Vice President of Research and Curriculum at 9 Story Media Group, credited RespectAbility with the team focusing on the intersection of race and disability, ultimately making Max a Black autistic child instead of a white child, noting the systemic barriers and prejudice that lead to children of color being less likely to be diagnosed than their white peers. Since the launch of this character, 9 Story Media Group has engaged RespectAbility in several additional upcoming shows.
- VIDEO GAMES: In May 2021, PlayStation launched the video game Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee served as accessibility consultants. This game not only included a central character with a prosthetic but also is an industry leader in terms of its accessibility for consumers. “The RespectAbility consultants helped us identify areas of the story where the characters’ disabilities could be perceived negatively and they suggested opportunities to show them as being resourceful, multi-faceted, and heroic,” said Insomniac Games’ Director of Experience Brian Allgeier. “It’s been amazing to see the outpouring of love for these characters, especially from the disabled community. We’re excited about continuing to create worlds that represent characters from a wide range of backgrounds, and we hope it continues to resonate with our fans.”
- FAMILY CONTENT: We consulted on Netflix’s family show The Healing Powers of Dude (premiered January 2020) on the role of Amara (Sophie Kim), a middle schooler succeeding in both her academic and theatrical career. Kim is an actress with muscular dystrophy who uses a power wheelchair, authentically portraying a character who uses a wheelchair. We became partners with the writers’ room, providing consultants with muscular dystrophy and other disabilities, sharing our own experiences and anecdotes that ended up being included in the scripts. In one episode, the lead character’s parents build a ramp so Amara can get in, becoming a good “teaching moment” for audience viewers since most houses would not be accessible for wheelchair users. We worked closely with the production team as they found accessible housing for the actress, built sets with universal design in mind and ensured the character of Sophie was fully included. We also worked with the marketing team, being fully involved from the development stage through promotion.
- UNSCRIPTED: In September 2021, Born For Business launched on Peacock. Created by our board member Jonathan Murray, members of our team worked with the crew to ensure authentic representation and accessibility for the four disabled cast members who have lupus, Down syndrome, spinal muscular atrophy, and anxiety. This powerful new docuseries shined the spotlight on the untold stories of four entrepreneurs with disabilities. Born For Business gives viewers an insider’s look at what it takes to launch and run a thriving small business. Prior, from 2015-2019, A&E’s Born This Way (Bunim-Murray Productions), an internationally syndicated TV series, chronicled the lives of seven men and women with Down syndrome who are defying society’s expectations by striking out on their own and pursuing dreams including jobs, housing, health and marriage. The widely popular show has earned 3 Emmy Awards and a Critics’ Choice Award. In addition to providing consulting advice, we also organized a Hollywood-style premiere on Capitol Hill, showing the pilot episode with members of Congress, cast members and an A&E executive speaking. We galvanized national disability organizations and created social media campaigns to motivate their members to watch and share. Most impressively, the show’s audience grew to one-million viewers in the first season, with 40 percent of those viewers being new to the A&E Network, showing that including disability is profitable.
Selected News Media and Accessibility Presentations, Speeches and Panels
- RTDNA 2021 Conference: Inclusive News with a Welcoming Lexicon and Imagery, September 2021
- ACES 2021 Conference: How to Ensure A Welcoming Lexicon and Inclusive Storytelling (virtual), April 2021
- ACES 2021 Conference: How to Ensure Accessible Websites, Social Media and Inclusive Photos (virtual), April 2021
- Arc Tank, November 2019
- How Can Leveling Up Your Transparency Practices Help Your Organization Live Up to its Purpose? at ComNet19, October 2019
- Disability Is the “D” in Diversity at ComNet18, October 2018
- Reporting About People with Disabilities, Association of Health Care Journalists, April 2018
- New England Newspaper and Press Association Conference, February 2018
Selected Entertainment Media Presentations, Speeches and Panels
- Case Study: Deaf U at RealScreen Summit, June 2022 (upcoming)
