Lauren Appelbaum (she/her) is the Senior Vice President, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a diverse, disability-led nonprofit that works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities, and that advances policies and practices that empower disabled people to have a better future. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood, and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry.
Appelbaum partners 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. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with 9Story Media Group, A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, DreamWorks Animation, NBCUniversal, Netflix, Nickelodeon, ViacomCBS, The Walt Disney Company, and Warner Bros. Discovery, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative.
Appelbaum also increases hiring initiatives of people with disabilities behind the camera and enriches the pool of disabled talent in Hollywood by connecting them to those who can assist with their careers, both on the creative and business sides of the industry. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab.
Appelbaum is a sought-after expert and has been quoted by many national publications including Associated Press, Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, The New York Times, RealScreen, Reuters, USA Today, Variety, and The Washington Post. She has spoken on panels at the Association of Health Care Journalists Conference, ComNet, RealScreen Summit, Sundance Film Festival and SXSW, among others.
Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Appelbaum serves on several national and local nonprofit boards. Appelbaum currently lives in Maryland with her husband, daughter, and dog. She travels nationally, often to the Los Angeles area.
Publications & Media Appearances
- 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
- 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
- Unscripted: Summit ‘19: Inclusion Doesn’t Happen by Accident, January 2019
- 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
- Al Jazeera: Disabled People Need Not Apply, February 2016
- CNN: Autism: Can other candidates match Hillary Clinton's plan?, January 2016
- Syracuse University, M.S., Broadcast Journalism (2006)
- Columbia University, B.A., Urban Studies and Political Science (2005)
- Jewish Theological Seminary of America, B.A., Midrash (Biblical Exegesis) (2005)
- Gratz College, Certificate in Secondary School Education (2001)
- Boston University, Summer High School Program in Film and Television Production (1999)
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
Examples of Lauren’s Work
- 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 consulted 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 a conversation with RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum leading to 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: RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum and Tatiana Lee 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, RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum worked with the casting team and others 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, RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum 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.