Friday, December 9, 2016

Micah Fowler on Booking His Speechless Role and Playing a Character With More Severe Cerebral Palsy Than Himself


Speechless brought a new household to ABC’s block of family sitcoms: the DiMeos, led by Minnie Driver as a fired-up, helicoptering mother named Maya to a special-needs child named J.J. Eighteen-year-old high-school senior Micah Fowler plays J.J., who like his character has cerebral palsy, but has a different disability level. Where J.J. is non-verbal, communicating with the use of a laser pointer and a chart of commonly used words and an alphabet, Fowler can speak given some time. I had a conversation with J.J. around the premiere of Speechless, which was picked up for a full season just a few episodes into their season. Since a conventional phone interview wouldn’t be logistically possible, we decided to email over the course of several weeks through his mother, Tammy Fowler, who wrote down his responses. Vulture talked with Fowler about juggling school with acting, the representation of disabled actors on screen, and how he found out he got the part on his 18th birthday. 

First off, I'd just love for you to tell me about yourself. What do you like to do?
I'm 18, a high-school senior, and grew up in Barnegat, New Jersey. I have cerebral palsy and use both a walker and a wheelchair. I use the wheelchair for longer distances. Unlike J.J. in Speechless, I do communicate verbally but have to work very hard at it. I am an avid movie fan and especially enjoy the Marvel and DC franchises. Oh, and I am a resident expert in all things Star Wars. I love playing video games, acting, and playing sled hockey. I also collect vintage cell phones. 
Who's your favorite superhero? My favorite superhero is Batman. I think he is my favorite because he was the first hero I was fascinated with as a child. 
How did you get cast in Speechless? What was the audition process like?I credit my love of acting to my sister Kelsey who is a veteran Broadway actress and currently a junior at Pace University in New York. We are very close, and I developed an interest in acting when I was younger through watching her many shows. My sister’s agent asked if I was interested in acting, and I eagerly jumped on board. I made my television debut on an episode of Blue's Clues when I was 9, and later appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street. When I was 15, I played the role of Barry in Jason Reitman’s movie Labor Day, with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. 
To answer your question of how I was cast in Speechless, I have to go back a year and a half when my agent was asked to have me send in a "personality tape" for an "untitled Scott Silveri project." I put together a tape of me just talking about myself and joking around. Time went by, and I never heard anything else. A year later, my agent called and said they had requested another personality tape for the same project, now titled Speechless. So I again put together a personality tape just talking about my interests and joking around. A few days later the agent said the casting director was sending six scenes over. I spent an entire Saturday putting together the tape of the six scenes. My parents verbalized all of the other characters lines (off-camera) while I reacted to all of the dialogue on-camera. My sister was at school, so my mom sent her the audition footage to upload to the agent. She texted my mom, "This is hilarious, he is totally going to book this." How crazy is that? She called it. The agent told us they loved the tape and would be in touch. About two months later, I found out I booked the role on the day of my 18th birthday, BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER! 
What a birthday! That’s incredible. What’s it like working on a television show for the first time? I know that the hours must be long because you have to shoot so many episodes.I love working on Speechless. It has been a blast and I am enjoying every minute of it. We do work really long hours, 10–14 hour days, five days a week, but we get a one-week hiatus off a month. I was not used to working full time, but to tell you the truth, it never feels like work to me, even on the really long days. I guess that's because I am doing something that I love. 
Everybody on-set is so invested in this show and loves that it is impacting so many people, so it is a great working environment. So everybody including the actors, the writing staff, the directors, the producers, and even the crew get along great, appreciate each other and are grateful to be part of such a great project. We laugh a lot while filming and in-between scenes we chat, share stories, and Kyla does magic tricks. 
What does your schedule look like on a day-to-day basis?My schedule greatly varies from day to day. I am usually at the Fox Lot or on location filming, and I have tutoring 10–12. [During our] one-week hiatus every month, we usually fly back to New Jersey. As far as my daily schedule, one day I might be in every scene and only able to tutor during lighting setups and in between takes; another day I might have a scene off and go to tutoring intermittently throughout the day. I get 15 hours of private tutoring in a week. Once in a while, I do get a day off during the week because I am not in any of the scenes scheduled to film that day. When I come home at night, I read through and prep for my scenes for the next day, watch a television show, and go to bed. 
