Monday, September 27, 2021

British children's TV show, 'CBeebies,' hires first presenter with Down syndrome

from The Guardian:

The BBC’s preschool TV channel CBeebies has appointed George Webster as its first presenter with Down syndrome. The 20-year-old will join the channel as a guest presenter from the CBeebies House, hosting segments and links between programmes from Salford’s MediaCityUK.

An actor, dancer and ambassador for the disability charity Mencap, Webster was announced as a presenter on Monday. In a video posted on social media, he said: “I feel so proud and I’m feeling so excited to start”, adding that he was looking forward to cooking and dancing in his new role.

Webster, who is from Leeds, previously appeared in an educational video for the BBC’s Bitesize strand on misconceptions around the genetic condition.

Many expressed their delight online at his announcement, especially parents of disabled children. Actor Sally Phillips, who has a son with Down’s syndrome, wrote: “Oh CBeebies I could not love you more. This means so much to us and isn’t George amazing!!”

Elsewhere, Mencap described Webster as “a brilliant role model”.

CBeebies, aimed at children under seven, has been praised for its diverse content in recent years. In June 2020, following the death of George Floyd, mixed race presenter Ben Cajee informed young viewers about his own experiences with racism. A series of two-minute films titled My Black History Heroes, highlighting figures including Barack Obama and Mary Seacole, is currently airing on the channel.

Reactions to Webster’s appointment contrasts with the reception some 12 years ago to then-CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell, born with her lower right arm missing, and whose appearance on the channel in 2009 led to a barrage of complaints.

Burnell Tweeted the news about Webster’s appointment, with the words “absolute joy”, as well as retweeting another message which posited that perhaps “the world has turned” in the intervening years.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Emmys stage will feature accessible, ADA-compliant ramp — Here’s how it happened


from The Hollywood Reporter:

Pictured is James LeBrecht and the Emmy Award statue at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 

When the select in-person attendees get settled in their seats for the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday night, they’ll see the stage feature a new addition: a ramp.

The accessible, front-facing design was overseen by CBS Entertainment and the Primetime Emmys’ producers and follows an ADA complaint filed on Sept. 7 by Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) and lawyer Michelle Uzeta on behalf of James LeBrecht, who co-directed and co-produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp alongside Nicole Newnham.

LeBrecht was notified that a ramp had been built as of Thursday evening, and according to the director, CBS confirmed to his reps that “anyone sitting in the audience will have unimpeded access to an ADA-compliant ramp” which “has been constructed as a fully-integrated, visible portion of the stage.”

It’s a step towards broader and more standard accessibility at Hollywood awards shows that LeBrecht says he supports, though it was an effort at least six exhausting weeks in the making. For the disabled director and disability rights advocate, muddled and slow communications from CBS Entertainment and The TV Academy meant that while the goal has been achieved, questions still remain about whether entertainment institutions understand what was at the heart of his ask for disabled members of the entertainment industry.

Addressed to Executive Vice President, Diversity, Inclusion & Communications at CBS Entertainment Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i and TV Academy president Maury McIntyre, the complaint alleges that both the TV Academy and CBS Entertainment were in violation of the American Disabilities Act and California civil rights law prior to building the ramp. Specifically, that what was first presented to LeBrecht was insufficient in meeting ADA standards because the options did not actually provide “the full and equal enjoyment… of any place of public accommodation.”

According to the complaint, the planned accommodations did not satisfy LeBrecht’s and his legal representation’s reading of the law. The filing states that Smith-Anoa’i advised “that individuals who cannot climb the stairs to the stage can go backstage to access the stage,” with another suggestion that “a staff member can bring a microphone to individuals’ seating area.”

“Separate is never equal,” the complaint asserts adding that the backstage route would be “not a directly connecting route” per the ADA, and would visibly other a potential winner. Both options ultimately fail to comply with the ADA, it argues, while additionally conveying “disrespect and exclusion.”

LeBrecht told THR that he had been in contact with both the TV Academy and CBS Entertainment ahead of filing the public complaint. “As the Emmys were approaching and following Crip Camp‘s extraordinary experience at the Oscars — where it wasn’t simply compliance with the law, but it was inclusion at every step of the way that had an equal experience to people who could walk — I just wanted to try to effect a change,” he explained about why he reached out.

He first brought the issue forth to the “management at TV Academy” through one of its advisory boards, after which he was told to pursue the issue with CBS Entertainment as the decisions around the design and accessibility of the stage are left up to the producers of the show. (A rep for the TV Academy confirmed this while redirecting THR to CBS for comment on this story.) That’s when LeBrecht says that he and several others got on a call with Smith-Anoa’i and started the conversation.

LeBrecht, who also sent a long email regarding the issue, lauded the executive who “really took to heart what we were talking about and understood the difference between compliance and inclusion, and what do those optics look like.” But he noted that he came away with no answer as to how CBS Entertainment would approach its stage accessibility issue. Once he finally heard back, he says it was to offer what was noted in the complaint. After that, repeated follow-ups yielded little information.

“I appreciated the efforts, but I felt like I needed to get the attention of people up at the top, too, because I just felt like if I’m talking about inclusion and you keep on coming back with compliance, you’re either not getting the message or you don’t care,” he said. “How often do I have to say there’s a difference between compliance and actually serving people with dignity?”

CBS did not return a request for comment.

The issue of what full equitable treatment looks like doesn’t end with critiques of microphones and backstage ramps. For LeBrecht, it also concerns the use of lifts, which TV Academy president McIntyre confirmed to Variety were available during last week’s Creative Arts Emmys. Lifts take a long time, the director says, before noting they can also be “insulting” to the independence of people with disabilities.

