Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Ruderman Foundation salutes four TV shows for authentic disability depiction, but no films

From Variety:

Advocacy group the Ruderman Family Foundation has saluted four TV series for their accurate depictions of people with disabilities — but, significantly, no films were included in this inaugural round of awards.

The shows honored were ABC’s “Speechless,” CBS’ “NCIS: New Orleans,” and two series on Netflix, “Special” and “The OA.” Each will be given the organization’s seal of authentic representation.

“Each of these television programs has demonstrated a commitment to inclusion of actors with disabilities, reflecting a deeper belief in the importance of representing diversity in all forms in popular entertainment,” said Foundation president Jay Ruderman. “We hope this Seal, along with the example set by each recipient program, inspires the rest of the entertainment community to provide real opportunities for people with disabilities to be part of popular culture’s great storytelling tradition.”

The Foundation has been working for equal rights for years, but these are their first awards. Ruderman and a panel of experts will select other honorees periodically when productions meet two simple, specific, criteria: The Seal is awarded to television shows and movies that feature actors with disabilities with a speaking role of at least five lines, and these productions must be in, or on the verge of, general release.

Speechless” creator-executive producer Scott Silveri said the series team is grateful for the recognition. He added, “We hope that, one day soon, representation of those with disabilities on our TV and movie screens will be less novel, more the norm. For now, we’ll do our part and keep telling our stories, and cheer on the foundation for their tireless work, opening eyes to their most worthy cause.”

On “NCIS: New Orleans,” Daryl Mitchell, who uses a wheelchair, has played an investigator for all of the series’ five seasons. Amy Reisenbach, CBS Entertainment executive VP of current programs, said, “Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell is a charming and talented actor who brings to life the endearing and intelligent character of Patton Plame. We couldn’t imagine anyone else playing that role. We are thankful to have such an outspoken and motivational advocate for diversity and inclusion in entertainment be a vital part of the ‘NCIS: New Orleans’ cast and CBS family.”

On “Special,” star-creator-producer Ryan O’Connell spotlights his cerebral palsy as a key part of his mildly fictionalized character. O’Connell stated, “On behalf of the whole family of creative people who made ‘Special’ possible, I want to thank the Ruderman Family Foundation for this important honor. We hope we show that people with disabilities, and who are gay, and every other part of my personality, all have a place in popular entertainment.”

Liz Carr (pictured), an actress using a wheelchair, appears on the fantasy-mystery “The OA.”

No recent or current feature films satisfy the Foundation’s modest requirements. The film industry has a habit of hiring actors without disabilities to play parts calling for visible or unseen disabilities, which the organization called “a lamentable track record.”

“The inauthentic representation of disability in both studio and independent releases reinforces ongoing prejudices and stigmas that are preventing people with disabilities from opportunities to represent themselves in the entertainment industry,” Ruderman added. “And since this industry impacts public opinion, it is reinforcing the continued segregation of people with disabilities in our society. Actors with disabilities rarely, if ever, even get a chance to audition for those roles. This continuing discrimination has gone on long enough; it’s long past time for it to stop.”

Future Ruderman Family Foundation seal of authentic representation recipients will be announced when the standards are met. The Foundation hopes that before long, there will be an abundance of qualified productions.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Netflix's 'Special' hopes to break new ground for disability representation on TV

From USA Today: (A video in which Ryan O'Connell talks about coming out as disabled.)