There’s an episode where Minnie Driver's character, Maya DiMeo, gets the principal to cancel a bonfire party. It was a great way to think about accessibility and how the majority should handle minority concerns. What would you have wanted in that situation?If I was in that situation, I definitely would not have wanted the event canceled. I would have wanted a solution for me to get to the beach, a zip-line to the beach or an all-terrain beach wheelchair. 
The writing seems "lived in" to me. Would you agree with that? Do you have input with the writers regarding J.J.'s plotlines or character development?Yes, I agree. Many of the writers have someone in their lives that they are close to who is dealing with a disability so they are able to draw from those personal experiences. The show also consults with The Cerebral Palsy Foundation regularly. 
Yes, my parents and I have shared many of our personal experiences with the writers as well; some have already been used in episodes we have shot. I have also given input during filming certain scenes, input concerning J.J.’s disability level and the equipment he uses. 
What are some of your personal experiences that have been incorporated into the show? What was some of the input that you gave regarding J.J.'s disability level?There have been several of my personal experiences incorporated into the show. One is: My mom had a “Micah Manual” for when my grandparents watched me for extended amounts of time growing up. In one episode, Mia hands a book to Kenneth and he says, “This kid comes with instructions?” Another is: I like to watch The Bachelor, and it was incorporated into one of the episodes of J.J. watching The Bachelor
As far as J.J.'s disability level, J.J. was written as having a more severe form of cerebral palsy than I do. So there are times, especially in the beginning when we had to work out J.J.’s abilities and struggles. My parents and I would think about the abilities and struggles of others we know with more severe cerebral palsy and say, "J.J. would probably not be able to do this or would adapt and do it this way." An example is: I can brush my own teeth and pick up a knife and fork and feed myself. J.J., not having much dexterity in his hands, has difficulty with these tasks. 
It's rare to see a disabled actor on TV: A recent study showed that less than 2 percent of actors onscreen were themselves actually disabled, despite the fact that people with disabilities make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. There have been a few notable exceptions like RJ Mitte in Breaking Badand Daryl Mitchell, who is currently on NCIS: New Orleans. What do you think of the state of representation of disabled people on TV and film?I have not seen NCIS: New Orleans, but I have seen Breaking Bad and I think RJ Mitte is great! 
I think it is sad that less than 2 percent of actors on screen are themselves actually disabled. Growing up a huge television and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of both disabled actors and disabled characters being portrayed on television. So I am so very excited that Speechless, a prime-time network-television show, conquers both of those missing links by having both an actor actually living with cerebral palsy as a main character and by having a “character” in the story line living with a disability. 
I think there is a lack of auditioning opportunities and a lack of hiring of disabled actors due to misconceptions and generalizations of people with disabilities, a lack of breakdowns for roles of characters with disabilities, and a lack of handicap-accessible auditioning rooms. 
Look at the last ten years of television — regular exposure on a regular basis causes viewers to change their perspectives and become comfortable with diversity in families. As they get to know J.J., it will bring understanding and relatability towards those with disabilities. This really is a groundbreaking experience, a person with a disability hired as an actor portraying a main character with cerebral palsy on prime-time television! I think Speechless will make people more comfortable around people with disabilities. I think Speechless will encourage viewers to look beyond the physical or other limitations of special-needs people who come into their own lives and discover their love, personality, and even their humor! 
What has your favorite episode of Speechless been so far?My favorite episode so far — wow, that is hard! I would have to say the Halloween episode is definitely my favorite that has aired so far. I loved all the amazing costumes our incredible crew created and had a blast trying out the R2D2 costume, and the Back to the Future's DeLorean. I had a blast driving the DeLorean, crashing the DeLorean, and playing drunk! It was fun to watch, too. I love that episode!

