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

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How two best friends with Down syndrome from Rhode Island made the kickass zombie movie of their dreams

A line of hundreds stretched around the block outside the Columbus Theatre in Providence Thursday night, as fans eagerly awaited the worldwide premiere of Spring Break Zombie Massacre and the arrival of its two stars. A police car cruised by, siren blaring, followed by a tricked-out white SUV blaring music and covered in fake blood and zombie corpses. The crowd around the red carpet parted as Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt, better known as Sam and Mattie, stepped out of the truck to wild cheers. 
“Superstars!” someone in the crowd yelled, as the duo posed for pictures. “Paparazzi!” 
Five years in the making, Sam and Mattie’s dream was now a reality.
Sam, 20 and Mattie, 21, have been best friends since meeting at the Special Olympics in elementary school. As Sam’s older brother Jesse Suchmann tells it, where one goes, the other isn’t far behind. 
Back in 2011, when Jesse was visiting his Rhode Island family home on a weekend away from his current residence in New York City, Sam told him he had an idea for a movie about zombies. And he was going to be the star. While Jesse said he encouraged Sam right away, he hadn’t counted on Sam being so persistent. Each time Jesse came home, Sam asked him about filming scenes for the movie. Eventually, the two of them sat down with some construction paper and worked on storyboards. Soon, they had a full-fledged movie about two bionically-enhanced heroes named Sam and Mattie who fight zombies, demons, and zombie-demons, all while juggling beautiful girlfriends and finding time to skateboard, stop bullies, and party. 
“Sam had a vision,” Jesse said. “And there was no way we could make the movie his way if we shot it on phones in our backyard.” 
In October 2014, Jesse started a Kickstarter campaign, filming a goofy video of Sam and Mattie introducing themselves and sharing their vision. After Kickstarter featured the campaign on their site on Halloween and a few media outlets took notice, the project took off, raising almost $70,000 in a little over a month. 
Before launching the Kickstarter campaign, Jesse had begun to solidify a team of friends to help make the movie a reality, including the film’s director, his high school friend Bobby Carnevale. 
“Jesse and I were both bogged down by the corporate world, and wanted to pursue a passion project that meant something,” Carnevale said. “I’ve worked in film for years, but the energy Sam and Mattie had, it was something I’d never dealt with before. Anytime we had doubts, they showed up and went in full force.” 
Jesse and Bobby, along with editor Tim Forster and producer Suzy Beck, were the core four supporting Sam and Mattie’s movie. According to Carnevale, they each had to call in dozens of personal favors and reach out to lots of different people to make the film happen. 
Among the bigger gets were a set of cameras donated by Panavision and assistance from the special effects company Silver Screen, which has worked on shows like The Walking Dead. Though there are still a few special effects that are a bit more DIY (or “Michel Gondry-esque,” as Carnevale calls them), the zombies, demons, and zombie-demons that populate the movie wouldn’t be out of place in a major Hollywood picture. 
Special effects and fancy cameras aside, though, the film — and the filmmaking process — wouldn’t exist without Sam and Mattie. They are in every scene and were involved in every step of the process, including casting. 
“Lots of times, people might say, ‘Oh, wow, these professional people helped these kids with Down syndrome who had a dream!’” Jesse said. “It’s not like that. Sam and Mattie are in charge. They’re the ones leading the vision and writing the script, hanging on set — they’re way more than a couple kids with an idea.” 
If you know a bit about Sam and Mattie, you can see how much of themselves they put into Spring Break Zombie Massacre. On days when their energy wasn’t quite as high, Sam said, they “drank a lot of root beer and kept going.” In the film, the traditional spring break scenes are filled with chugging, shots, and funnels of soda. In real life, the team scrambled to finish filming before Mattie entered his college transition program, ultimately wrapping with two days to spare. In the movie, the duo goes from being the kings of their high school to big men on a college campus. 
Perhaps most tellingly, Mattie hopes to one day become a famous DJ (with Sam as his manager), and counts Rhode Island native Pauly D as one of his heroes. In every Kickstarter update and media appearance they made, Sam and Mattie mentioned that they wanted Pauly D to be in their movie. And in a climactic battle scene, theJersey Shore star and DJ makes a cameo. 
“Pauly D was awesome,” Sam said. “He’s a real inspiration to Mattie. He was a really nice guy with a great attitude and heart.” 
“They know that fighting for what they want and believing in their vision will make things work,” Jesse said. “It’s been a real lesson for me. They have a vision, and they follow it. They dream huge — bigger than big.” 
Thursday night’s world premiere isn’t the end of the road for Sam and Mattie, however. Throughout the entire process, the core four have been shooting a documentary showing every step of how Sam and Mattie’s movie came to be. A film crew was still shooting as the boys walked the red carpet outside the Columbus. Though Carnevale once said he envisioned Thursday’s premiere as the perfect end to the documentary, Jesse says that Spring Break Zombie Massacre has been accepted to multiple film festivals, and they hope to hold screenings of the movie in other cities (including Boston), so they’re going to keep going. 
“We’ll bring the cameras to all the festivals, whether it’s Austin, Mexico City, [or] Telluride,” Jesse said. “We’d be foolish to stop filming before the journey is over.” 
As Spring Break Zombie Massacre concluded Thursday night, the crowd stood and cheered in unison, only sitting once Sam and Mattie took the stage for a Q&A. When asked if the film was everything they imagined, Mattie was blunt. 
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Oh yeah. We looked awesome.”
When asked what lessons they wanted to share from their experience, Sam’s message was simple. 
“Follow your dreams,” he said. “Don’t give up.” 
“We made this for people with Down syndrome,” he added. “Because we’re people, too.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Jockey celebrates individuality by casting double-amputee Chris Van Etten for new campaign


