Lauren Appelbaum

@lauren-appelbaum | contributor
Lauren is the Vice President, Communications, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She’s also the proud mommy of a five-year-old, navigating life as a mom with a disability. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

'Mickey Mouse Funhouse' Furthers Inclusion With New Deaf Character

Fans of Mickey Mouse who use ASL to communicate will be seeing themselves represented by a new character, Fig, a gnome friend who is deaf. Fig made his debut in Disney Junior’s “Mickey Mouse Funhouse” earlier this month. A drummer and music enthusiast, Fig and his sister Olive help Minnie and Daisy understand how he communicates. “The Music of the Seasons” will re-air throughout the month of May and beyond and Fig will appear in additional upcoming episodes alongside Mickey and his friends. RespectAbility Vice Chair Delbert Whetter and his brother Jevon Whetter, who are both deaf, consulted on the development of this character. “Jevon and I feel so privileged and honored to connect young deaf and hard of hearing children with such iconic characters as Mickey and Minnie using ASL, a language that is visually accessible to them,” said Delbert Whetter, who has more than 20 years of experience in producing animated feature films. Kate Moran, who wrote the episode, has close family members who are deaf and strives to bring more inclusion to the deaf community with her work. “We need to see everyone in children’s media,” Moran told Romper. “Expanding the represented world means that when a child meets a child who is deaf, for example, they will have some understanding of deafness and what that means, and be able to communicate and play and become friends.” Moran spoke about working with Whetter in an interview with The Laughing Place. “My focus was to make sure that I got the story right,” she said. “We worked with really amazing consultants from RespectAbility who made sure that not only was the story told as correctly as possible, but also that, that translated visually too.” In addition to ensuring the accuracy of Fig’s portrayal, the Whetter brothers helped ensure that the character of Fig is not defined by his deafness. “Our familiarity with the animation production workflow, and how animators work, was very useful in helping to ensure that the ASL dialogue performed in this show is optimized for both dramatic impact and production efficiency,” Whetter said. The Whetter brothers have consulted on a number of animated children’s series, including DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar: A Little Wild” and Disney’s “Big City Greens.” They are intentional in choosing ASL signs that are appropriate for young singers with a developing ASL vocabulary. “Without a doubt, there is a clear uptick of interest and enthusiasm for deaf/hard of hearing animated characters and ASL dialogue, and for other characters with other disabilities as well,” Whetter added. Geared to kids ages 2-7 and their families, “Mickey Mouse Funhouse” features Funny, an enchanted talking playhouse voiced by Harvey Guillén (“What We Do in the Shadows”), who leads the Sensational Six on magical adventures. The series demonstrates imaginative play and imparts age-appropriate social and emotional lessons about friendship, creativity, and ingenuity. Meet Fig, his sister Olive, and the rest of their gnome friends in “The Music of the Seasons,” a brand-new episode of Mickey Mouse Funhouse that premiered Friday, May 13th, at 8:30 a.m. ET on Disney Junior. This episode will be rebroadcast throughout the month of May on both Disney Junior and Disney Channel.