The only thing more difficult for Ryan O'Connell than coming out as gay? Coming out as disabled. 
The TV writer-turned-star told his friends and family he was gay when he was 17, but waited until he was 28 to let his new friends and co-workers know that he has cerebral palsy. He was severely injured after being hit by a car seven years earlier, which he used as a catch-all excuse for his limp when he moved from Ventura, California, to New York at 21. 
"People just assumed it was from my accident, so it was the perfect lie," O'Connell says. "It was definitely harder to come out about being disabled, because I had to sift through years of trauma from being closeted (about my disability) and what that did to me psychologically." 
O'Connell, 32, mines that tricky path to self-acceptance for laughs in his new Netflix comedy "Special," streaming Friday, which is based on his 2015 memoir "I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves."
The show is co-produced by Jim Parsons and features eight 15-minute episodes in its first season. It stars O'Connell as a more introverted version of himself who lives with his selfless, helicopter mom (Jessica Hecht). As in real life, on-screen Ryan tries to hide his cerebral palsy from his work BFF (Punam Patel) and skeptical supervisor (Marla Mindelle) when he starts a new job as a blogger, while also struggling with body image as he enters the gay dating scene. 
As Ryan discovers in the show, learning to love oneself is "always an evolution," O'Connell says. "I'm not going to say to anyone, 'I love having CP now! Live, laugh, love!' I want to be able to say that, and there are days when I do feel that way, but it can still be really hard. I still get asked by strangers, 'What's wrong with you?' or 'Do you need to go to the hospital?' Those are the moments when I really dislike ... society and how we're treated." 
"Special" offers crucial visibility in a TV season when just 18 characters on broadcast series (about 2% of the total measured) are disabled, according to GLAAD. A 2016 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation also found that more than 95% of disabled characters on TV are played by able-bodied actors.
There are some exceptions: ABC sitcom "Speechless" stars Micah Fowler, who has CP, and Netflix's "Atypical" added five actors with autism to its cast for Season 2. But it's still TV executives' responsibility to hire more disabled talent in front of and behind the camera, foundation President Jay Ruderman says. 
Better representation will "only happen through more and more shows like ("Special"). There are plenty of actors out there with disabilities who are just waiting for the chance to do something like this," Ruderman says. "For some reason, the streaming services are willing to take more risks than the networks." (Amazon, for instance, has ordered a new series about three 20-somethings on the autism spectrum from "Parenthood" creator Jason Katims.)
While writing for MTV's "Awkward" in 2015, O'Connell pitched "Special" to cable and streaming platforms, but was met with resistance. 
"It was really strange, because the pitches went over like gangbusters, we were told we'd get an offer, and then it just never happened," O'Connell says. "One person off the record said they were scared for their job in terms of greenlighting this, because it was still a very different world," when networks only began warming to subversive female-led comedies such as "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Broad City."
But he believes that people are ready for a show like "Special" now, and hopes it can do for disabled actors and creatives what Amazon's Emmy-winning "Transparent" did for trans representation when that series premiered five years ago. 
"I hope that we're going to have more shows by actually disabled people," O'Connell says. "Disabled people need to have the agency and power, and they need to be behind it. They need to have creative control over their own story, so I hope that 'Special' comes out and it's just one of many disabled shows out there." 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

New Mexico disabled workers sue Oscars swag bag company for wage theft

from Bloomberg:

A New Mexico non-profit that's assembled gift bags for the Oscars and Grammys is facing a class action lawsuit brought by disabled employees who say it pays as little as 18 cents an hour.
The suit is the latest to challenge a little-known—but often legal—practice of segregating disabled workers and paying them less than the federal minimum wage. In it, current and former employees accuse the Adelante Development Center of underpaying its developmentally disabled employees in violation of Albuquerque and New Mexico wage laws.
“Plaintiffs and their coworkers perform rote, repetitive tasks in a setting where they are isolated and entirely segregated from the broader community,” alleges the complaint filed by the advocacy group Disability Rights New Mexico and the legal non-profits Towards Justice and Public Justice. “Adelante offers dead-end sweatshop jobs with few chances for advancement or transition to better employment.”
Adelante says it’s in full compliance with employment law. “Adelante has had a mission to support people with disabilities for over 40 years in New Mexico,” the organization’s vice president Jill Beets said in an email Monday. “We place a priority on community employment, and finding jobs for people with community businesses.”
Ever since Congress created a national minimum wage in 1938, the federal government has encouraged companies to hire disabled workers by letting them pay at rates below the minimum. As long as an employer can show that a worker’s disability slows him or her down, they can ask the U.S. Department of Labor for permission to pay that employee a “sub-minimum” wage. More than 150,000 workers were covered by such waivers last year.