Chris Van Etten might not be the model you're used to seeing on billboards or in the pages ofGQ. Sure, he's got the chiseled abs and biceps, but unlike your prototypical cover boy, Van Etten wears prosthetics in place of his legs, both of which he lost during an explosion while fighting in Afghanistan in 2012.  
To try and stop himself from experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, the 25-year-old began working out which eventually landed him in front of the camera. "I wanted to find a way to show the image of strength," he explained to People magazine. 
And his new underwear campaign for Jockey, Show 'Em What's Underneath, is doing just that.  
Van Etten, who also spends his time riding his motorcycle, playing wheelchair lacrosse and mono-skiing, was one of three "everyday heroes" that Jockey chose for this campaign to "celebrate the spirit of individual" and to "encourage all people to be comfortable with themselves."  
"The one thing I want everyone to know is that you don't have to be famous or extremely gifted to change the world," he told Today. "I was an ordinary person and through determination I was able to make the best of it. It's amazing what people are capable of." 
These ads come at a time when the fashion industry is inching toward greater diversity — at least when it comes to race, gender and body types of size.  
Spring fashion campaigns, for instance, were the most racially diverse on record as 21.8% of models cast were of color. And last year's New York Fashion Week: Men's also included men of an assortment of different skin tones. As of late, major magazines from Sports Illustrated to Maxim have featured plus-size women, while various models have launched campaigns and clothing brands working toward great inclusivity for women of size. In addition to this, transgender women, like Caitlyn Jenner and Hari Nef, have landed major publication's covers.  
Those with amputations or disabilities, on the other hand, aren't as visible in the industry.  
But, there are definitely a few models looking to change this. Rebekah Marine, who was born without a right forearm, is a model who has previously made headlines for walking in NYFW for FTL Moda and posing for People magazine with fellow amputee and veteran Brian Taylor Urruela. "I think it's so cool to be at the front of the line of this change, and being able to open the door and inspire others to open their minds to different models," she told Time back in September. 
And they're not the only ones. Gianna Schiavone walked alongside Marine during February's NYFW show. Another model, Lauren Wasser, who had her lower leg amputated after contracting toxic shock syndrome, also walked in February, but for clothing brand Chromat.  
By increasing visibility and making their voices heard loud and clear, these models with amputations are showing others, especially young people, what is possible despite any and all differences. As Van Etten said to Today: "I can make something good out of the situation I've been put in. It's humbling and empowering all at the same time."