CODA Wins Best Picture, Makes Academy Awards History

“This is dedicated to the Deaf community, the CODA community, the disabled community. This is our moment,” Troy Kotsur said when making history after winning the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for “CODA.” Indeed, it was Kotsur’s – and the deaf and disability community’s – moment during the 94th Academy Awards, as “CODA” won all three awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture. “CODA” first made news when it sold for a record-breaking $25 million during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival to Apple TV+. Kotsur then broke several records throughout this year’s awards season, and on Sunday evening, he became the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar. He is the second deaf person to win an Oscar after Marlee Matlin (“CODA” costar) won Best Actress in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God.” “For decades, disabled filmmakers have been working to ensure disability is included in diversity conversations, and ‘CODA’s’ win will help ensure this,” said Lauren Appelbaum, Vice President of Entertainment and News Media at RespectAbility. “It is important, however, to ensure that the narrative of future films is good. We have to be included in an authentic way, ensuring disabled individuals are leading the way. And we can achieve this by truly hiring people with disabilities behind the camera in an inclusive way to tell diverse, complex stories of the disability experience.” “CODA’s” nominations and wins also enabled a wider audience to see ASL being incorporated throughout the Oscars ceremony. Early on, co-host Amy Schumer gave “CODA” its first shout-out, signing “I love ‘CODA.’ It’s my favorite movie.” When last year’s supporting actress winner Yuh-Jung Youn announced this year’s supporting actor winner, she first signed congratulations before announcing Kotsur’s name verbally. She then stayed onstage to hold the award so Kotsur’s hands would be free to sign. Audience members waved their hands, signing applause, instead of the traditional clapping of hands. Siân Héder took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, bringing Heather Rossie on stage with her to interpret her acceptance speech, ensuring deaf folks in the audience could understand her. Heder showed that having an interpreter on stage for all acceptance speeches in the future could easily become normalized. “CODA” was announced as Best Picture by Liza Minnelli, who used a wheelchair to present, showing a wider range of disability representation. Minnelli presented Best Picture alongside Lady Gaga. During the team’s acceptance speech, a team of interpreters ensured that both the cast and audience members were aware of everything being spoken. Throughout the ceremony, viewers both in-house and at home had the option of watching an additional broadcast featuring certified ASL interpreters. Viewers at home could watch via a free YouTube link, while viewers in the audience were given tablets to utilize. In addition to featuring several deaf cast members, including Kotsur and Matlin, “CODA’s” win made history in several other ways. “CODA” was the first film distributed by a streaming service to win Best Picture, the first Sundance Film Festival premiere to win Best Picture, and the first film since 1932’s “Grand Hotel” to prevail in the category without nominations for directing and editing. “I felt that American Sign Language and the talents of the deaf community were truly acknowledged tonight on so many levels – the official ASL livestream, Amy Schumer’s use of ASL in her opening and closing remarks, Yuh-Jung Youn’s signing of ‘congratulations’ as she announced Troy Kotsur’s win, and Sian Heder’s bringing her interpreter, Heather Rossi, with her onstage so that the world could see her acceptance speech translated in ASL,” Deaf advocate, film executive, and RespectAbility Board Vice Chair Delbert Whetter told The Hollywood Reporter. “One of the more profound sights for me was seeing nearly everyone in the audience doing the ‘deaf applause’ on multiple occasions – witnessing industry leaders in the room fully embrace what is such a fundamental part of Deaf culture and ASL fills me with so much hope for the countless deaf and disabled filmmakers and performers who are out there waiting in the wings.” The pace of diversity of all marginalized populations has been increasing, allowing new voices to be heard. With Hollywood striving to boost diversity and inclusion, opening the inclusion umbrella for the one-in-five people living 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. However, the lack of representation – just 2.8 percent of characters on TV and 2.3 percent on film – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves in media today. “As the Academy makes gradual progress with racial and ethnic inclusion, the best picture winner is a reminder that disability is also diversity,” The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Sun wrote Sunday evening. More people with disabilities need to be visible in front of – and behind – the camera. An increase in diverse, accurate, and authentic portrayals of disabled people in television and film can significantly help to end stigmas that undermine their opportunities to receive the education, training, and employment opportunities needed to succeed.

