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What Viewers Learn When We See People With Disabilities Represented in Hollywood

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This is a time to celebrate the lives of those diagnosed with Down syndrome. It is a time to celebrate the acceptance and inclusion of people with special needs. In the media, whether on film, television, radio or podcast, people with Down syndrome have rarely been seen, and not usually portrayed in a positive light. These days, however, the inclusion of people with Down syndrome in the media is beginning to change for the better.

A year ago, I had the opportunity to screen the award-winning documentary film “Kelly’s Hollywood.” Brian Donovan, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, produced this film. It presents the intimate, honest and raw story of a brother’s quest to help his sister with special needs achieve her dream of becoming a Hollywood diva. Brian’s quest takes an unexpected turn when it begins to threaten his engagement with his fiancée. As Kelly begins to feel increasingly jealous of Brian’s fiancée, her health starts to fail. Brian is then forced to confront his sibling’s co-dependency issues. Brian struggles to find balance between fulfilling Kelly’s wish of performing in Hollywood and his own dream of getting married. Viewers learn that anything is possible. Anything can be.

This film has received many glowing reviews. Actress and Saturday Night Live star Molly Shannon proclaimed, “I just loved this documentary! It is so full of heart. I laughed. I cried. It was absolutely riveting.”

On April 30, 2016, I was given the chance to co-host the Chicago-area premiere of “Kelly’s Hollywood.” The intimate screening was held at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove. The event was co-sponsored by Community High School District 99, Westmont Community Unit School District 201, SEASPAR, Special Olympics Illinois, and Special Chronicles. Approximately 50 people were in attendance. Directly following the screening, filmmaker Brian Donovan hosted an informal question and answer session with the audience.

One attendee to this premiere was Katie Driscoll, the founder and president of Changing The Face of Beauty – a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that is literally changing the way people with special needs are seen in the media. Katie is partnering with advertisers and companies to host photo shoots for people with special needs. At the Chicago premiere of “Kelly’s Hollywood,” she said that at the time Brian was filming his sister Kelly, he did not have as much access to mobile devices as one would today. Brian went to great lengths to give viewers a chance to bear witness to the joy and love his sister Kelly brought to the world.

I loved the intimate look of his film. I enjoyed the fact that viewers got to see both the joyous and challenging moments in the story. As I watched this film, I felt as if I were a “fly on the wall,” experiencing Kelly’s longtime dream of becoming a Hollywood diva. When Brian and Kelly were growing up, people with Down syndrome were rarely seen on screen or stage. Brian was breaking down barriers for Kelly, but also breaking new ground in the film industry.

Today, individuals with Down syndrome are being included in mainstream media. Today, people with special needs are able to “play unified,” a term that was recently coined by Special Olympics to include people with and without intellectual differences.

The popular reality docu-series “Born This Way,” airing on the A&E network, is a perfect example of inclusion in mass media. This show follows the lives of seven young adults with Down syndrome. This past month “Born This Way” rightly earned its first Emmy award. This past week, it wrapped up season two and got picked up for a third season. Viewers are able to see the cast is made up of young adults with the same hopes, dreams and fears as those who are not diagnosed with special needs. Four of the young women — Megan, Cristina, Elena and Rachel — featured on the show are even becoming Hollywood divas in their own right.

Another recent television show that many in the disability community are talking about is “Speechless.” This is a new sitcom airing on the ABC network that tells the story of a family whose eldest son has cerebral palsy. “Speechless” is breaking ground by being one of the first television shows on a mainstream broadcast network featuring an actor with special needs in a lead role.

We as viewers need to support inclusion in the mainstream media by watching and supporting shows like “Born This Way” and “Speechless,” and films such as “Kelly’s Hollywood.”

Join me and let’s change the game for the inclusion of those with special needs in the mainstream media. Let’s make dreams come true.

This column was originally printed on Oct. 5, 2016 in the The Bugle Newspapers.
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Originally published: November 13, 2016
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