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Microsoft is adding a wheelchair option for its Xbox avatars

From The Verge:

Microsoft is adding wheelchair options for its Xbox avatars, as well as what look like some visual tweaks.  
Phil Spencer, the company's Xbox head, confirmed that the wheelchair additions were not "far off," after responding to a question on the subject on Twitter.  
The company's Mike Ybarra then tweeted a "sneak peek" of the update showing two avatars using distinctly Xbox-themed wheelchairs. 
The facial features of the two avatars also appear to be more detailed than those of previous models, suggesting that there are other visual updates on the way.  
Microsoft first introduced its avatars on the Xbox 360 in 2008, steadily adding more customization options, including branded content from games and companies.  
It's not clear when the next update for the avatars will be available, but the Xbox itself will be getting its next big update with the release of a new slim version in August.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Tangled, Toronto’s first accessible art gallery for disabled artists, is bringing the outsiders in

From The National Post in Canada:

Outsider art – a term coined in 1972 by British art historian Roger Cardinal –was often displayed in the 1970s without the artist’s name, who was rarely even invited to openings of exhibitions that featured their work. In fact, disabled artists and their perspectives often weren’t considered integral based on the assumption that they produced artwork “in spite” of their disability, were void of intention and unable to develop their craft to begin with. They were more spectacle than work of art. 
But even in the 19th century, artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – whose genetic disorder pushed him to take refuge in art when he couldn’t participate in physical activities – were able to make a name for themselves. And of course, Claude Monet, the renowned French Impressionist painter, had impaired vision later in his career due to double cataracts, leaving him only able to see and paint in a range of blues, which became his predominant palette. He lived in perpetual fear that his career was over because of his disability. 
“These legacies of outsider art still haunt us,” says Eliza Chandler, artistic director of Tangled Art Gallery, the first art gallery for disabled artists in Toronto, that is also entirely accessible. “We work hard to dispel the assumption that disability artists aren’t professional while also bringing attention to the systemic and attitudinal barriers (facing them).” 
Tangled is featuring works that don’t shy away from the differences they represent, whether that means hanging it at a lower level, captioned video and audio or the use of 3D printers to produce tactile versions of every piece. 
The hope, Chandler says, “is to establish a new standard of artistic excellence to which all galleries will have to comply.” It’s a noble goal that began 15 years ago when Tangled first started operating as a non-profit arts organization dedicated to cultivating disability arts by supporting the professional development of artists who identify with a disability. 
With their first brick-and-mortar gallery at 401 Richmond West, Toronto’s premiere establishment for the independent arts and one of the only accessible art buildings in the city, Tangled is hoping to open itself up to a wider audience. 
“This gallery gives a permanent home to disability arts in Toronto and having this home in a building as culturally significant as 401 Richmond signals that disability arts is a main contender in the Canadian arts ecology,” says Chandler. 
With an emphasis on art that places a positive light on difference, it makes sense that Tangled would launch the gallery space with “Constructed Identities,” an exhibit by gay, feminist Canadian artist and writer Persimmon Blackbridge, who has been practicing disability art for 44 years. 
With a self-proclaimed “in-your-face insistence on pride in our identities,” but also a “quiet beauty” in her work, she is indelibly Canadian, and yet, also someone who has explicitly experienced the isolation of being a disabled artist in a largely inaccessible world. 
“There are many ways that people are closed out of art – stairs to galleries or works hung at heights that tell people who use wheelchairs that the work is not for them; written text that closes out people who can’t read, audio elements that aren’t translated for deaf folks, or visual elements that aren’t translated for people with visual impairments,” Blackbridge says. “As a person with a learning disability, a psychiatric diagnosis and more recently, kidney disease, my art has referenced disability since the late ‘70s, and so it has been important to me to make my work as accessible as I can.” 
In fact, galleries like Tangled have challenged Blackbridge to make her work even more accessible and take into account exclusions that she wouldn’t have noticed in her work otherwise. 
Featuring 28 figures of mixed media wood construction, and poignantly touching on themes of disability, diversity and sexuality, the title refers to “both the way the figures are built and to the ways that identities are inscribed on our bodies.” 
“When an artist makes a figure, they are confronted with all the identities that society reads onto our physical selves: gender, race, size, ability and disability,” says Blackbridge. “You can grapple with how to represent our complex and diverse selves or you can pretend that some default normal body represents us in all our wild human difference.” 
In other words, it’s work that is relatable to everyone — if they’re open to it.
“Some pieces are in honour of friends who have died, others combine materials that have personal meaning for me, like the oxygen tube my mother used when she was dying of cancer,” says Blackbridge. “But these stories aren’t explicit in the work. Instead, they allow for the audience to read their own stories into the pieces, which is a different kind of strength.” 
Although she cites Tangled, Vancouver’s Kickstart and Gallery Gachet as groups helping to make change, Blackbridge still finds progress towards greater accessibility moving at a slow pace, particularly considering technology’s rate of growth. “Discrimination, lack of access and just an all-round lack of understanding is still rampant, and change is happening very slowly,” she says. “There’s a long way to go. But opening the world to the particular creativity that people with disabilities have always had to incorporate, into both our art and our day-to-day lives, would bring huge benefits of strength, delight and new ways of thinking to Canadian society.” 
“Artists feel freer to claim their various overlapping, intersecting identities instead of hiding them and feeling like they need to identify just as an artist and not as a disabled artist or a trans artist, what have you, in order to be taken seriously,” Blackbridge says. “The freedom that younger artists are demanding is an inspiration to me.” 
And it’s that generation that is helping to continue the wave of change Blackbridge hopes to develop. With the singular objective of embracing difference and diversity in its art and artists, Tangled is bringing the outsiders in, abolishing the label and creating a new, inclusive home.  
Blackbridge’s exhibition concludes on July 4, after which Tangled will feature “Points of Origin,” large-scale textile work by mel g. campbell (July-September), followed by an exhibit of the painting installation “Mad Room,” by Tangled’s current artist-in-resident, Gloria Swain (October-December).