GLAAD Report Finds Greater Need for Disability Representation on TV

A new report by GLAAD found that the number of series regular characters with disabilities counted on primetime broadcast TV decreased, down to 2.8% (22 of 775) from a record high of 3.5% last year and 3.1% the year before. The number of characters counted also fell, from 27 to 22. Since Variety VIP+ reports that Americans spent 4.6 hours a day watching video on streaming services and traditional TV in 2021, this representation is vitally important to how people see – or do not see – disabled individuals in society. “Including a disabled character does not happen by accident,” said Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s VP of Communications and Entertainment and News Media. “Inclusion of disabled people must be an intentional effort. What we see on screen influences how we act in real life. Thus, when studios make the decision to include individuals with disabilities, they are helping to remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with us.” As stated in the report, “This number falls far below the actual number of those with disabilities in the United States,” as more than 20 percent of people in the U.S. have a disability. While the numbers in this report are abysmally low, it is important to note that the GLAAD report is based on self-reporting by the networks and content providers. “While the reported numbers have gone down, it also is likely these numbers are underreported, possibly because the industry is not tracking disability internally as much as other demographics,” added Appelbaum. “Even so, the representation of disabled characters on our screens is nowhere near representative of disabled individuals in society today.” Examining the Numbers in the Report GLAAD’s 2021-2022 Where We Are on TV Report includes the only analysis of primetime scripted series regulars on broadcast networks of characters with disabilities. Largely known for tracking the number of LGBTQ+ characters on broadcast and cable networks, as well as streaming services, the Where We Are on TV Report also tracks racial, gender, and disability inclusion on television. GLAAD looked at 775 series regular characters expected to appear on scripted broadcast primetime programming broadcast on ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, and NBC. Counts are based on original scripted series premiering or which are expected to premiere a new season in primetime between June 1, 2021 and May 31, 2022, and for which casting has been announced or confirmed by networks. The report finds that NBC once again leads the broadcast networks in representing disabled characters, counting 14 regular characters (10% of the network’s series regulars) who have a disability this season. However, this is a sharp decrease from last year’s high of characters. Many of these characters are played by actors without the disabilities the character has. One authentically cast character among the 14 characters counted is Izzy Harris (played by Zyra Gorecki, an amputee) on “Le Brea,” which also has been renewed for next year. While the report includes a recurring gay character on “Ordinary Joe” who is living with HIV, the report does not include series regular John Gluck, a 13-year-old actor who plays the lead character’s son. Gluck, who is a wheelchair user, has muscular dystrophy in real life, and his character is a wheelchair user in the series. The lack of inclusion of Gluck points to the reality that studios may not have known enough to share all its disabled characters with GLAAD for inclusion in this report. The report includes four series regular disabled characters from ABC, while the CW has two. However, none of these actors have the disabilities their characters represent. While CBS and FOX each reported just one regular character with a disability, both of these characters are cast authentically: CBS’s “NCIS: Los Angeles'” Hetty Lange (played by Linda Hunt) has dwarfism and Christopher Diaz (played by Gavin McHugh) on FOX’s “9-1-1” has cerebral palsy. There is an increased representation of characters with nonvisible disabilities, including addiction, anxiety, cancer, depression, diabetes, learning disabilities, and PTSD. For example, ABC’s “The Rookie” adds another dimension to the character of Officer Tim Bradford (Eric Winter), a highly regarded police officer, when viewers learn he has a learning disability. This casual inclusion of disability helps viewers understand that this is a common disability and helps lessen the stigma around having a learning disability and seeking assistance in learning in different ways (in this case, an audiobook). Spotlight on Cable and Streaming The report also looks at LGBTQ+ characters with a disability on cable and found five (4 percent), a decrease from eight characters and 7 percent. These include two characters who are amputees (AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and Showtime’s “Yellowjackets”), but neither of these actors are amputees themselves. In addition, Sam from Freeform’s “Single Drunk Female”and Rue on HBO’s “Euphoria” both have addiction. One character on cable to highlight is Maribel from Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q,” who has muscular dystrophy. It is important to note that Maribel was authentically cast, and is played by Jillian Mercado. Also on Showtime, but not included in this report’s count, is “Dexter: New Blood,” which featured bilateral above knee amputee Katy Sullivan as Ester. Also worth noting is that one of “Dexter: New Blood’s” writers was Marc Muszynski, a writer with low vision. The report also finds five disabled LGBTQ+ characters in streaming originals, which is up from one last year. However, while the report tracks LGBTQ+ regular and recurring characters on scripted original series on Amazon, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+, and Peacock, it does not yet track those with disabilities that are not also LGBTQ+. No other report tracks this data either. According to Variety VIP+, streaming now accounts for more than half (51.5%) of all original series in the U.S., up from 12.9% in 2016. “While broadcast TV remains far behind in disability representation, there is a lot more disability-inclusive content to see on streamers, which are not yet tracked in any formal report,” said Tatiana Lee, RespectAbility’s Senior Associate for Entertainment Media. “Anecdotally speaking, streamers are more likely to cast authentically as well.” Several examples include Disney+’s “Hawkeye,” which includes a deaf character, Maya, authentically played by Deaf actress Alaqua Cox, as well as Clint Barton (Hawkeye) as a Hard of Hearing character; HBO Max’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” which features Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, who was diagnosed with ALS when she was 14 years old; and Netflix’s “YOU,” which cast Ben Mehl, who has low vision, to play blind character Dante. Increasing Disability Inclusion in Television Leads to Real-Life Results With Hollywood striving to boost diversity and inclusion, opening the inclusion umbrella for America’s largest minority – the one-in-four 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. Gail Williamson is a talent agent for Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin and Associates (KMR), leading their Diversity Department, seeking out the right roles for talented actors with disabilities. KMR’s clients include Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, as mentioned above. “While the report shows a decrease in series regular roles for characters with disabilities, I believe with more platforms and diversified content, the number of working actors with disabilities has greatly increased,” Williamson said. “From my experience, I predict the number of actors with disabilities playing series regular roles will increase in the coming seasons. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment that is not measured is the number of recurring, supporting and co-star roles that are now being cast with actors with disabilities. In the past, actors with disabilities were usually only invited into the casting office for roles when a lead character had a disability and that disability moved the story forward. Today we get calls at KMR for talent with disabilities to play smaller roles that have nothing to do with their disability. We are finally starting to see ‘full inclusion’ as it is in life. This also gives the actor with a disability the opportunity to grow in their craft as all other actors do, coming up the ranks, rather than just getting looked at for lead roles, that they are sometimes not prepared for since they haven’t had the supporting role experience. We are definitely making progress.” People with disabilities lack adequate access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. Depictions of disability should be focused on the abilities and contributions of people with disabilities, not just the disability. Additionally, even simple inclusion in crowd scenes is important. This is especially critical for the 22 million working-age Americans with disabilities, of which only one-in-three has a job. Diversity and inclusion processes that include disability are needed inside networks and studios so authentic portrayals become natural and consistent. A Lab for entertainment professionals with disabilities is aiming to do just that. Organized by the nonprofit RespectAbility, the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Labs already have helped place more than 30 alumni into jobs at studios that hosted the group, including Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and The Walt Disney Company. Others have found work in writers’ rooms for Netflix’s “Mech Cadet,” CW’s “4400,” and Showtime’s “Dexter,” among others, while several have had films featured at festivals such as SXSW and participated in additional career track programs including with Film Independent and Sundance Institute. “Progress toward authentic disability representation on the screen begins behind the camera,” said RespectAbility board member Delbert Whetter, a veteran film executive and producer who is deaf. “Only by including people with disabilities in the spaces where creative and business decisions are made, will we begin to see concrete results on screen. We’ve noticed a perceptible uptick of studio interest and enthusiasm for disability representation, which makes it all the more essential that the right tools and authentic points of view are available to creators, writers and producers who can benefit from them.” The entire report may be downloaded from GLAAD’s website.