State and local wage laws still apply, but many jurisdictions have a similar process for exemptions. The lawsuit alleges Adelante didn’t get the required state approval to pay some staff hourly rates as low as $0.18 or $1.82.

According to the organization’s website, Adelante “helps people push past social barriers and stereotypes, set goals, and move forward in their lives.” Workers in the facility do jobs like scanning, shredding and driving around documents. They packaged and shipped lipsticks for celebrity swag bags at 2018’s Grammy Awards and Oscar’s, according to a press release.
The lawsuit alleges that Adelante “profits tremendously” by underpaying its staff, while also receiving money from the state for each hour it helps them “participate as active members of their communities” by employing them, as well as other subsidies paid to Adelante by supportive living facilities where its employees live. In some cases, the complaint alleges, Adelante itself is paid more per hour in subsidies for an employee's work than the amount that Adelante is actually paying that person. 
“We’re just here so Adelante can get paid,” said plaintiff Tammy Duggan in an email.  She’s worked at the organization for 17 years, and yet, “No one gives me more responsibility or more challenging work to do."

The practice of paying disabled workers less than the minimum is increasingly controversial. When President Obama signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay staff at least $10.10 an hour, he notably declined to include an exception for disabled workers. Since 2015, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Alaska have abolished disability exceptions to their state wage floors. In a letter last year, seven U.S. senators including 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders condemned sub-minimum wage exemptions as an “inherently discriminatory” practice that should be phased out.
The Department of Labor last year announced it was revoking a company’s authorization to pay around 250 employees a sub-minimum wage, following an investigation that found it had concealed information from investigators and paid some employees with gift cards rather than money. In 2012 and 2013, a judge ordered Texas company Hill County Farms to pay $1.3 million for disability-based wage discrimination,  and in a related case, a jury awarded a record $240 million to the plaintiffs for discrimination and abuse. (A judge eventually shrunk the award.) 
“The sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities is really a relic—it entered the law in the 1930’s at a time when we didn’t have a sense that people with disabilities could work in the competitive economy,” said University of Michigan law professor Sam Bagenstos, who served in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama. “It really sticks out like a sore thumb these days.”

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Disabled Parenting Project celebrates the life of Colorado disability advocate Carrie Ann Lucas

By Robyn Powell at the Disabled Parenting Project [used with permission]:

Photo from Carrie’s blog: http://www.disabilitypride.com/2018/12/26/parental-fears-2/ 

The Disabled Parenting Project (DPP) joins the disability community in mourning the loss of Carrie Ann Lucas of Windsor, Colorado.
Carrie was the dedicated mother of Heather, Asiza, Adrianne, and Anthony. A disabled mother and fierce advocate, Carrie devoted much of her life to disability rights advocacy, especially fighting for the rights of parents with disabilities. In fact, it was her experience as a disabled mother that led her to become an attorney.
Carrie was an active member of ADAPT. In June 2017, she made the news after participating in a multi-day protest to fight the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). “This issue is just too critically important for my own independence and that of my children so I felt like it was time to do more,” she told Rewire.News. Her activism to save the ACA is just one of countless examples of Carrie’s tireless efforts to leave the world a better place.
“I first met Carrie when I was writing the National Council on Disability report, Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and their Children,” said Robyn Powell, DPP Co-Founder. “As an attorney, I was inspired by Carrie’s advocacy on behalf of parents with disabilities.
“However, it was her identity as a disabled mother that impressed me the most. As someone who always wanted to raise a family of my own, witnessing Carrie’s commitment to her children made me realize that it was also possible for me. Carrie was one of the best mothers I know and a role model to parents and prospective parents with disabilities,” Robyn continued.
“Carrie Ann was a trailblazer for those of us that dreamed of parenthood. She fought for our rights in the system to have a family and then behind-the-scenes, taught so many of us how to navigate a world that in many ways is not yet ready for families like ours. Carrie Ann invited us to join her in showing that world, Ready or not-here we come,” said Kara Ayers, DPP Co-Founder.
“She took such pride in being a disabled parent parenting disabled children,” Erin Andrews, DPP Co-Founder remarked.
All of us at the DPP extend our condolences to Carrie’s family and friends. We will never forget all she did for our community.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