Monday, June 20, 2016

The British comic book where disabled heroes save the world

From The Guardian in the UK:

“We have constant disagreements over who’s better: Superman or Spider-Man,” says Dan White, referring to conversations with his 10-year-old daughter – and superhero inspiration – Emily.
“I tell her, ‘Superman has heat rays, x-ray vision and strength.’ She says, ‘Yeah, but Spider-Man has a better outfit.’ ” He laughs. “I can’t respond to that.”
Talk to White, 44, and within minutes, his enthusiasm for two things shines out: Emily (or “trouble in a bottle”, as he calls her) who was born with spina bifida, and superheroes.
Until last year, White was employed at an electrical merchants and worked on his drawings on and off in his spare time. Now, he is a full-time artist and is about to launch his own comic book, The Department of Ability, based on a team of disabled superheroes who are set to save the world – and fronted by the character “Emily” and her flying wheelchair.
The comic’s characters will be showcased at a special event at Hamleys in central London on 26 June. The toy store will be dedicating three floors to a launch that is expected to be attended by 300 fans, including Paralympian Hannah Cockroft. Other fans of White’s characters include radio and television presenter Zoë Ball and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson. They, along with Cockroft, also appear in the comic.
In a sign that even bigger things could be yet to come for White, his comic book heroes have now caught the attention of Stan Lee, the comic book writer, editor and publisher, and the man behind Marvel heroes including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk. He has been in touch with White about how he can support the comic book series when it is published.
“It’s incredible,” White says. “With the most creative, brilliant, globally known creator of comics and superheroes interested in this project, it will mean that finally disability has its most well-known creative champion.”
To understand how White got here, he points to the day that Emily – then three years old – was given her first wheelchair. Wanting to show his daughter other disabled people that she could relate to, he flicked through television channels with her. “But there was nothing,” he says. “Some educational stuff but nothing fun. No one there just as them, rather than ‘the character in the wheelchair’. So I did something about it.”
From his front room in Hampshire, White started to develop comic characters – from Pawsy, a cheetah from London Zoo with a hi-tech running blade, to Claypole, a brilliant scientist with white canes and psychic abilities – and posted images of them on the Facebook pages of disability charities. Eventually, one –Strongbones, a children’s charitable trust that provides financial help to children suffering from brittle bone disease, bone cancer, and other bone diseases – responded and with its support, in White’s words, “things escalated”.
“It’s incredible,” White says. “It’s changing the game – not just for the comic book but for disability generally.”
“Dan’s so enthusiastic about the work he does, because he sees the positive potential this can bring,” Grey-Thompson says. “It’s really important that disabled children are able to see representations of people who look a bit like them in the media so that they can see all the different things that they have the ability to do.”
This is something that is clearly driving White. Not only does he want to produce a credible comic book that fans of the genre will embrace, he also wants to create something that will “make a little dent” in the ongoing exclusion of disabled people.
Throughout the comic’s development, White has brought in disabled talent, asking Bradley Davies – an artist with a neurological disability – to design the spaceship for the comic’s villain. Emily herself came up with the character Azzi – named after her teddy bear – and decided he should have a prosthetic arm.
“Disability blindsides people in the media – it’s not necessarily ignorance, just fear,” White says. “But there’s breathtaking talent in the disabled community. It should be mainstream.”
The children at Emily’s school are already starting to notice White’s work.
“She was always the first to take the pages [of the comic] into school or copy them down,” White says. “Now kids she doesn’t know come up to her and ask, indicating to her wheelchair, ‘is this the flying wheelchair?’ ”
For White, the resurgence of superheroes in popular culture made comics the logical platform to bring disability to a mainstream audience. There is arguably a natural affinity between disability and superhero culture, whether that is literal – with disabled characters such as Daredevil, who is blind, and Professor X, who is paraplegic – or the more symbolic, with a focus on outsiders turned victors and different abilities enhanced by technology. But White believes the popularity of the genre means there is no limit to who the disabled characters can reach.
“Everyone loves a superhero,” he says. “It’s a huge part of culture – everyone has an Avengers bag or has seen that sort of movie. I thought, if I could do this, everyone would see it.”
What stands out in The Department of Ability is that the use of superheroes is not only about the cultural reach of the characters but how it allows disability to be represented. These aren’t disabled people being passive or instigating pity. They are set on saving the world.
“It’s something that’s showcasing disability as power and strength,” White explains. “Every kid, no matter what, has that ability.”