Toddler with Down syndrome stars in OshKosh B'Gosh holiday ad

From CBS news:

The story of 16-month-old Asher Nash went viral earlier this year after the toddler was turned down by a modeling agency in Buford, Georgia. 
His mother, Meagan Nash, refusing to take no for an answer, shared photos of her son on Facebook to speak out about the incident. She wanted him to at least be considered for an ad campaign for the clothing company OshKosh B’gosh — and her message to raise awareness for kids with special needs, like her son, reached the right audience.  
“Using people with special needs [in ads] shows the world that these people have value and worth just like any typical person does,” Nash told CBS News. 
It turns out, OshKosh B’gosh couldn’t agree more. 
The clothing company invited the little boy to model for their holiday ad this year. Photos from the shoot are now being released, and customers, including Nash, are thrilled. 
“I knew when Asher was born he was destined to be great and do great things,” Nash told CBS news. “So I am very proud to share his beauty with the world.” 
Nash says OshKosh was impressed with her social media campaign and commended her on getting the word out and raising awareness. 
The 27-year-old Georgia mom hopes Asher will continue to work with Down syndrome organizations and help end the many misconceptions about children who have the condition. 
The world is changing and so is our perception of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, Nash explained. 
“I want people to be able to see my son or others like him in an ad and not instantly say, ‘Oh, he has Down Syndrome,’” Nash said. “I want them to say, ‘Oh I love that shirt that baby is wearing, I want that for my child!’” 
Dozens of people have commended OshKosh for featuring the child with the hopes that he won’t be the only one. 
“Thank you Oshkosh for recognizing our special needs children also have the right to be treated equally, fairly, and with love,” one user commented on a photo of the boy on Facebook. 
“Ok, I’ve always loved Oshkosh, but I love them even more now,” another wrote. “That little boy is so precious.” 
Not only is Nash excited by her child’s success, but she’s hopeful for the future of other children like him. 
Children with Down syndrome and all other disabilities are incredible human beings and we want OshKosh to help us change the world’s perception,” she said. 
Since this has all happened, more opportunities have come up for Asher to work with several brands including, Kids II, Oball, Ingenuity, Toys “R” Us, Safety 1st, Happy Family Brand and Num Num.  
“It is time we realize they are not ‘just a trend’ that comes and goes in advertisement,” Nash said. “They’re here to stay.”

How Did ABC’s Speechless Make Life With Disability Funny? By Hiring the Right People

From New York magazine. In the picture, Director Ben Lewin and co-executive producer Mark Kunerth filming the episode "R-o Road T-r Trip." 