'The Walking Dead' star Lauren Ridloff talks being the first deaf actor in series' history

From ABC News:

Lauren Ridloff was initially a fan of "The Walking Dead" before joining the cast in season 9. She adored the AMC series so much that her husband would Facetime the television screen to her so that she could watch while feeding their newborn in another room.
Ridloff, a former kindergarten teacher, began acting professionally in 2017 with Broadway's "Children of a Lesser God." The Tony-nominated actress sent her tape to casting in hopes of appearing on the post-apocalyptic series. Ridloff said she "never dreamt" of landing the gig.
By playing her character Connie, Ridloff is also breaking barriers. Connie uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate and is deaf, as is Ridloff in real life.
"There is an increased interest in casting more actors who are deaf, but there is still a woeful paucity of deaf talent behind the scenes, involved with the writing process," Ridloff told "Good Morning America" of the obstacles she faces as an actor. "I feel that with more representation working behind the camera, the stories that are told in television, film and stage would become more intriguing, truthful and thought provoking."
"People are interested in living vicariously through others because there is always something instrumental that can be gleaned from others," she added.
Ridloff's character was introduced in fall of 2018 as AMC launched the first half of season 9, along with several other new faces, after sending off lead character Rick Grimes, played by Andrew Lincoln. Connie and the four other survivors are taken to shelter by Grimes' young daughter, Judith, now played by Cailey Fleming.
"We spend hours together and there is a tremendous amount of trust required for the intense scenes," Ridloff said of being part of the show's cast. "I feel particularly close to Angel Theory who plays Connie’s little sister Kelly. The first week of prepping and filming we stayed at a hotel not too far from the set, and Angel told me that it was her first time away from her mother. I felt responsible for her, so we hung out at the hotel, went out exploring, shared meals and trained together."
Ridloff said Angel Theory taught her dance moves, while Ridloff helped Theory expand her sign language vocabulary. Ridloff has been deaf since birth while Theory had progressive hearing loss, Ridloff said.
"[O]ur journeys as people with hearing loss are profoundly different yet there’s that common denominator -- we are sisters in a world that is mostly different from us, and we are proud to share our stories," she added.
The actors who joined "TWD" alongside Ridloff receive ASL training for each episode that requires signed dialogue. In between scenes, Ridloff is teaching phrases like "You are a snake," she said, adding that the crew has also begun learning ASL.
"I love coming to work to see what new phrases they’ve learned on their own by looking through ASL apps or Youtube. It’s great."
Besides her fellow newbie castmates, Ridloff said she's became acquainted with "TWD" original, Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon.
"I love his car," she added. "He has the most sexy car on set. I think he's going to let me test drive it one day."
Now, Ridloff and the gang are gearing up for their mid-season premiere, which she described to us as "twisty bloody horror."
"Be prepared to say, 'OMG' over and over," she said.
As for advice to fellow actors who are part of the deaf community, Ridloff says to be honest with yourself and what your needs are.
"What do you need to be able to give your best work? Do you need an interpreter or two? Do you need an ASL consultant? Do you need extra batteries at the ready on set? What kind of cues do you need? Every individual has different needs -- there is no one-size-fits-all or no prescribed set of accommodations for anybody," she said.
"Sometimes as a deaf actor navigating television and film, I fret that I am asking for too much or am slowing things down, but I have learned that by being honest about what I need, I become more efficient and effective as an actor."
"Be diligent by being your own advocate -- communicate clearly what your needs are and deliver quality acting," Ridloff added. "Do the advocacy with kindness and patience."

