Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Krista Vernoff, Shoshannah Stern break down bringing the first Deaf doctor to ‘Grey’s Anatomy’

from Variety

When “Grey’s Anatomy” introduces Dr. Lauren Riley in its Feb. 13 episode, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” it marks more than just Shoshannah Stern’s (pictured) debut on the long-running drama: Dr. Riley is also the first recurring deaf doctor on a primetime network series. 

To tackle the groundbreaking character, Stern teamed up with “Grey’s Anatomy” showrunner Krista Vernoff, who initially didn’t realize this would be a historic first.“I didn’t know until we were on set shooting it,” Vernoff tells Variety, calling the vibe on set “electric.” “And that is the power of Shoshannah: I fell in love with her as a human, as a communicator, as an actress. I thought she was incredible and I wanted to put her on my show. I did not even know it had never been done before. That’s wild to me. And so to learn that on the day that she was working that this was the first deaf doctor who’s ever appeared on network television? How is that possible?” 

Stern met Vernoff on a 2019 Television Academy Foundation panel about representing disabilities in storytelling. “We just got to talking backstage, and she was talking about the lack of work, even though she’s put her own incredible show on the air,” Vernoff recalls. “And I was so smitten with her.” 

Vernoff suggested on the spot that Stern come play a doctor on “Grey’s Anatomy.” “I don’t know if I’ve ever invented a character because I fell in love with an actor,” Vernoff admits. 

The guest spot is also a literal dream come true for Stern, who had a recurring dream about being on the medical series a decade ago. “It was always just me walking around in scrubs with the other doctors like I was one of them,” Stern recalls. “I remember always having trouble adjusting when I woke up from these dreams, because they always felt so vividly real.” 

The first day on set felt almost dreamlike because she “felt super calm, like you do when you’re dreaming,” she explains. “Everyone was unbelievably welcoming and nice to the point that I kind of felt like I’d been there before. Members of the cast who I didn’t even have scenes with still went out of their way to come and say hello to me.” 

Prior to meeting Vernoff, the path to joining the show was bumpy, as Stern was let go by a manager a decade ago when they couldn’t understand why she declined to audition to play a patient on the hit drama. “It made no logical sense for me to turn down something real for something that wasn’t,” she says. “But something inside me was telling me not to.” 

Now, with Vernoff on her side, Stern was invited to the writers’ room to discuss coming on to the series, and the actress came prepped with her own research on deaf doctors. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with all the deaf doctors out there in the wild,” Stern says. “They’re all very different, but a commonality they share is that they seem to bring a special touch to their job. Some have actually invented medical technology to allow them more access, some of which you’re going to see in Riley’s episodes.” 

When Stern told the writers that deaf doctors traditionally make better diagnosticians than the average hearing doctor, the final pieces clicked into place. The writers then crafted a longer-term patient (Sarah Rafferty’s Suzanne), whose mysterious case would prompt DeLuca (Giacomo Gianniotti) to call in outside assistance. 

Although Stern’s characters in the past have been primarily English-dominant (using a combination of lip-reading and Stern speaking) — and many deaf doctors also utilize that way of communicating — the collaboration with the writers led to taking Dr. Riley in a different direction. 

“For Riley, I really wanted her to sign,” Stern says. “She deals with people’s bodies, and you use your entire body to sign, so I just thought it would carry a special kind of weight. My deaf cousin [who is also named Lauren] is a nurse that uses an interpreter at work, and my husband does a lot of video relay interpreting in the medical field, so the inspiration for me for how Riley would communicate was cross-bred between my cousin and my husband.” 

Working with Vernoff, episode writer Tameson Duffy, and director Jesse Williams, the quartet utilized technology to allow for Riley’s interpreter to communicate via an iPad, which was used in scenes with multiple characters. However, when she was one-on-one with someone (and when there were mobility concerns about being tied to the video screen), Riley would switch to lip-reading and English with her new colleagues. 

“The team at ‘Grey’s’ also reached out to some deaf doctors on their own to ensure what they were writing about was accurate,” Stern says. “It was just an absolute spectacular example of the magic that collaboration can bring, and I’m so grateful to Krista and everyone at ‘Grey’s’ for their commitment to that.” 
In portraying this trailblazing character, “it was most important to me that Riley was the best at what she did because, not in spite, of the fact that she’s deaf,” Stern says. “It was also important that being deaf isn’t something that defines Riley, it just adds a unique layer to her. I loved how it was executed on the page, too, because Riley does eventually kind of touch on how her being deaf has actually helped her be as good as she is, but she’s kind of an enigma in that you never really know what she’s thinking or why she’s saying what she is.” 