LOS ANGELES --  Speechless actors John Ross Bowie and Micah Fowler are working through a scene for a January episode of the ABC comedy on the Fox lot. In it, we see JJ’s (Fowler) mischievous side for the first time: During a stop at a crafts fair during a family road trip, somebody mistakenly assumes the DiMeos are selling water from their car, which gives JJ an idea to peddle off the family's junk — yoga pants, a curling iron, among other items — out of their truck. Impressed by his son's initiative, the father (Bowie) and son start conspiring.
Between takes, director Ben Lewin stands up from his seat and walks over to the actors. “Micah, don’t smile this time,” he tells the 18-year-old newcomer. “Just think.” 
JJ, who is wheelchair-bound, has a nonverbal form of cerebral palsy which means Fowler (who also has cerebral palsy, but can speak with some difficulty), relies solely on his facial expressions for his performance. “Sometimes I just want JJ to say it,” says Fowler, during an interview in his trailer, acknowledging that depending on only his face to perform can get tough. 
It helps that his director understands him. Lewin, 69, the writer-director of the 2012 critically acclaimed film The Sessions,survived boyhood polio and uses crutches to walk. “It’s a real challenge to give the audience a sense of what’s in your mind and what’s developing in your mind when you can’t speak,” Lewin says of working with Fowler on the scene. “What I was trying to get out of him was, he was seeing all this stuff laid out and as they see it laid out, he realizes this is all crap, how am I going to sell this? So I was just trying to get the sense of the idea brewing.” 
Before Speechless — the ABC comedy starring Minnie Driver and Bowie as Maya and Jimmy, the heads of the DiMeo family, raising JJ and their two other children in Orange County — the Australian indie filmmaker’s American TV résumé was limited to one episode each of Ally McBeal and Touched By an Angel. Lewin’s approach to actors is simple: Treat each one individually.
“Everyone has got a different shtick, a different set of issues, and you work each person in different ways,” he said. “It’s not very obvious, but I don’t relate to Micah as a special-needs actor. Of course, there’s a whole kind of physical element to it, but you’d be amazed how that just disappears. My kids, for instance, don’t cut me any slack whatsoever. Get your own bloody coffee! So I’m not inclined to cut anyone slack because they need more than someone else.” For his part, Fowler is acutely aware of how rare it is to work with a disabled director (Lewin is one of two disabled directors who are members of the Director's Guild of America). The experience taught him, he says with a big smile, that "no dream is too high." 
The warmly received show is ABC’s newest family comedy to succeed at presenting family life from a specific perspective. In this case, creator and showrunner Scott Silveri (Friends, Perfect Couples) mined his own family for comedy — his older brother has cerebral palsy and he has two younger siblings. Silveri had tried to tell their story for years, but had trouble landing on a tone that didn’t feel preachy. 
“It’s a tough tone to pull off,” Silveri says. “I also didn’t want it to be beat-for-beat my family.” There are some direct connections, though: 16-year-old Mason Cook, who plays middle-child Ray, is modeled after Silveri. And the element that gives the show its distinctive point of view was inspired by the Silveris: “Embracing being different and not apologizing for it — not even a little bit,” he says. “Not only did we not feel less than, we felt special. There were other families on our block that had a kid with a disability. But there weren’t any families who laughed harder than us.” 
Growing up in the '70s, he and his family didn’t have the types of online and community support that exists today. “This kind of funny and sweet thing happened where I went to read about families like ours and met a lot more people who went through the same thing,” he says. “What I found was that we fit into these clichés, and there was something oddly comforting about that.”
He discovered there were many loving, tough mothers who will do anything and everything to protect a special-needs child the way Maya (Driver) does, harassing the school principal about installing a wheelchair ramp and meticulously orchestrating every moment of JJ’s first date. Driver was drawn to the part of Maya because of how unusual she was. “She has to fight very hard,” Driver says. “She’s in a difficult situation. But she also makes me laugh. She’s got a weird charm."  
Lewin knows mothers like Maya — he had one. “I had this mixed relationship with my mother, and in a way, she made me who I am, and in the other way, I wanted to run to the other side of the earth from her,” Lewin says, laughing. “I think the show really does get into that dynamic. I had an out-of-control mother. I guess I was lucky I wasn’t her husband.” 
Lewin is the comedy’s first disabled director, but Silveri has notably assembled a team of people who have personal experience caring for others with disabilities. Several of the show’s writers have either siblings or children with disabilities, and Silveri hired two consultants with disabilities. The writers have gone on field trips to physical-therapy centers and listened to guest speakers in their office. The show also struck up a partnership with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation for feedback on story lines and scripts. 
“It’s important for us to make this show as realistic as possible,” Silveri said. “They don’t have veto power, but they make us aware of things we should be sensitive to since we are here to entertain and be funny. This is not a documentary, but we do want to get it right.” 
Bowie, who also has a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory, remembers hearing about Speechless during pilot season from actors who thought the subject matter was too risky. “This is either going to be really, really sentimental or it’s going to be really tasteless,” Bowie recalled of the chatter about the show. “I thought to myself, Okay, what if it’s neither, or what if it’s a decent balance of both? Wouldn’t that be a show I’d want to watch?” Then he read the script and caught onto the show’s dark sense of humor. “Really early on in the script there’s a moment where Ray calls JJ a bully,” he recalls. “I’ve never seen a kid who uses a wheelchair called a bully. I really wanted in.” When Bowie met Fowler and realized playing with nonverbal cues would become a cornerstone of the comedy, he readily welcomed the challenge. 
In earlier iterations of the pilot script, JJ spoke through an augmented speech device on an iPad, but that “didn’t feel as fun to dramatize,” Silveri says. Then, the producer met a young woman with cerebral palsy (who later became one of the consultants on the show) who uses a communication board like the one JJ uses on the show, and a human aid to verbalize what she is expressing. “They had this great rapport and it was another dynamic to play with, another person to help add to scenes," Silveri says. 
Inspired by his meeting, Silveri created a character, Kenneth, played by comedian Cedric Yarbrough, as JJ’s aide. “Instead of a computer,” Silveri says, "we have one of the funniest guys on the planet.” Because having Fowler use the board can become repetitive and drags out jokes, Yarbrough is given license to speed-read. “If we simply had him reading off the board, realistically we’d get about three pages done for every Wednesday night,” Silveri says, laughing. “You think as a writer you want this blue-sky canvas to do whatever you want, but it’s actually fun to work inside a box. It’s like a puzzle: How are we going to have two characters communicate when only one is speaking, and what’s a fun way to keep it active? Micah is so good and so expressive that a lot of times in editing we will cut the line and just have a look sell it. It worked in the silent movies for a long time.” 
That’s what ultimately drew Lewin to Speechless: its unexpected mix of humor and compassion. “I wouldn’t want to work on a show that made you cringe, but I like to work on a show that almost says the wrong thing on a fairly regular basis. It bangs into political incorrectness,” Lewin says, “and that tickles me.”