Friday, February 1, 2019

Gaming accessibility is the star of Microsoft's Super Bowl ad

From Engadget:

Microsoft has placed more focus on accessibility as of late, an effort that has extended into gaming, particularly with last year's release of the Xbox Adaptive Controller for Xbox One and PC. 

Now, the controller is taking center stage in a Super Bowl ad that highlights some of the ways it helps gamers with mobility limitations. 

During Sunday's game, CBS will air a 60-second version of the charming "We All Win" clip:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YISTzpLXCY

The controller has a number of ports that various input devices can hook into -- you'll even see youngsters using the Nintendo Wii Nunchuk in the ad. Microsoft's attention to detail even extended to making the Adaptive Controller's packaging easy to handle, a factor the ad showcases alongside a bunch of kids who just love playing games.

A growing number of advertising and marketing efforts are showcasing a wider variety of beauty that includes disability

from USA Today:

You'd think Rajee Aerie (pictured) was destined to model for American Eagle Outfitters' underwear, swimsuits and leisurewear brand, Aerie, just based on the coincidence of her name matching the brand's. The 34-year-old Chicagoan was in the 2018 ad campaign with a blue camouflage bra and matching leggings.
And her crutches. They are visible partners in her role as model – and role model. 
 "If I had these role models or seen this imagery when I was younger, I'd feel like I was more valued and have a better sense of myself," said Aerie, who'd contracted polio as a child in India. "I hope to create that sense of belonging for younger generations, so they know they can aspire to be (anything), no matter who they are."
She recalled the pain she endured as a teenager, flipping through magazines and feeling invisible – and contrasted it with her elation upon hearing she'd landed the gig and later, scored a billboard in Times Square.
She was among a slew of young women included in the Aerie brand's advertising who aren't traditionally seen as models, including individuals with a wheelchair, an insulin pump and an ostomy bag.
A growing number of advertising and marketing efforts are showcasing a wider variety of beauty. The trend stretches from the 2018 Gerber baby, Lucas Warren, who has Down Syndrome, and Target's new swimsuit model Kiara Washington, who has a prosthetic leg, to Diandra Forrest, who has albinism, modeling for the cosmetics company Wet 'n Wild, and Jillian Mercado, who uses a wheelchair, posing for Nordstrom.
When 18-year-old Evelyn McConnell saw photos of model Abby Sams, she was both shocked and excited and immediately shared the images with her friends on social media. She saw herself reflected in the Aerie ad featuring Sams, who uses a wheelchair like she does.
"It's very much changed my perspective of them as a business," said McConnell, a high school senior from Altoona, Pennsylvania. "Just seeing that this business supports people with disabilities and presents us as models, it meant a lot of me."

More visibility and diversity

This increased representation in both product packaging and promotion comes as other forms of inclusivity, such as diverse ethnic backgrounds and body types, have begun to take hold. In the same way, we are seeing more LGBTQ couples and multiracial families in ads, images of all sorts of people are now front and center on store shelves and in ads.
Broadening the definition of beauty comes down to sales strategy. Create enough buzz with innovative images, and the companies get attention. Brand awareness kicks in when people go shopping and choose where to make their purchases, what the industry calls conversion.
"Advertisers want to sell, but they’re thinking about the broader image," said University of Illinois at Chicago marketing professor David Gal. "It's not just 'This ad will lift sales X percent.' They want the brand perceived as progressive, cutting edge, different. Ultimately, it will help the bottom line."
The potential to resonate with consumers not used to seeing themselves reflected in advertising and on packaging is huge. More than 40 million Americans have disabilities, according to the most recent U.S. Census numbers – but that number doesn't include the millions more who have illnesses, such as dermatological and autoimmune diseases, and use assistive medical equipment.