Off-screen, “the response has just been so profound,” even before the episodes officially air, Stern admits. “I’ve gotten tweets from other deaf doctors and deaf people in the medical field. One mentioned that they dropped out of medical school because stuff like face masks prevented them from being able to read lips. I remember freaking out on the table in the OR when I had an emergency C-section because I understood nothing anyone was saying because of these face masks too. I think that’s why some people will drive hundreds of miles to where there is a deaf doctor so they can be understood.” 

Stern also relied on her cousin Lauren to help her with the medical signs on the show. “There aren’t even existing signs for a lot of the medical stuff, or really science based signs in general, because the incidence of it being used is so low,” she says. “That’s a huge detriment in deaf people’ access to science and medicine, but we have people working on that now. It’s such an incredible feat and hopefully the more it’s utilized, the more it will spread and become normalized because that will provide more access and understanding for deaf patients when they go to the doctor. I hope that people will see Riley and realize that it can be a reality for them, too. So hopefully ‘Grey’s’ can also change lives in that particular sense.” 

“Grey’s Anatomy” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Al Jazeera explores why disability clichés are so destructive for the community

You can watch the 25-minute report here:

"'Disabled people are lazy and just need to get off their self-indulgent butts and do some hard work.' That’s just one of eleven tropes on disability that author Cindy Baldwin [who has cystic fibrosis] listed in a Twitter thread exploring old-fashioned narratives of disability and how they make people with disabilities feel.

“'We are also so shaped with these narratives in a very ablest society and people don’t recognise these tropes are harmful. They have active real life connections to the way people are treated,' Baldwin told The Stream.

"In this episode, we will use Baldwin's Twitter thread as the basis for a discussion on how these tropes are used in the media, pop culture, literature, politics and more. And we will explore why accurate representation and authenticity are so important."

Also on the report were Lawrence Carter-Long, the Director of Communications for Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) and Maryangel Garcia-Ramos of the Mexican Women with Disabilities Movement (pictured).  

Friday, January 31, 2020

"Who Am I To Stop It," a documentary film on isolation, art, and transformation after brain injury directed by Cheryl Green, Cynthia Lopez

Reprint from the BMJ Medical Humanities blog:

If you are interested in showing the film or hosting a screening, contact filmmaker Cheryl Green at New Day Films
Review by Karina Sturm, filmmaker and journalist
Who Am I To Stop It is a feature-length documentary portraying three artists in the US who live with brain injuries by following them through their lives and capturing the social challenges they face due to their disability. The film illustrates how they try to find their way back into a new life using art.
This review is written from the perspective of a disabled journalist who focuses on representing people with disabilities in media, and who has seen too many stereotypical portrayals of that community. Who Am I To Stop It is different in its accurate depiction of an invisible and misunderstood disability.
I watched the three short films that have been excerpted from the full-length documentary, featuring Kris, Brandon, and Dani. The fact that I live with a disability myself was not the primary reason why the films caught my attention; it was because of their engrossing narrative structure. The filmmakers thematized its subjects’ challenges without enforcing artificial emotional responses. This documentary is not about telling a sensational story or a beautiful recovery journey; it focuses on the here and now and shows how people with a disability can find a new identity and a sense of self.
The first story was Kris’s, an artist creating intricate paintings. People don’t realize that she has a brain injury. They see her as “the eccentric artist,” and she often feels misunderstood. “If I didn’t have the art, I would be suicidal.” For Kris, her art isn’t only a job; it is a coping mechanism that helps her to survive in a world filled with people doubting her disability. Kris’s story does not end with a heart-warming resolution like other films do, but with a hard truth that many disabled people have to face: Kris loses her apartment and gets evicted.
The second short film was Brandon’s, who is a singer. He experienced traumatic brain injury after his car was hit by a truck. Brandon made peace with his past and fights hard to regain his independence. Presented in a humorous way that helps the audience empathize with his tragic fate, he talks about the fact that he is not allowed to go anywhere alone until he manages to find the right bus stop, catch the right bus, and then get off the bus at the correct location three times in a row. When he finally managed to complete this task, he joyously says: “It has been magic.”
The third artist was Dani. She is the youngest, who struggles the most to accept her limitations. Following her pain and self-doubts was deeply shattering, because it reminded me of my own journey. She can’t quite find the right way to come to terms with her disability. “If I knew this would’ve been my life, I would’ve asked to die. I hate life,” she says. One crucial aspect of Dani’s story is the fact that her family have a totally different perspective. It’s hard for them to see her unhappy, when they are just glad that she survived the brain injury. In the end, Dani finds her voice by rapping in a place where she fits in: an LGBTQ organization.
The film tone and narrative make one assume that one or both filmmakers are disabled themselves because they know exactly the right questions to ask, and the people in the film feel comfortable to confide in them. The film protagonists were engaging, but without being emotionally manipulative. Moreover, Who Am I To Stop It is highly educational. Right from the beginning of Kris’s story, we see her in a doctor’s office, where she talks about her symptoms. The way Kris describes the effects of her brain injury immediately gave me a sense of what she had to deal with daily as a disabled person. I also appreciated the filmmakers providing closed captions and descriptive audio throughout the film. It is obvious that they had the disability community in mind when they produced those films.
In summary, all short films felt honest and real. They were short enough to keep my attention but long enough to provide the necessary information to understand and relate to its contributors. Who Am I To Stop It is one of a few films that accurately portray disabled people, and this alone makes it incredibly worthwhile.