Friday, September 30, 2016

Meet the Guatemalan designer with Down syndrome who is shattering stereotypes in the fashion world

From Inquistr

Earlier this year, Guatemala was represented at London Fashion Week 2016 by a young designer with Down syndrome named Isabella Springmuhl. 

In Guatemala, Springmuhl faced frequent barriers that prevented her from realizing her dream of entering fashion. After finishing high school, she was rejected from higher education fashion programs because of her Down syndrome. 
Though it was a blow to Isabella at the time, she was able to work at her own pace and create an impressive portfolio without schooling. No doubt a surprise to the design academies that rejected her, she’s now set to conquer the world’s great fashion capitals — London, Rome, Paris, and New York. 
Isabel’s mother was aware of her daughter’s gift for fashion from a young age, and it wasn’t a surprise either. Her grandmother runs a well-known fashion label in Guatemala called Xjabelle. Through that connection, Springmuhl was able to create her own line of clothing for people with Down syndrome, a field severely lacking in options due to the odd sizing required for people with the condition.
Aside from the way Down syndrome has shaped her work, Isabella is also inspired by the styles of her native Guatemala, she told Look. 
Far away from London Fashion Week, the Down syndrome designer’s home country is currently undergoing a political upheaval. Assisted by the United States, Guatemala is going after the organized crime that mandates it. A recent editorial in the New York Times argued that these efforts faced unique challenges, including endemic government corruption, but that continued commitment to eradicating the violence could have positive repercussions across the Americas — even if they do face a steep uphill battle. 
“Much of their initial success was built on the element of surprise. No one expected such a forceful assault on corruption. But organized crime won’t make the same mistake twice. Its leaders have publicly threatened the lives and reputations of the attorney general, the presiding judge in the corruption trials, the United Nations commissioner in charge and his chief political officer, aiming to strip them of the will and credibility to do their jobs.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Watch the Rio 2016 Paralympics live or on NBC in the USA starting September 7


Around 680 hours of coverage from 13 sports will be live streamed on 15 HD channels on the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) website Paralympic.org during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
The IPC selected Dailymotion to provide the streaming services. Dailymotion is the world’s second largest video sharing website with three billion video views per month. It also has an extensive network of media publishers, such as news sites, which use the Dailymotion player on their websites.
Craig Spence, the IPC’s Director of Media and Communications, said: “We’re really excited that during Rio 2016 we will be live streaming 72 hours of sport each day across 15 channels. It will mean that fans from around the world can either watch the Games on TV or on Paralympic.org. We’re really excited to be working with Dailymotion for the first time, to use their publisher network and bring the Paralympic Games to new audiences.
“Strategically Dailymotion is a really good choice for the IPC. Half of their user base is located in Asia – the location of the next three Paralympic Games.
“Although the IPC has strong broadcast partners in Korea, Japan and China, we hope that using Dailymotion’s publisher network during Rio 2016 will help the IPC to build on that for the Games to come”.
The live stream, which will have English commentary, will be available in around 240 territories on Paralympic.org and in around 190 territories on Dailymotion.com/Paralympics. A full list of rightsholding broadcasters can be found here: https://www.paralympic.org/watch-rio-2016. This page will be updated with links to broadcaster streams.
As well as the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, athletics, track cyclingfootball 5-a-sidefootball 7-a-sidejudopowerliftingsitting volleyballswimmingtable tenniswheelchair basketball,wheelchair fencingwheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis will be live streamed. All other sports will feature in the daily highlights which will be streamed at 16:00 and 23:00 BRT each day, as well as two news shows, shown at 03:00 and 10:00 each day.
The IPC will also upload athlete interviews and other original content to the Dailymotion channel.
The Dailymotion player is 100 per cent responsive and HTML5 compliant, the V5 is built for maximum performance on any device. It also has greater accessibility features, such as screen reader, voice over and subtitles.
"It’s our particular goal to distribute content that captivates and engages our existing community of over 400M global visitors,” said Maxime Saada, CEO of Dailymotion “Our global audience will enjoy the Rio 2016 Paralympics and the Dailymotion player, and our accessibility features will satisfy the public who will discover Dailymotion through this great event." 
The IPC’s video and live stream coverage during the Games can be broken down to the following: • Live coverage of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies • Up to 72 hours of live sport each day available via 15 HD channels with English commentary • Almost 700 hours of video on demand • Two daily highlights shows broadcast in both English • One daily news show • Athlete interviews and behind-the scenes content