Embrace your real self

"The message with that was everyone should embrace their real selves. This is our community. This is real women, so represent yourself," said Aerie's senior vice president of marketing, Stacey McCormick. "Using real women regardless of size, ability, disability, the customer feels more connected to these images, which increases conversion, which increases sales."
Inclusive advertising and packaging help companies appeal to a diverse customer base and be viewed as socially responsible, according to Gal.
"Part of it is ethnic diversity has already become the baseline to be relevant for a lot of advertisers and marketers. They’re saying, 'What is the next area to push the envelope?'" he said. "They're looking for new ways to differentiate themselves and show they’re ahead of where their competitors are in terms of being progressive."
While the move to more mainstream print modeling is relatively new, TV ads have been more of a pioneer. The biggest early splash likely came from the Diet Pepsi ad in 1991 featuring legendary musician Ray Charles, who was blind. Since then, other examples include the Apple ad in 1995 featuring actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf; the 2014 Duracell commercial starring NFL player Derrick Coleman, who also is deaf, and last year's Doritos Super Bowl ad, starring actors Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage, who has dwarfism.
Most recent is the package of the newest cookie to join the Girl Scouts line-up, gluten-free Caramel Chocolate Chip, which debuted earlier this month. The front features three girls playing together and at the center of the smiling trio is Nicklya Brantley, who has vitiligo, a disease that causes patches of skin to lose their color.
"We’re trying to convey that girls come in every size, every shape, from every community," said Lynn Godfrey, the organization's chief marketing and communications officer. 
McConnell, the teenager, said she hasn't made it to Aerie at the nearby Logan Valley Mall but plans to go soon. She views supporting the brand as a way of fighting ableism, discrimination against people with disabilities. And she doesn't care what's motivating this and other ad campaigns; she prefers to focus on the bigger picture.

"It's absolutely something they have done to serve their company, but at the same time, it benefits not only the models with disabilities who are getting paid and being seen (but) especially young girls with disabilities who are able to see themselves," McConnell said. "Even if it doesn't come from a genuine place, it’s still helpful."

Friday, January 18, 2019

From Playbill:

A new series aims to fill a gap in the entertainment world by spotlighting conversations with various figures from theatre, film, and television within the disability and neurodiverse communities. The aim of these discussions? To showcase how storytellers can create more representative and truthful narratives.

"In the past few years, we have been hyper vigilant in taking notice of how disability is represented in the plethora of content that is available now," producer and co-host Kallen Blair tells Playbill. "We noticed that oftentimes these characters are like a broad brushstroke of someone's 'idea of disability,' and even more often, these characters are played by able-bodied actors... It is time for actors with disabilities to tell their own stories. They exist and they're good—they just need the door open and accessible."

ABLE, which is co-hosted by Blair and actor and advocate Alie B. Gorrie, will feature interviews with a number of familiar faces including Spring Awakening and Oklahoma! star Ali Stroker (pictured); Clive Barnes Award winner Evan Ruggiero (Bastard Jones); Children of a Lesser God's John McGinty; film and television actor Danny Woodburn; producer and actor Amy Buchwald; actor and comedian Maysoon Zayid, known for her TED talk "I got 99 problems... Palsy is just one"; actor Christine Bruno; stage and screen actor Ann Talman (Some Americans Abroad); founder of Identity Theater Company Nicholas Linnehan; and actor Ben Dworken.

"ABLE is the kind of content that changes the industry and world one interview at a time," says Stroker.

"We are taking responsibility as creators to advocate for stories that mirror our world. People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the United States, yet we see them the least in media," says Blair. "The seeds of our idea come from my love for my brother Joel, who has autism and cerebral palsy, and my co-producer, Alie B. Gorrie, and her experiences as an actress with a vision impairment. However, the bulk of what is moving the ABLE team forward is the facts, acknowledging that those facts need changing, and owning that as the next generation in this industry, we have the ability to enact those changes."

The series is produced by SoulStir Creative. Cassidy Cole is the series director, Brian O'Donnell is associate producer, and Jesse Bronstein is cinematographer.