Sundance Film Festival Shines the Spotlight on Disability Authenticity

With one-in-five people having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 2.3 percent of characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and 8 percent in family films – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves reflected in media. The 2022 Sundance Film Festival (January 20 – 30) will provide an opportunity for audiences with various disabilities to see themselves represented – all from the comfort of their homes through the virtual festival site. This year, several films feature disability in the plot, including “892,” “75,000,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “Chilly and Milly,” “I Didn’t See You There,” and “Sharp Stick,” among others. Ensuring an Accessible Festival The 2022 Sundance Film Festival being virtual this year also brings a desire to be accessible to all. According to Sundance, all films will be available with closed captioning on every English language feature film and short or subtitles on non-English films, which allows viewers who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to view films. In addition, the New Frontier Spaceship includes closed captioning and text chat features. All premiere screening Q&A’s, along with most of the Beyond Film program of panels and events, will include ASL interpretation. In addition, 11 feature-length films and two shorts include audio description (AD) for blind and low-vision viewers. Most importantly, the programmers have said they will conduct ongoing accessibility audits of all Sundance-hosted online venues and events throughout the festival. In addition, the festival has provided a way for anyone to request an accommodation or offer feedback. To offer feedback, please contact the accessibility team at accessibility@sundance.org or the accessibility hotline, 435-776-7790. Below please find a guide to several of the films featuring disability in the plot or talent with disabilities. Feature (U.S. Dramatic Competition): “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Director and Screenwriter: Cooper Raiff) – Premieres January 23, 1:45 p.m. PT From writer-director and actor Cooper Raiff comes the story of a New Jersey party starter, Andrew, working the Bar Mitzvah circuit after college who meets his match in a suburban mother Domino (Dakota Johnson), then begins sitting for her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), bringing him closer to their family. Newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, who is autistic herself, plays Lola. RespectAbility team members provided consulting services on Burghardt’s role in this film. Feature (U.S. Documentary Competition): “I Didn’t See You There” (Director: Reid Davenport) – Premieres January 24, 10:45 a.m. PT Spurred by the spectacle of a circus tent that goes up outside his Oakland apartment, a disabled filmmaker launches into an unflinching meditation on freakdom, (in)visibility, and the pursuit of individual agency. Feature (Premieres): “Sharp Stick” (Director and Screenwriter: Lena Dunham) – Premieres January 22, 5:30 p.m. PT Sensitive and naive 26-year-old Sarah Jo lives in a Los Angeles apartment complex with her influencer sister and her disillusioned mother. She is also a wonderful caregiver to Zach, a child with an intellectual disability. Eager to lose her virginity, Sarah Jo embarks on an exhilarating affair with Zach’s father, Josh. In the wake of the doomed relationship, Sarah Jo grapples with heartbreak by dedicating herself to unlocking every aspect of the sexual experience that she feels she’s missed out on for so long. Feature (U.S. Dramatic Competition): “892” (Director and Screenwriter: Abi Damaris Corbin) – Premieres January 21, 10:30 a.m. PT When Brian Brown-Easley’s disability check fails to materialize from Veterans Affairs, he finds himself on the brink of homelessness and breaking his daughter’s heart. With no other options, he walks into a Wells Fargo Bank and says, “I’ve got a bomb.” As police, media, and family members descend on the bank and Brian, it becomes clear he’s not after money — he wants to tell his story and have what is rightfully his, even if it costs him his life. Feature (U.S. Dramatic Competition): “Dual” (Director and Screenwriter: Riley Stearns) – Premieres January 22, 5:00 p.m. PT After receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah commissions a clone of herself to ease the loss for her friends and family. When she makes a miraculous recovery, her attempt to have her clone decommissioned fails, and leads to a court-mandated duel to the death. Feature (Premieres): “Living” (Director: Oliver Hermanus) – Premieres January 21, 11:00 am PT In 1952 London, veteran civil servant Williams has become a small cog in the bureaucracy of rebuilding England post-WWII. As endless paperwork piles up on his desk, he learns he has a fatal illness. Thus begins his quest to find some meaning in his life before it slips away. Documentary Short: “75,000” (Director and Screenwriter: Moïse Togo) – Available On-Demand with a pass throughout the entire festival Highlighting the biological aspect of albinism, 75,000 focuses on the genetic and hereditary abnormality that affects not only pigmentation but the physical and moral conditions of people living with albinism. Documentary Short: “Chilly and Milly” (Director: William David Caballero) – Available On-Demand with a pass throughout the entire festival Exploring the director’s father’s chronic health problems, as a diabetic with kidney failure, and his mother’s role as his eternal caretaker, Chilly and Milly is a combination of 3D-modeled/composited characters, with cinéma vérité scenes from an autobiographical documentary shot over 13 years ago. Midnight Short: “Appendage” (Director and Screenwriter: Anna Zlokovic) – Available On-Demand with a pass throughout the entire festival A young fashion designer must make the best of it when her anxiety and self-doubt physically manifest into something horrific. Talent With Disabilities When successful actors and producers disclose a nonvisible disability, such as a learning disability or mental health condition, they help normalize these disabilities in both the entertainment world and for the general public who consume their films and television shows. In some cases, actors with disabilities appear in films that do not necessarily have disability in the plot. In several of these instances, actors with disabilities are playing roles that have nothing to do with their disability. “After Yang” features an actor with insomnia and who has dealt with addiction, Colin Farrell. “Alice” features an actor who has anxiety, depression, and polycystic ovary syndrome, Keke Palmer. “AM I OK?” features an actor who had breast cancer, Tig Notaro, and an actor who had a burst intestine, Sean Hayes. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” features an autistic actress, Vanessa Burghardt. “Emily the Criminal” features Aubrey Plaza, who had a stroke when she was 20 years old that caused temporary paralysis and expressive aphasia. A couple of years later, she had a transient ischemic attack while on the set of “Parks and Recreation.” “F^¢K ‘€M R!GHT B@¢K” includes disabled actress Emily Kranking, who has cerebral palsy. “Nothing Compares” features Sinead O’Connor, who has mental health disabilities. “Sharp Stick” features a writer/director and actor with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and OCD, Lena Dunham, as well as two disabled actors, including one with Down syndrome and one with cerebral palsy. “The Worst Person in the World” features an actor with PTSD, Renate Reinsve. The plot also involves cancer and pregnancy. Additional research provided by Eric Ascher.