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

'Born This Way' featuring adults with Down syndrome nominated for 3 Emmy awards


Washington, July 14 – A&E Network’s critically acclaimed and award-winning original docuseries Born This Way’s honors keep adding up – showing that disability is a winning theme. 
Born This Way was nominated for an Emmy this morning for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program. In addition, two episodes were nominated for Outstanding Picture Editing for an Unstructured Reality Program. 
Produced by Bunim/Murray Productions, the series follows a group of seven young adults with Down syndrome along with their family and friends in Southern California. During its first season, Born This Way grew across all demographics each episode, with adults 25-54 up 84 percent, adults 18-49 up 64 percent and total viewership up 67 percent by the end of the season. Recently, the series was chosen as one of six honorees for the 2016 Television Academy Honors, an award that recognizes television programming that inspires, informs and motivates. 
RespectAbility has been honored to have been consulted during the creation and production of Born This Way and congratulates the entire team for its hard work in achieving this nomination. 
“As detailed in the just-released Ruderman White Paper on Disability in Television, disability often is absent from mainstream film and television – both the depiction of and, even when a character has a disability, the actor often does not,” RespectAbility President Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi said. “But programs like Born This Way that feature people with disabilities, or that tackle disability issues, in a positive light can be successful both critically and financially. Audiences want to see strong, capable role models with disabilities. By focusing on showing these young individuals’ everyday life choices regarding employment, living independently and dating, Born this Way breaks down stigmas surrounding disability.” 
According to the U.S. Census, one-in-five Americans has a disability. Currently 70 percent of working-age people with disabilities are not working – even though most of them want jobs and independence. The numbers are even worse for people with Down syndrome. There are many studies that show that people with disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, can work successfully and live relatively independently. The individuals on Born this Way prove that as several are productive employees and one starts her own company. 
“By honoring and embracing diversity on television, Born his Way is uniquely redefining the art of honest storytelling and altering the way society views individuals with differences,”Elaine Fontain Bryant, EVP and Head of Programming for A&E said. 
The show returned for its second season featuring 10 brand-new episodes on Tuesday, July 26 at 10 PM ET/PT. The first season was launched during an event on Capitol Hill hosted by RespectAbility featuring Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). 
This season, the young adults and their families continue to live with a fresh and honest perspective as the series dives deeper into their personal independence and relationships, including new friends within the community who also will be featured on the show.

Comedienne Maysoon Zayid adapting life story into series


Screenwriter Lindsey Beer is working with Zayid to turn her story into an anthology series.
Maysoon Zayid is a Palestinian-American comedienne and actress whose 2014 TED talk about her career and life living with cerebral palsy became the most watched of the year. She uses her wit and humor to tackle issues of discrimination by empowering and entertaining people — and now she's taking her story to the small screen.
Zayid is teaming with writer Lindsey Beer (Transformers 5, Barbie) to write an anthology series based loosely on her own life. Zayid has previously turned her story into a screenplay called If I Can Can, but is reworking it with Beer to create a series where each episode is themed around certain headlines like "If I Can Can: Dance" and "If I Can Can: Drive." Zayid also will star in the project (which is in the vein of Master of None), and it is currently being shopped around town.
Zayid, who was born and raised in New Jersey, has been working in entertainment for 16 years, including films like Don’t Mess With the Zohan, comedy festivals and as a correspondent onCountdown With Keith Olbermann. She is repped by WME.
Beer's most recent studio feature work includes The Transformers and G.I. Joe writers' rooms, along with a reimagining of the Little Princess spec with Platinum Dunes set up at Paramount. She is currently writing Barbie for Parkes/McDonald and Sony and Kingkiller Chronicles for Lionsgate. Other features that are set up around town include teen comedy Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, being financed by Black Label Media, and R-rated comedy How to Nail an Alien that's set up with Atlas Entertainment. Beer is repped by WME.
Watch Zayid's TED talk here. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Amputee actor Kurt Yaeger breaks boundaries with major roles on four TV series


In 2006, Kurt Yaeger was in a serious motorcycle accident that severely injured his left leg, and he was faced with the decision of whether or not to amputate it.  