To find out more about ABLE: A Series, visit AbleASeries.com.

Monday, January 14, 2019

How the crushed dreams of five disabled actors became the Phamaly Theatre Company

From Colorado Public Radio:

It began over pizza and beers in 1989.
Kathleen Traylor and four other classmates from Denver’s now defunct Boettcher School for students with disabilities, were reminiscing about theater in junior and senior high school.
“All of a sudden the conversation gets around to, ‘we should start our own theater group’ and I was the one who was like you’ve got to be kidding me,” Traylor said.
It seemed so pie in the sky because it was hard enough to break into the biz as actors, especially as five actors in wheelchairs, said Teri Westerman Wagner. She said you would roll in and announce your audition and they’d “look at you like a deer in headlights.”
“They literally would say, ‘I don’t know what to do with you,’” Westerman Wagner said.
For Traylor, she marveled at how theater companies could “figure out how to get full-sized elephants onto a stage, but to get a wheelchair onto a stage was baffling to them. I think it was just scarey: the liability issues, the accommodation issues.”
Phamaly co-founder Kathleen Traylor at the Newman Center for Theatre Education in downtown Denver on Dec. 13, 2018.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
And so, tired of being told their acting dreams were unrealistic because they had disabilities, the five — which also included Rick Britton, Kevin Ahl and Gregg Vigil — decided to take matters into their own hands. They launched Phamaly Theatre Company, and never imagined it would last long enough to celebrate 30 years.
The acronym of Phamaly came first, said Westerman Wagner. They liked the idea of a family-like theater troupe and they found the words to make it work. Initially, it stood for the Physically Handicapped Amatuer Musical Actors League — ending with a “y” for pronunciation. The name later came to represent the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League as they were able to afford to pay performers.
They first tried their collective hands at a costume party. After that went well, they applied for a grant from the state. Traylor said it was supposed to be a practice grant.
“But low and behold we got a check for $3,300 dollars,” Traylor said. “And we were like, ‘Oh poop. We’ve gotta put on a play.’”
That first Phamaly production was “Guys and Dolls.” The four performances of the gangsters and showgirls musical were staged at their alma mater in 1990. The run went off without a hitch despite so much working against them, such as a tight budget and a cast size much smaller than the show demanded. The rehearsal space was designed pre-Americans with Disabilities Act (signed on July 1990) and, Westerman Wagner said, it was not ideal for wheelchair access.    
“We should not have succeeded,” she said. “But I think it was by sheer determination from all of us that we just weren’t gonna let it fail.”
Phamaly co-founder Teri Westerman Wagner at the Newman Center for Theatre Education in downtown Denver on Dec. 13, 2018.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Popular musicals would become Phamaly’s bread and butter over the years. The company went on to perform “Oklahoma,” “The Wiz” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Trayler said they didn’t want to do shows about disabilities, at least not initially. She believed actors with disabilities that portray familiar characters could reframe the audience’s thinking about what it means to have a disability.
“We wanted to do plays about real people who just so happen to have disabilities because that’s what life is,” Traylor said.
Choreographer Debbie Stark said that happened for her. She almost quit when she first came on to choreograph Phamaly’s third fully produced show, “Anything Goes.” She doesn’t identify as having a disability, and began to question if she was right for the job.
It fell into place for Stark when she said, “‘You guys, can I get in a wheelchair?’ I don’t know how a wheelchair moves.”
Decades on, there’s now a wall at Stark’s Centennial-based dance school full of choreography awards for Phamaly shows. She’s learned there are more possibilities than limitations with these actors.
The World Health Organization estimates about 15 percent of the global populationlives with some form of disability. Teresa Eyring, executive director of the New York-based national nonprofit Theatre Communications Group, said these individuals need to see themselves onstage. TCG runs an Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Initiative.
Debbie Stark, who has choreographed for Phamaly Theatre Company for the last 28 years, at her Centennial-based dance school on Jan. 7, 2019.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