Watch the trailer here.
Conflict of Interest statement from Karina Sturm:
As I was working on my own documentary film about living with EDS, another disabled media maker put me in touch with Cheryl. We have since formed a friendship discussing everything from Audio Description in film to ableism and the lack of disabled media makers telling our own stories. My review of her films was not a favor to Cheryl, but my honest opinion about Who Am I To Stop It as a fellow filmmaker and journalist.
Who Am I To Stop It is a fiscally-sponsored project of The Hollywood Theatre and is distributed by New Day Films.
Correspondence with the reviewer:

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Crip Camp," documentary on a summer camp that inspired disability rights, premieres at Sundance

From Berkeleyside:

The disability rights movement in Berkeley takes center stage on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival in the film “Crip Camp,” a documentary that traces the infancy of the movement to a revolutionary summer camp tucked away in upstate New York. 
Directed by Bay Area filmmakers James “Jim” LeBrecht, a Berkeley resident, and the Emmy award-winning Nicole Newnham, the film premieres Thursday at the festival in Park City, Utah. It is one of the first films that Barack and Michelle Obama produced for Netflix. 
“Crip Camp,” tells the story of how a summer camp for disabled teenagers helped give birth to an important but sometimes overlooked civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. 
Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, there was no federal law that prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities. 
Institutionalization was more common than it is today. But the teenagers who attended Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers and adults with disabilities, imagined a brighter future. A group of campers found community and camaraderie during their weeks in upstate New York in the 1970s, and Camp Jened served as an incubator for the disability rights movement. Many of the campers later moved out west to Berkeley, where the struggle for equal rights and representation was already well underway. 
“Berkeley as a city is the home of the disability rights movement so it makes perfect sense that this film would be coming out of the Bay Area,” says Berkeley City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. 
“Crip Camp” director was a part of the movement 
LeBrecht, the founder of Berkeley Sound Artists, an audio post-production house, and the co-director of “Crip Camp,” was among the group of campers that landed in Berkeley in the 1970s. “Crip Camp” is told from the perspective of LeBrecht, whose long history of activism on the part of the disabled started in high school and carries through to today.
LeBrecht, who declined to talk to Berkeleyside ahead of the movie’s release on Netflix, was born with Spina Bifida, a condition that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly and often results in restricted mobility. LeBrecht was born in an era where individuals with disabilities had limited, if no, options in terms of accessible living, workplaces, and transit. When he was a young child, he navigated the stairs of his split-level childhood home by crawling or climbing, he told SFGate. 
But LeBrecht’s parents didn’t want him to live a sheltered life and he worked hard to ensure his opportunities were not limited by his physical disability, he told the newspaper. He became active in the disability rights movement in his teens and helped start the Disabled Students Union at UC San Diego, according to Catapult Film Fund.
Lebrecht worked as Berkeley Repertory Theater’s resident sound designer for 10 years and worked in sound design at the Saul Zaentz Film Center and at Skywalker Ranch. 
LeBrecht has had immense success as a sound designer, with more than 179 film credits on IMDB.
“When I was growing up, people like Jim were institutionalized, they were shut out of society,” says Wengraf. “I’d love to meet Jim’s mother someday. She must be an extraordinary woman. She raised Jim with an enormous amount of self-confidence and the belief that he could do whatever he wanted. That was an extraordinary thing for the time. She was on the cusp of the disability rights movement.” 
LeBrecht is a former colleague of Wengraf’s husband, Academy Award-winning sound designer Mark Berger, and has known the family for many years. Similar to LeBrecht and Camp Jened campers, Wengraf told Berkeleyside that she came to Berkeley in 1969 on a mission to help children with disabilities express themselves through filmmaking and photography. 