Why CRPS Awareness Month Is So Important

In March 2018 I was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), now classified as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), which is a form of chronic pain that usually affects an arm or a leg. With just 200,000 people in the U.S. diagnosed with CRPS in the U.S., most people have not heard of CRPS, which is classified as a “rare disease” with no cure. Therefore, the month of November is CRPS Awareness Month. Since acquiring this disability, I have had the privilege of creating pipeline programming for nearly 100 other disabled individuals. During the 2021 RespectAbility Entertainment Lab for Disabled Entertainment Professionals, we were pleased to have award-winning independent film director and editor Jennifer Valdes as one of 30 Lab Fellows. Like me, Valdes is living with CRPS. “I used to feel that living life with complex regional pain syndrome wasn’t a life worth living,” she said. “I devalued myself as a human. I felt ashamed of my disability. Disclosing it felt like I was revealing a big secret. I felt isolated and alone. Living with a disability is not the life I planned for, but it’s the only one that I have.” “Learning acceptance has given me strength and pride in my identity,” Valdes continued. “I’m walking out of the fire – stronger, more resilient, and wearing a suit of armor. I am staring down the gates to tomorrow. I am standing in the sun with a smile on my face.  Flooding bright light into a dark empty room. Seeing myself – new and improved. I’m wonderful, I’m capable and I’m going to be all right.” In an online RSDSA/Johns Hopkins School of Medicine poll, individuals with CRPS reported that the syndrome frequently interfered with holding a job (62%, disability rate), sleep (96%), mobility (86%), and self-care (57%). Earlier this month, Valdes was hired as a part-time Origination Technician at AMC Networks in their technology and broadcasting department. She will be monitoring broadcasts and working with live sportscasts via satellite. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without RespectAbility,” Valdes said. “You have given me the confidence in myself to succeed! Thank you for all your support!” Most recently, Valdes directed, produced, and edited a blood donation awareness short horror film, in 2019, called The Blood is the Life. The film was nominated as a semi-finalist for the prestigious 2019 Etheria Women in Film Festival, winner of the Best Editing Award at the New Jersey Horror Con, Film Festival Spring 2019 and Best Horror film at Comicpalooza Film Festival 2019, and a semi-finalist of the Women in Horror Film Festival 2020. To learn more about CRPS, please visit the Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association.

Deaf Actress Sandra Mae Frank Joins 'New Amsterdam'