"The doctors said they were going to try to save more of my leg. I asked them how much usage I was going to have out of it, and they said 5 percent," Yeager, 39, tells PEOPLE. "Then they explained to me that an amputation might give 15 percent usage, and I said, 'Well cut it off.' "  

"Making the decision was just a matter of fact," he continues. "It doesn't mean it was easy, but it was a factual piece of information, not emotion."  

Yaeger says the emotional aspect of amputating his left leg was much more difficult to overcome than the physical one. 

"There were two stages of acceptance," he says. "One was physical, and that was easy. The second piece of it was the emotional – dealing with the long-term ramifications, and feeling like I was going to be Frankenstein."  

After overcoming the emotional hurdles, Yaeger was more determined than ever to pursue a career in acting.  

"I grew up doing plays and shooting videos with friends, but I never took it as a serious career," he says. "My motorcycle accident forced me into a position of deciding what I really wanted to do with my life. I said, 'Life's short, let's do it all the way.' "  

At first, Yaeger was worried that his disability might put him at a disadvantage.  

"It dawned on me that it would be harder to get work, but I really think that it was more of a life question versus how viable it actually was to work in Hollywood," he says. 


Yaeger mastered being able to walk without a limp, and wore pants to auditions. 

"Most people find out that I'm missing a leg only after the fact," he says. "I spent a lot of time learning how to walk without a limp so that their first impression of me was not going to be a negative one, unfortunately. For a lot of actors with disabilities it's unfair."  

Yaeger's determination paid off. He landed a role on Sons of Anarchy, and his new Cinemax show Quarry will debut in September. He also recently booked a major recurring role on NCIS, as well as roles on Pure Genius and Shooter 

"The exposure is fascinating," he says. "I get to spend a lot of time talking to different people on social media, who reach out to me and tell me how my story has helped them. I would have never guessed that being in the public eye would have put me in the position of being inspirational. I'm just doing what I do!"  

Yaeger says people reach out to him regularly for help and advice.  

"I always tell people to go out and fail on a regular basis, because that's the path to success."

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Scott Silveri's 'Speechless' is more than 'the disability TV show'


Television’s track record for telling stories involving individuals with special needs is spotty, and particularly tricky when it comes to comedy. That’s something that “Speechless” executive producer Scott Silveri sounded well aware of during a Thursday morning panel at the Television Critics Assn. summer press tour in Beverly Hills. 
Centered on a family navigating the issues that can arise while raising a nonverbal special-needs child (portrayed by actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy), “Speechless” is a story Silveri said he had long wanted to tell after being raised with a brother with special needs. But, the former “Friends” producer was wary of how to tell it. 
“Part of the reason why it was a scary endeavor is it does announce itself in such a way,” said Silveri. “You just hear the logline of a show with a kid with a disability, it suggests that ‘After School Special’-ness. That’s why we were really vigilant about doing everything we could to subvert that as early as possible. 
“It’s not like ‘the disability show.’ We’re telling family stories here,” he continued. “At its core it’s a show about being different and not apologizing for being different and embracing who you are.” 
In the series, Minnie Driver plays a mother who must be a strong, and even strident, advocate for her son, including confronting a public school about a wheelchair access exit that doubles as a trash ramp.
Though Driver has experience playing American, she uses her native London accent for “Speechless.” “We tried it both ways,” she said. “The real truth is you can get away with a lot more when you speak in a British accent. You can say very rude things and make them sound charming.”
Fowler, who made his television debut at age 9 on “Blue’s Clues” and on the big screen in the 2013 film “Labor Day,” was asked about his favorite comedies coming into this role. Speaking deliberately and with comic flair, he answered, “My favorite comedy is this one.” 
Fowler’s character, J.J., is nonverbal on the show, and an aide portrayed by “Reno 911” actor Cedric Yarbrough acts as his voice. He too was aware of a need to transcend cliches in his role. 
“I really wanted to stay away from someone who could be the savior coming to this family,” Yarbrough explained, noting a desire to avoid the hackneyed “Magical Negro” concept like “the ‘Bagger Vance’ character who, you know, knows all. I wanted to make sure that this guy doesn’t know much of anything. He’s going to make mistakes.” 
In answering a question about the makeup of the “Speechless” writers’ room, Silveri noted his hopes to also avoid the usual TV tropes that can surround special needs individuals. “We have a lot of people on staff who have experience in this world, whether it’s having siblings or special needs children,” he said. “We don’t want [the show] to be all about that, but when it is we want to get it right and we feel a real responsibility. 
“It’s not an issue show,” he explained. “But because there are so few representations of disability on television you can’t help but feel a responsibility of doing it in an informed and intelligent way.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ruderman Family Foundation study shows lack of opportunity for disabled actors