Friday, June 17, 2016

Disney•Pixar unveils mobile audio description for ‘Finding Dory’

After lots of collaboration, tweaking and testing, the LightHouse is proud to announce that this week, blind people will be able get audio description for one of the summer’s biggest movies, on their own device, without asking for help. 
That’s right! On Friday, June 17, blind and visually impaired audiences will be able to get free, mobile audio description to accompany the release of Disney•Pixar’s Finding Dory
The past year has seen lots of technological advancement in audio description technology, with Disney•Pixar leading the way for film studios with their app, Disney Movies Anywhere. The app was first demonstrated at the White Canes Red Carpet event in December, released at home with The Good Dinosaur, and discussed at length at our SXSW panel in March. Between these events, focus groups, and enthusiastic collaboration with Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Blind Babies Foundation, and other blindness organizations, this has grown much bigger than just one app: it’s a statement of purpose. 
Disney•Pixar’s smart-syncing audio description, native to the mainstream app, represents thoughtful design that works for everybody.  When activated, it provides an add-on experience which levels the playing field for audiences who are blind or have low vision. 
Paired with any Disney•Pixar film using headphones or earbuds, the app delivers an extra audio track which elegantly narrates important on-screen action for those who can’t always follow along visually. Now tested and available to use with Pixar’s 16 other feature films, the app’s functionality will work for its first new release when Finding Dory hits theaters this week. 
Accolades for DMA 

Earlier this week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler honored Disney Movies Anywhere with the FCC’s Advancement in Accessibility Award, which recognizes achievements in communications technology for those with disabilities. Alongside other innovators in the accessibility field, Disney•Pixar is proud to guarantee audio description to its fans when it comes to both new and classic films.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