Deaf actress Sandra Mae Frank has joined NBC’s “New Amsterdam” as Dr. Elizabeth Wilder. It is important to note that Frank is being added as a doctor, as many medical shows feature disabled actors as patients, but not as people who are helping others. Actors Rachel Handler, who is an amputee, and Matthew Jeffers, who is a little person, previously have been cast in roles as medical professionals. “New Amsterdam” overwhelmingly has been an example of best practices since Season 1, through casting authentically, including Lauren Ridloff and Eileen Grubba; working with consultants to ensure accurate storylines; and including conversations about diverse topics within the disability community. Frank is a trained stage and film actor. Ever since she made her mark in Deaf West’s “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, she has been doing various projects from music videos, theater productions, films, and TV. She is also the production manager of Deaf Austin Theatre, a nonprofit theater company in Austin, Texas. Most recently, Frank was featured on NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” performing a song in ASL. “Young, talented and self-assured, Dr. Wilder is one of the few deaf surgeons in New York City,” Executive Producer David Schulner said of Frank’s character. “She’s also one of the best surgeons, period. But when Max tries to lure her to New Amsterdam, she refuses to join his team. Many times, in fact. In high demand all over the country, what’s it going to take to get Dr. Wilder to practice at this fabled hospital? And who is she replacing? These are just a few of the questions that will be answered in the season premiere.” Frank is represented by Gail Williamson at KMR & Associates. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sandy for the majority of my years as a talent agent and her years as an actress,” said Williamson. “It has been pure joy working with her. Her understanding of her craft is powerful, and she makes it so easy for us to believe she is exactly who she is portraying.  I have watched her play a broad spectrum of roles, from naive schoolgirl to disenchanted wife.  She has performed in musicals, dramas, comedies, and she does it all seemingly effortlessly and with profound grace. I have been blessed to be part of her growing career!” During summer 2020, Executive Producer David Schulner and Casting Director David Caparelliotis spoke to a group of 30 disabled individuals working behind the camera who were taking part in the 2020 Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities by the disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility. Caparelliotis and Schulner joined RespectAbility’s VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media Lauren Appelbaum for a conversation on how New Amsterdam is a case study in best practice of on-camera representation. “Representation matters, and I think that simple phrase sums up a lot of what we do,” Schulner said during the conversation with the Lab participants in July 2020. “The stories we tell are stories that I haven’t seen other places… If people see themselves as important enough to have stories told about them, then you’re shining a light on people who have been in the shadows for far too long.” “No roles were defined before we saw actors for them,” Caparelliotis said, explaining that “actors would define the roles.” “Every actor has an individuality, has a place that they come from, and it just so happened that these two actors, when we called them in, clicked in the roles that we call them in for,” he added, saying that there is an “active effort on our part to forward this sort of authentic casting in this show as often as we can.” In fact, Schulner said they have a wall of headshots of actors with disabilities that they want to write roles for “because these are amazing actors who just aren’t being used enough.” 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. Schulner, who identifies as a “straight, white, neurotypical male,” was intentional about hiring a diverse writers’ room to be able to tell diverse stories such as these. After hiring Cunningham, Schulner was cognizant that it was her first time acting on camera and that “the TV and film production machine, it’s not set up to help these actors.” As such, he called the president of NBC, asking for more time on set for Cunningham to do this role. Production was given a full extra day in order for Cunningham to feel more comfortable on set, which resulted in a very effective and moving episode. Including people with disabilities on screen is not only the right thing to do but also financially valuable. According to Nielsen, the disability market is worth one trillion dollars and is the third-largest market in the U.S. “This is not social justice work – diversity equals better stories, studies have shown that diversity in the workplace equals better outcome,” Schulner said. “So, selfishly, hiring these actors, hiring these writers, hiring these directors – people with disabilities can only make our show and any show stronger, more exciting, showing different points of view. It’s essential to art and it’s essential to our society.” As the success of “New Amsterdam” shows, including people with disabilities is a win-win for everyone. Seasons 1, 2 and 3 can be viewed online or on Hulu. Season 4 premieres on Tuesday, September 21 at 10/9c.

'Born for Business' Docuseries Features Disabled Entrepreneurs

Docuseries from the Emmy Award-winning creators of “Born This Way,” Bunim/Murray Productions, as well as Shopify Studios, begins streaming on Peacock and CRAVE on August 23 A powerful docuseries that spotlights 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. Just as each entrepreneur is on the brink of success, they must navigate the complications the COVID-19 pandemic presents. Chris Triebes of The Congregation Presents is a single father with spinal muscular atrophy (type III) who is making waves in the music industry with his concert production company, two venues, and music festival ticket service. He said he was interested in appearing on “Born for Business” due to the lack of representation of people with disabilities “who have a disproportionately low voice” in media, especially when it comes to portraying stories of proactive business owners making their own opportunities and succeeding. He laments the often-repeated tropes of pitied people with disabilities who are painted as helpless or unresourceful. “I want to help normalize disability,” he said in a conversation with the disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility. “I think I can be someone who’s good for that.” The show also features: Qiana Allen of Culture’s Closet, a fashionista with lupus who opened a plus-sized boutique, which quickly became one of America’s top plus-size clothing stores; Collette Divitto of Collettey’s Cookies, a baker with Down syndrome who owns a successful cookie brand that employs people with disabilities; and Lexi Zanghi of Always Reason, a millennial entrepreneur with anxiety who runs a three-year-old fashion brand that will soon expand to its first physical location. “For too long, people with disabilities have been shut out of the workplace,” said Jonathan Murray, Bunim/Murray Productions. “With ‘Born for Business,’ we are showing how people with disabilities have long been using entrepreneurship to create an economic livelihood for themselves.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are self-employed at a rate nearly twice that of their nondisabled peers. That is because people with disabilities, by definition, often need to find new and less traditional paths to success. In fact, as of the 2019 American Community Survey, approximately 700,000 workers with disabilities were self-employed, enjoying the flexibility and opportunities that entrepreneurship provides. That leads to determination and innovation – key features of “Born for Business” – and what viewers need as society enters unprecedented times. Approximately 70 percent of people with disabilities want to work and thousands could become entrepreneurs if they can develop their skills and access capital. “Born for Business,” which features talented and diverse entrepreneurs with disabilities, creates a paradigm shift for people with disabilities because it is authentic and shows what people with disabilities can achieve. At the same time, it does not sugar coat it. It shows stories of resilience and innovation that will have universal appeal as they are perfectly timed for a moment when people are struggling to get past the challenges of this time. “We’re creating a world where entrepreneurship is accessible for everyone,” said Harley Finkelstein, President, Shopify. “We are elevating these untold stories of entrepreneurship to show the power of entrepreneurship to make dreams a reality.” “Born for Business” is produced by Shopify Studios and Bunim/Murray Productions, the Emmy Award-winning creators of “Born This Way.” Tobi Lütke, Pam Silverstein, Gil Goldschein, Jonathan Murray, Julie Pizzi, Erica Ross, Jonathan Stern, and Laura Korkoian serve as executive producers and Jacob Lane and Millee Taggart-Ratcliffe serve as co-executive producers. All 10 episodes of “Born for Business” will stream on Peacock (USA) and CRAVE (Canada) starting August 23, 2021.