“I think film is a powerful medium for telling any good story,” said Wengraf. “Film has the capacity to envelop you in an experience, unlike any other medium. I’m sure [“Crip Camp”] would be a good book but I think film is more effective at telling this kind of story.” 
The history of activism for disability rights in Berkeley 
By the time Wengraf and the activists from Camp Jened arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s, the struggle for equal rights for the disabled had already started. In 1962, Ed Roberts, the University of California Berkeley’s first student with severe physical disabilities, started a protest group called the Rolling Quads, whose activism helped establish the first Disabled Student’s Union on campus back in the 1960s. 
Ten years later, the work of activists such as Roberts, Hale Zuckas, and Jan McEwan Brown led to the opening of the Center for Independent Living, Inc. (CIL) in 1972, an organization dedicated to peer support and helping persons with disabilities lead independent lives. The CIL is still active today and is connected to the Ashby BART station at the Ed Roberts campus. 
Telling the story of the disability rights struggle 
“Crip Camp” might elevate the history of the disability rights movement, which is lesser-known in Berkeley than other protest movements born here. 
The film is included in the first slate of films being produced by Higher Ground Productions, the Obamas’ film company, which is devoted to telling the stories of civil rights pioneers. 
By recognizing a story about the struggle for disability rights alongside stories of other civil rights movements, Netflix and the Obamas are helping bring more awareness to this often overlooked and underrepresented movement, says contributor Sarah Kim in an editorial for Forbes. 
Wengraf expressed similar feelings, saying the support of Michelle and Barack Obama is an enormous honor, noting “…it’s kind of a dream for every documentary filmmaker to be acknowledged in this way and get this kind of boost, it’s phenomenal. This is a dream come true for Jim and everyone else who thinks this is an important story to be told.” 
Wengraf says she has a vision for a museum in Berkeley’s Civic Center that would have a wing devoted to the disability rights movement, alongside other important moments in Berkeley’s history. 
“I think this is a very important story to be told [and] it’s going to be up to us, it’s not necessarily our issue, it’s going to be up to us to bring it to the public realm,” says Wengraf. 
Netflix will be releasing “Crip Camp” in spring 2020.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

"Everything's Gonna Be Okay" explores grief, love, autism, with autistic character played by autistic actor Kayla Cromer

From Teen Vogue:

Freeform's new comedy Everything's Gonna Be Okay is unconventionally hilarious. Set in California, the show explores how three siblings cope with the sudden loss of their father.
Nicolas, played by Australian actor Josh Thomas, steps up to be the father-figure of his two teenage half-sisters: an angsty Geneviene (Maeve Press) and Matilda (Kayla Cromer, pictured), who has autism.
The show screened for an intimate audience at Chicago's Davis Theater on Tuesday and was met with laughter and applause.
What sets the show apart from other family sitcoms is that it bluntly unpacks grief, sex, love, and independence in a darkly humorous way. It also makes history as the first show to ever cast an actor on the spectrum in a lead role. 
"Everyone that's been cast as a character with autism doesn't really have that disability themselves," Kayla, who plays the outspoken but kindhearted Matilda, says. "So how can they expect to act like one of us, when they haven't walked in our shoes?"
Previously a model, Kayla was one of the first actresses to audition for the role and landed it soon after. And while she's thrilled with the opportunity to give nuance to what it's like having autism, she's also well aware that there should be more representation on big and small screens of people with neurological disorders.
"I know there's always going to be people that won't like my performance and [others] will like it," she says. "But in reality, one character with autism can't represent every person with autism — everyone is different. We all have our different quirks. Not all of our brains are alike."
Read more about Cromer here. 
Everything's Gonna be Okay premieres Jan. 16, 2020 on Freeform.