In Hollywood, diversity usually ignores disabled people

The story at the heart of Warner Bros.’ recently released film “Me Before You” is what fairy tales are made of. An adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ 2012 book of the same name, the movie follows the relationship between a young banker (“The Hunger Games’ ” Sam Claflin) left paralyzed after an accident and his caregiver (“Game of Thrones’ ” Emilia Clarke). But to some, the choice of the able-bodied Claflin is yet another example of the film industry limiting the roles actual disabled actors get to play.  
Diversity has been the talk of Hollywood, but for the most part, the conversation has centered mostly on race and gender. Some have brought in issues of sexuality, but many feel the discussion should expand to include the disabled.  
“If you’re going to discuss diversity, it has to be completely inclusive of the groups that really define diversity, not just a select group that is popular,” said actor Danny Woodburn (pictured on "Seinfeld"). “It’s popular to say LGBT groups, women, people of color define diversity. It’s not so popular to say people with disability define diversity. But the reality is that disability puts the ‘D’ in diversity.” 
Hollywood has long received criticism over its lack of diverse representations of people in front of and behind the camera. The most recent critique came earlier this year when the film academy announced an all-white slate of acting nominees for the second year in a row. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, created by April Reign, immediately trended on social media. In an interview with The Times, Reign verbalized her stance on what she called “the erasure of marginalized communities” and posited a definition of diversity that included differently abled people. Most of the advocacy thus far, however, has centered on women, people of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. 
Even when the film academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, announced the organization’s commitment to diversity post-#OscarsSoWhite, only women and people of color were singled out. Additionally, The Times’  list of 100 people who could help broaden diversity in the academy — and in Hollywood — was focused on race, gender and sexuality.  
To Woodburn (“Jingle All the Way,” “Seinfeld” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), who as a little person counts himself as a person with a disability, such an exclusion puts forth “dangerous rhetoric” that ignores a significant group of people. 
According to the U.S. census, about 19% of the population identifies as differently abled -- that’s 56.7 million people. Their conditions range from intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome to physical disabilities such as paralyzation or cerebral palsy. Others’ sensory perceptions could be affected, such as those with autism, blindness or hearing loss. A 2012 census report noted that this community has a lower likelihood of being employed and a higher likelihood of experiencing persistent poverty. As such, any diversity conversation that doesn't make room for disabled people is “dangerous,” Woodburn said, considering the economic and policy-oriented ramifications. 
One way policy is affected by such exclusion can be seen in New York, where the Writers Guild of America, East has endorsed and lobbied for modifications to the Empire State Film Production Tax Credit to include television writers and directors who are women  or people of color. Woodburn, as vice chair of SAG-AFTRA’s Performers With Disabilities Committee, is working to get disability added to the potential list of supported diversity. 
“It’s that same separate, but equal phraseology of the 1960s, that it’s not your turn yet,” he said. “It gets my ire up. It gets me activated.”
Gail Williamson, a talent agent at Kazarian, Measures, Ruskin and Associates, has been advocating on behalf of the differently abled for more than 20 years. With 120 disabled clients on her roster, she believes a number of them could have easily taken on the “Me Before You” role.  
“We refer to it as cripface, as in blackface or painting Italians to look like American Indians,” said Williamson. “We’re hoping in the future that these films would hold up more if they indeed had an actor with a disability.” 
Preempting retorts that disabled people don’t have the talent, training or experience necessary to take on major roles -- a similar refrain used to justify inadequate representations of women, people of color and LGBT folk -- Williamson, whose son is an actor with Down syndrome, echoed the words of winner Viola Davis’ speech at the 2015 Primetime Emmys about just needing the opportunity. 
“We’ve got them waiting, people who are trained, have done their homework and have credits, but they won’t open up the doors for them,” Williamson said. “But my guys are never going to be able to come into the room with the experience that these other guys have, because its not awarded to them. Someone is going to have to see it in them.” 
Marlee Matlin, who as a deaf actress was cast as the lead in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God,” won an Oscar and instantly became a star for the role, her first credited gig ever. 
As for people the industry should be paying attention to, Williamson and other community advocates highlight Ali Stroker (Broadway’s “Spring Awakening,” “Faking It”), Jamie Brewer (“American Horror Story”), JLouis Mills (“Heartbeat,” “The Tribe”) and Robert David Hall (the “CSI” franchise), among others.  
But as Adam Moore, SAG-AFTRA’s national director of equal employment opportunity and diversity, added: “Not only do they not have the opportunity for anything that is specifically written about [disabled people], but when [the story does have disabled characters] they don’t get the chance to even compete for those jobs more than half of the time.” 
Moore likened the situation to casting experiences of people of color where roles are slated for whites unless otherwise stated. 
“It also means nondisabled, unless otherwise labeled,” he said. “[Disabled people] are excluded almost from the beginning because stories aren’t being thought of to be told in these ways.” 
Furthermore, Moore cautioned, the experience can be doubly or triply oppressive for those living at the intersections of other identities disadvantaged in the industry, such as a disabled woman of color.  
But this is why disabled people need to be included in the industry’s definitions of diversity, Woodburn said. They too should be able to see themselves reflected in society’s cultural productions. 
“I don’t want disabled people to be a footnote in this discussion,” he said.