Bentonville Film Festival Features Disabled Filmmakers and Actors

The Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) took to the screens – both live in Arkansas and virtual on computers and TV sets throughout the country – for its seventh year. Chaired by Academy Award winner Geena Davis, BFF champions women and diverse voices. According to festival programmers, out of all films selected for this year’s program, 8 percent of the directors identify as having a disability, as well as 4 percent of the writers and 4 percent of the leads. Below please find a guide to several of the films featuring disability in the plot or talent with disabilities. “CODA” The opening spotlight film, “CODA,” is about a hearing teenage girl who is a child of Deaf adults. Featuring Deaf individuals both in front of and behind the camera, this feature is available to an in-person only audience. For folks who did not catch “CODA” at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered, this award-winning film will be available on Apple TV Plus on August 13. Read Vanni Le’s review of “CODA” during 2021 Sundance Film Festival (February 2021). “If there were any lingering doubts as to whether authenticity sells, they were put to rest with the stunning recording-breaking acquisition of the film by Apple at the Sundance Film Festival,” said Delbert Whetter, a RespectAbility board member who is a Deaf film executive. “CODA” also swept awards at Sundance, winning awards for U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic, and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast. “Feeling Through” The film, which stars a Deaf and Blind actor, is available to a virtual audience. “Connecting the Dots,” which is a documentary following the journey of making “Feeling Through” and the search for the DeafBlind man who inspired it, also is available. Read Roque Renteria’s review of “Feeling Through” (February 2021). “Walking Through Peanut Butter” A stubborn, overachieving new college grad dives headfirst into the comedy world of the city that never sleeps — aka, the perfect place to adapt to her newly diagnosed narcolepsy. “I’ve just taken the route of processing all of this through humor, while also having the responsibility to the narcolepsy community to make sure that it is portrayed responsibly,” Marr said. Airing as part of Competition Shorts Block 2, the film’s writer and lead actress Anna Marr lives with narcolepsy herself. Read Lesley Hennen’s review of “Walking Through Peanut Butter” (August 2021). “Selahy (My Weapon)” A young, Deaf Arab girl, born in the ravages of a war zone, whose only weapons are her hearing aids and an old video camera. “Being hard of hearing, I felt that it is important for me to show the perspective of all the innocent children who are suffering from the war. When I came out of the war, I was mad. There were no stories to tell about Yemen and the war zones, especially people with disabilities,” said Zabara, who was evacuated from the crisis in Yemen in 2015. Airing as part of Competition Shorts Block 2, the film’s director/writer Alaa Zabara is hard of hearing. In addition, lead actress Malak Nassar is a Deaf actress. Read Lauren Appelbaum’s review of “Selahy” (August 2021). “Tell Me About Orange” When his best girl friend expresses her romantic feelings, a Blind teenage boy struggles to express his. He realizes that sometimes love really is blind. Airing as part of the LGBTQIA+ Shorts Showcase, this film’s cinematographer, Nasreen Alkhateeb, is disabled. “Crutch” Two decades of exclusive access, plus a lifetime of archival footage, depict Bill Shannon from his early years to his rise as an award-winning dancer and cutting-edge performance artist whose work finds an outlet at prestigious venues worldwide. “Crutch” documents Bill’s extraordinary journey: the history of his medical odyssey and his struggles with chronic pain, the evolution of his crutch dancing and skating, his rise to become a world-renowned performance artist, and his transformation from an angry skate punk to an international hero. Taking part in the 2021 competition for documentary features, this film’s director as well as lead both have a disability, per BFF festival programmers. “Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance” A cinematic exploration and celebration of jazz dance told through movement and music to keep the beautiful art form alive. Taking part in the 2021 competition for documentary features, this film’s director and writer both identify as having a disability, per BFF festival programmers. Ensuring Authentic Disability Storytelling With one-in-four people having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 2.3 percent of characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and 8 percent in family films – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves reflected in media. Of these disabled filmmakers with projects airing during BFF, two individuals are current participants of the RespectAbility Entertainment Lab for entertainment professionals with disabilities. As part of a cohort of 30 filmmakers, Marr (“Walking Through Peanut Butter”) and Zabara (“Selahy”) are exploring ways they can continue to tell disability-inclusive stories of meaning. In addition, Alkhateeb (“Tell Me About Orange”) is an alumna of the 2019 Lab and current Senior Production Advisor for the program.