From The Los Angeles Times. Pictured are Sam Claflin, a nondisabled actor playing disabled, and Emilia Clarke in 2016's "Me Before You." 

When Hollywood discusses diversity, one community is often left out of the conversation: people with disabilities. Even in its most recent iterations, prompted by #OscarsSoWhite, differently abled people in the industry seem unable to find a seat at the table. 
A recent study by the Ruderman Family Foundation revealed that, despite those with disabilities representing nearly 20% of the country’s population, about 95% of characters with disabilities on television are played by able-bodied actors. 
“The protest and ensuing media frenzy ignited by the ‘Oscars So White’ campaign has shaped an ideology around diversity in entertainment,” actor Danny Woodburn, a coauthor of the report, said in a statement. “This off-balanced idea of diversity has led to policy and even proposed legislation that has excluded people with disabilities. The Ruderman White Paper on Employment of Actors With Disabilities in Television is our attempt to bring perspective to inclusion, to reinforce access and an understanding of authenticity as an expression of what true diversity means and to finally let the least represented group in this medium be heard." 
Woodburn (“Jingle All the Way,” “Seinfeld” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), who as a little person counts himself as a person with a disability, cowrote the report with Kristina Kopić, an advocacy specialist with the Ruderman Foundation, an internationally recognized organization that advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities. 
Surveying hundreds of actors with visible and non-visible disabilities, they found that a plurality of actors with disabilities worked less than once a year and were repeatedly  subjected to negative stigma and preconceived biases by casting agents and producers. The report also examined how often actors with disabilities appeared on the top 10 television shows of the 2015-16 season. The study looked at 31 shows, including streaming platforms, and found that only four actors with disabilities were cast, or less than 2% of all actors on screen. 
Additionally, the study cites GLAAD’s “Where Are We on TV” report that noted that characters with disabilities on broadcast programming dropped from 1.4% in 2014-15 to 0.9% the following season. When taking into account that 95% of these few  roles are filled by able-bodied actors, the true extent of the misrepresentation is evident, the report stated.  
“Because of the widespread stigma in Hollywood against hiring actors with disabilities, we very rarely see people with real disabilities on screen,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “This blatant discrimination against people with disabilities not only is fundamentally unfair ... it also reinforces stigmas against people with disabilities. By systematically casting able-bodied actors portraying characters with disabilities, Hollywood is hurting the inclusion of people with disabilities in our country.” 
Ruderman and Woodburn cowrote a July 11 op-ed for The Times titled, “Why Are We OK With Disability Drag in Hollywood?,” in which they outlined how the industry could  rectify this situation. 
“We don’t believe that every single character with a disability needs to be played by an actor with a disability,” they wrote. “But if we’re going to employ Computer Graphics and makeup to create the illusion of disability, then we should also be willing to do the reverse.”  
They added: “Inequality of self-representation matters on a real, human level. We are not talking about some obscure pursuit; we’re talking about America’s No. 1 leisure activity. Studies and polls have shown repeatedly that positive exposure to gay TV characters sways audiences toward greater acceptance and even toward greater support for same-sex marriage. Exposure to people with disabilities would have an equally beneficial effect.” 
The Ruderman Foundation intends to bring the major studio heads together this fall in Los Angeles to discuss the report’s findings and possible corrective measures. 
See the full report here