- Representation Matters: Diversity and Inclusion in Child-Directed Advertising at Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) Annual Conference (virtual), May 2022
- DE&I Webinar: Inclusive Language, Speaking and Writing about Each Other, and Why Language Matters (virtual) at NPACT, April 2022
- Putting Authenticity First at RealScreen Summit Lite (virtual), February 2022
- SXSW 2021: Filling a Trillion Dollar Gap in the Market (virtual), March 2021
- The 2021 Sundance Film Festival: The Accessibility and Inclusion Lab Conversation Series (virtual), January – February 2021
- #ADA30 Summit: Fighting Stigmas WITH Hollywood (virtual), July 2020
- Disabilities On Screen and Off, presented in partnership with Film Fatales and hosted by Film Independent, March 2020
- Inclusion in Unscripted: Vive la Difference at Realscreen Summit, January 2019
- Diversity and Inclusion in Hollywood: Launch of Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit, March 2018
Press on our Hollywood Outreach
- RealScreen: RSS Lite ’22: Panel discusses diversity and authenticity in documentary, February 2022
- Deadline: RespectAbility Opens Applications for Fourth Annual Entertainment Lab; Expands To Two Cohorts, February 2022
- Disability Scoop: TV Shows Featuring Fewer Characters With Disabilities, Report Finds, February 2022
- USA Today: ‘I hadn’t seen roles like this’: TV strives to give autism the accurate portrayal it deserves, January 2022
- The Guardian: Untrained blind student lands starring role in Netflix second world war epic, December 2021
- Deadline: New Report Reveals Disabled U.S. Audiences Feel Onscreen Portrayals Are Inaccurate & Too Simplistic, October 2021
- FOX News: Disability inclusion efforts in Hollywood range from authentic casting to opportunities behind-the-scenes, August 2021
- Variety: TV Lags Far Behind Film in Disability Representation, Nielsen/RespectAbility Study Reveals (EXCLUSIVE), July 2021
- The New York Times: Study Shows More Disability Stories Onscreen, but Few Disabled Actors, July 2021
- The Hollywood Reporter: Final Draft Partners With RespectAbility for Entertainment Lab, July 2021
- The Hollywood Reporter: RespectAbility Announces Entertainment Lab Participants, May 2021
- The Hollywood Reporter: Hollywood Grapples With Autism Portrayals Onscreen: “This Is a Responsibility You Need to Take Really Seriously” February 2021
- The Hollywood Reporter: RespectAbility Sets Accessibility and Inclusion Lab Conversation Series at Sundance, January 2021
- Variety: RespectAbility Kicks Off Sundance Programs, January 2021
- Variety: MTV Entertainment Group Debuts ‘Culture Code’ Inclusion Initiative With GLAAD, RAINN and Other Partners, November 2020
- Los Angeles Times: How entertainment professionals with disabilities are fighting for inclusion, August 2020
- The Hollywood Reporter: Disability Representation Sees Some Onscreen Gains as Inclusion Efforts Grow, August 2020
- Variety: RespectAbility Org Wraps Up Second Lab for Pros With Disabilities, July 2020
- Forbes Women: Disability Advocates Fear Losing The Fight For Inclusion In Post-Pandemic Hollywood, May 2020
- Deadline: RespectAbility Opens Submissions For Annual Summer Lab Program, March 2020
- Variety: Reality TV Producer Jonathan Murray Pledges $1.1 Million for Workers With Disabilities, March 2020
- The Washington Post: A car struck this filmmaker in a parking garage, changing how she sees her own story and the ones she wants to tell, September 2019
- CNN: How Hollywood is working to improve representation of people with disabilities, September 2019
- Disability Scoop: Disability Portrayals In Hollywood Films Plummet, September 2019
- Jewish Journal: Championing Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities, July 2019
- Larry King Now: Ableism in Hollywood, April 2019
- Unscripted: Summit ‘19: Inclusion Doesn’t Happen by Accident, January 2019
- Associated Press: Transgender Hollywood Seeks Recognition, and Not Just Roles, August 2018
- IndieWire: As Dwayne Johnson and Joaquin Phoenix Play Disabled Roles, An Overlooked Community Debates Representation, July 2018
- Variety: RespectAbility Launches ‘The Hollywood Disability Toolkit’ to Promote Inclusion, March 2018
- Tablet: A Place for the Disabled: On Stage and Screen, December 2017
- USA Today: Hollywood is Talking about Inclusion More than Ever, But Not for Disabled Actors, October 2017
- Ability Magazine: Inside a Focus Group – A Candid Look at Disability Inclusion, September 2017
Want to get involved?
Contact Lauren Appelbaum, Senior Vice President, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, at LaurenA@RespectAbility.org for more information.