New Film 'Selahy' Tells the Story of a Deaf Girl in War-Torn Yemen

Narrative Film Selected for Competition Shorts of the Bentonville Film Festival An independent hard-of-hearing Yemeni-American director and cinematographer, Alaa Zabara recognizes the power of media to “change the hearts and minds of an audience, highlight the stories that need to be told, and to amplify the voices of the voiceless.” Her newest film, “Selahy ‘My Weapon,’” is an official selection of the Bentonville Film Festival in Bentonville, Arkansas where it will screen during the first week of August. It will compete within the festival’s Competition Shorts program. In 2015, Zabara and her family were evacuated from the crisis in Yemen, an event that has shaped her life and her storytelling goals as a filmmaker. To Zabara, it is important that audiences relate to her not as a filmmaker but as a human, “filling the distance that comes between each of us.” “Selahy” does just this. A 14-minute narrative film that takes place in war-torn Yemen, “Selahy” follows a young Deaf girl, Saleemah (Malak Nassar, a Deaf actress), who has one major love in this world: her camera, which her brother Aqeel (Mohammad Nizar) gave her. Aqeel works as a news reporter and is unable to take her out to film because he is preoccupied covering the war. Frustrated, Saleemah wanders out of the house during an impending air strike. While filming some children playing, she loses her hearing aid. “Being hard of hearing, I felt that it is important for me to show the perspective of all the innocent children who are suffering from the war. When I came out of the war, I was mad. There were no stories to tell about Yemen and the war zones, especially people with disabilities,” Zabara said. “This film is a universal story that can relate to any country who has experienced the ravages of war, through the perspective and lens of a girl who is hard of hearing.” “I would turn off my hearing aids to not hear the bombs,” she recalled. “How would that be for people who actually lived in the war zone? Those types of stories are not being told in the media.” Currently, Zabara is participating in the RespectAbility Entertainment Lab for entertainment professionals with disabilities. As part of a cohort of 30 filmmakers, Zabara is exploring ways she can continue to tell disability-inclusive stories of meaning. This short film was created in 2020 as a student project while Zabara studied at George Mason University. All of the content was filmed in Jordan before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The actors speak in both Arabic and Arabic Sign Language. Like many projects in 2020, the team edited the film during the pandemic, switching to virtual editing sessions. English subtitles are available for audience members who need them. Per Bentonville Film Festival programmers, 8 percent of the films’ directors identify as having a disability, as well as 4 percent of the writers and 4 percent of the leads. These statistics include Zabara as both a disabled director and writer as well as Nassar, who is a Deaf actress.

'The Healing Powers of Dude' Receives Emmy Nominations

Netflix’s “The Healing Powers of Dude,” which took disability inclusion to a new level when it premiered in January 2020, has received several Daytime Emmy nominations. Jace Chapman, who plays Noah, a boy with social anxiety in middle school, has been nominated for Outstanding Principal Performance in a Children’s Program. In addition, the team has been nominated for: Outstanding Directing Team for a Preschool, Children’s or Family Viewing Program Outstanding Casting for a Live Action Children’s Program Outstanding Special Effects Costumes, Makeup and Hairstyling The casting nomination is important as this program actively cast authentically for the role of Amara, who plays Noah’s best friend and is portrayed by Sophie Jaewon Kim, a 14-year-old actress who represents a new generation of disabled actors who are indelibly transforming the entertainment industry. Kim is doing more than just wowing audiences with her acting breakthrough — she is leading the way for both Asian American and disabled performers everywhere. Kim, who has muscular dystrophy, has used a wheelchair since she was 4 years old. The production team committed early on to casting a young actress who uses a wheelchair, holding a nationwide search to find her, and then adapting the role to her real-life experiences. “Representation is very important to us, as well as to Netflix,” said Erica Spates and Sam Littenberg-Weisberg, the creators of this series. “We understand the power of seeing yourself represented in media and that the more you see it, the more it can become commonplace… [Casting Sophie] was one of the best decisions we made making this show. There was never a moment where Sophie didn’t show up to set ready to slay her scene. Nothing about her disability ever hindered production in any way.” “When we set off to create the perfect friends for Noah, we knew one of them had to be fearless to help push Noah outside his comfort zone,” they added. “We then thought about how there are disabilities you can see, like someone in a wheelchair, and those you might never know about, like anxiety. We decided this could be a great opportunity to challenge some of the prejudices and misconceptions people have.” The show had a team of consultants. RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum, Tatiana Lee and Ariella Barker worked closely with the show on the character of Amara. “Working with RespectAbility has been an incredibly eye-opening experience,” said Spates and Littenberg-Weisberg. “Not only did they give us helpful notes on scripts to make sure we were representing Amara accurately, but the people at RespectAbility were also kind enough to share their own experiences and anecdotes to include in our scripts.” “In one of our episodes, Amara volunteers to go distract Noah’s neighbor,” they continued. “Upon reading the script, RespectAbility pointed out that this could be a good ‘teaching moment’ since not every house would be accessible for wheelchair users. So, we made a point to have Amara react to the steps leading up to the door and how Simon — after a failed attempt to lift her wheelchair — has to ring the doorbell for her.” With one-in-four people having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – less than one percent in children’s television – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves in media today. “The Healing Powers of Dude” is playing an important role in changing this statistic. The Daytime Emmy Awards Children’s Programming and Animation ceremony will be presented in a stand-alone show streaming on the Emmy® OTT platform on Saturday, July 17, 2021 at 8:00 p.m. ET.