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Sponsors and Partners include Bunim/Murray Productions, Comcast NBCUniversal, The Walt Disney Company, Sundance Institute and more

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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…]

Los Angeles, California, July 11 – “We’re going to demand change,” moderator Natalie Gross, Communication Coordinator for Inclusion in Hollywood, opened the Women of Color Disability Summit sponsored by Women of Color Unite and The JTC List Wednesday evening in Hollywood.

Gross was joined by five other women of color with disabilities talking about how to ensure women of color with disabilities are included in the entertainment industry.

“Getting a job out here is all about who you know,” Tatiana Lee, Hollywood Inclusionist at RespectAbility, as well as a model and actress with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair, said. “How can I do that if I literally cannot get in the room for networking events?”

Diana Elizabeth Jordan, an actress and director with cerebral palsy, said actors with disabilities need to have access to “rights that gives us equity, not an advantage.”

“An accessible dressing room is not a privilege. An ASL interpreter is not a privilege. A ramp is not a privilege. These are rights guaranteed to us under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

However, she noted that many actors often do not ask for their rights for fear of being labelled as difficult. [continue reading…]

Images of Ali Stroker, Jonathan Murray, Nasreen Alkhateeb, Candace Cable, the capitol building, award statues, and Judith HeumannWashington, D.C., July 11 – A panel of diverse leaders with disabilities and their allies are gathering on Monday, July 22 to discuss the changing landscape of disability in media. This panel, composed of disability advocates and entertainment professionals, will be presenting between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. as part of a day-long summit sponsored by RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

Judy Heumann will discuss a year-long project she conducted as a Senior Fellow for the Ford Foundation, the “Road Map for Inclusion: Changing the Face of Disability in Media.” The report not only outlines the problems in representation but also offers a set of clear, practical recommendations for change.

Heumann also will discuss a Drunk History episode detailing her involvement and leadership with the Section 504 sit-in, paving the way for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ali Stroker, Tony Award-Winning Actress, who portrayed Heumann in the Drunk History episode, will address the audience via a video message.

Rounding out the panel are Nasreen Alkhateeb, an award-winning director whose original content illuminating unrepresented voices has broadcast internationally for more than a decade, and Candace Cable, 12-time Paralympic Medalist. Jonathan Murray, reality TV pioneer and founder/executive consultant of Bunim/Murray Productions, is moderating the panel. Murray is a multi-Emmy-winning creator of Born This WayAutism: The Musical and Deaf Out Loud. [continue reading…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

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