“We exist as a field to lift up all people and the stories of as many people in our communities as we can and, if we are not accomplishing that, it’s a major issue,” Eyring said.
Other theater organizations that serve artists with disabilities include New York’s Theater Breaking Through Barriers, InterAct Theater in Minneapolis and the recently launched National Disability Theater. Even as more of these theaters come onto the scene, Eyring said Phamaly continues to be a leader on “modeling how to work with disabled artists with integrity and inspiring other theaters to do so.”
Phamaly also wants to be seen as a serious theater company. Traylor remembered her first bad review. It was in 1997 and she played the title character in the musical “Mame.”
“It was hard, but at the same time, I was like, wow, I’m really grateful that somebody took me seriously as an actress and gave me a review as an actress and not as a disabled person,” Traylor said.
Theater critic Lisa Kennedy wrote about Phamaly during her time with The Denver Post and describes Phamaly as “often a really solid, even better-than-solid theater company.”
She attributes the company’s longevity to a blending of artistry and mission, enriching the experience for the audience. Kennedy felt that way when she saw Phamaly’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” She found herself not as interested in the next production of “Fiddler” she saw “because, I felt like Phamaly had done a better job artistically.”
ADAPT activist Dawn Russell at Atlantis Community independent living center in Denver on Jan. 4, 2019.
Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
Kennedy added that the group’s impact can also be seen as more of its actors appear with other Colorado theater companies.
In 1978, activists in Denver, many in wheelchairs, stopped traffic to demand more accessible public transit. Soon after, grassroots advocate ADAPT formed, helping propel the national movement of disability rights. ADAPT activist Dawn Russell said she considers Phamaly performers activists as well, just a different and necessary kind.
“Phamaly’s approach is about the normalcy and we’re just like everyone else,” Russell said. “We’re saying we’re not like everyone else, we need this and if we have this, then we are closer to that equal and normalcy that Phamaly is representing.”  
In 2007, Phamaly added a second production to its season, eventually bumping the lineup to three, four or five different shows a year. The company has toured nationally — even internationally with a trip to Osaka, Japan in 2015. It’s received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and was one of more than two dozen Denver-area arts organizations selected for an Arts Innovation and Management grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.  
The theater company also continues to expand from its musical theater core, tackling Shakespeare and more original plays.
Phamaly will kick off its 30th anniversary season with the premiere of “Morph Masters.” The play speaks to the skills you gain from a disability through the stories of important artists with disabilities such as Stevie Wonder, Beethoven and Frida Kahlo.
Phamaly artistic director Regan Linton watches a rehearsal of “Morph Masters” on Dec. 13, 2018 at the Newman Center for Theatre Education in downtown Denver.
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Artistic director Regan Linton said the idea came from a school performance the company did a few years ago. They asked the young audience: “What does disability mean to you?” When one student answered, “It means you can’t do things,” Linton refused to let that be “the definition of disability these kids are left with.”
“We started thinking there are all of these amazing artists that lived and worked with a disability and were creative because of what disability gave to them,” she said.
In a way, the show reflects Linton’s own experiences. A car crash in college paralyzed her from the chest down and suddenly having a disability came with so much stigma, she said. Performing with Phamaly, she saw that these actors “weren’t caught up in all the bull*** that everybody else was.”
“They were just focused on the artistry,” she said. “That for me was a personal transformation.”
As to where Phamaly will be in another 30 years, Westerman Wagner hopes there will be a Phamaly-like company in every state. Traylor fell on the other end of the spectrum. She’d like to see Phamaly go out of business because “there’d be no need for it.” For her part, Linton wants it to become an even more important institution in Denver.
“So that even when you’re casting actors with disabilities all over all other stages, there’s still something that’s unique to Phamaly’s aesthetic,” Linton said.
Phamaly Theatre Company’s “Morph Masters” runs Jan. 11 - 20, 2019 at Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Conservatory Theatre.