“You are not actually getting yourself there under your own power, and it makes you look helpless,” he says.

While LeBrecht has praised the Oscars — one of his first big industry awards events — that show was also lobbied and aware that at least some of its nominees needed equal stage access. It’s something LeBrecht was told the TV Academy tried to confirm by reaching out to all of this year’s attendees — limited due to the show’s COVID protocols and precautions. It was relayed to him that no one with a disability had been nominated.

According to the CDC, around 26 percent of Americans live with a disability, with millions estimated as having an invisible disability — in other words, a disability, whether it be cognitive, mobility-related or otherwise, that is not immediately visibly apparent. That can include joint or bone issues that people might otherwise treat as mere pain, but that would be supported, like wheelchair users, with a ramp. But LeBrecht also tells THR that after successfully lobbying for “a ramp at the front of the stage” while promoting Crip Camp at Sundance, it became clear that not just disabled attendees were benefiting.

“The fact of the matter is that that ramp was a real asset because that stage had this little dance number with a bunch of men doing a routine and they used the ramp in their choreography. They were thrilled to see the ramp because there were only going to be stairs,” he recalled.

Still, for LeBrecht, there’s an even bigger issue at hand with that kind of effort. “Do we have to reveal our disabilities?” he asks. “I mean, why force someone to do that?” Especially, he says, when there’s already law that demands equal access regardless of whether a disability is disclosed.

“This is why the ADA was passed. The intention of the ADA, among a lot of other things, was our participation in society be as equal as possible to people who do not have disabilities.”

The director says it is important for industry events and companies building these stages to understand that “the ADA is a base for disability rights. Not the ceiling.” And that’s ultimately what the rejection of othering accommodations, and his continued push for a front-stage ramp, was about. “In our society, do we accept that people with disabilities will take a separate route, especially when it’s completely possible to be inclusive when you’re building a stage from scratch?”

While LeBrecht shares that the experience was at times painstaking and frustrating, particularly the weeks lacking communication about the ongoing efforts, he lobbied for and was made aware of other positive efforts the show enacted or is at least trying to put in place.

“I was told that there are going to be [American Sign Language] interpreters available if needed. That’s fabulous. I also requested that they provide live audio descriptions for the broadcast, as well,” he said. “I know they’re trying to make that happen. That takes a while to coordinate, let alone get a sponsor to pay for it.” (Google sponsored audio description for April’s Academy Awards.)

The Oscar-nominated director knows that the industry — and much of society — is still catching up when it comes to equal access, but LeBrecht also says that it’s time.

“We’re asking people to do things that they haven’t done before,” LeBrecht admits. “But the ADA was passed 31 years ago. Why do we still have to ask for these things? Live audio description may or may not be actually law, but why does it take law for people to say we have a responsibility for everyone in society and not just those who are quote-unquote non-disabled?”

Friday, September 17, 2021

PBS' AMERICAN MASTERS season finale will explore life of Helen Keller


from Broadway World:

Note: Anyone interested in learning more about Keller's work as a writer for magazines and newspaper, can consult Byline of Hope, Collected Newspaper and Magazine Writing of Helen Keller, edited by Beth Haller of Media dis&dat. 

"American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller" examines one of the 20th century's human rights pioneers in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The new documentary rediscovers the complex life and legacy of author and activist Helen Keller (1880-1968), who was deaf and blind since childhood, exploring how she used her celebrity and wit to advocate for social justice, particularly for women, workers, people with disabilities and people living in poverty.

Closing the series' 35th season, American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller premieres nationwide Tuesday, October 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS.

American Masters tells Keller's story through rarely seen photographs, archival film clips and interviews with historians, scholars and disability rights advocates. Narrated by author, psychotherapist and disability rights advocate Rebecca Alexander, the film features on-camera performances from Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actor Cherry Jones reading Keller's writings.

Actor and dancer Alexandria Wailes provides American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of Keller's words with all other ASL interpretation by writer and rapper Warren "WAWA" Snipe. The program also features audio description by National Captioning Institute and closed captioning by VITAC.

Keller first came into public view at a young age, soon after her teacher Anne Sullivan taught her to communicate. As she progressed through her education, graduating from Radcliffe College, Keller steadily gained international attention. Though she lived until age 87, became an accomplished writer and activist, Keller continues to be immortalized as a child, such as in the U.S. Capitol with the statue of her at a water pump. She recounted this moment from her youth in her first autobiography, "The Story of My Life," later made famous by the book's stage and screen adaptation, "The Miracle Worker."

"American Masters: Becoming Helen Keller" delves beyond the mythologized disability icon to present a critical look at her rich, decades-long career and some of its controversies, including her support of socialism and her changing positions on eugenics. The film reveals little-known details of Keller’s personal life and examines her public persona and advocacy, including the progressive reforms she helped achieve. Speaking out for civil rights at great personal cost, Keller supported women’s suffrage, the NAACP, access to health care and assistive technology as a human right, and workers’ rights as a member of the Socialist Party of America and the labor union Industrial Workers of the World.

Selma Blair opens up about MS diagnosis, says she'll act again 'if there's the right thing'

 From Yahoo News:

All those years Selma Blair had appeared in fan-favorite movies — Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde and The Sweetest Thing, just to name a few — she was suffering.  

"I'd compare myself to people. I didn't understand people didn't hurt every day," Blair said in an interview with Variety published Thursday. "I've hurt since I can remember."

The actress recalls particularly tough times after the birth of her son, Arthur, the now 11-year-old she shares with ex-partner Jason Bleick.

"I really couldn't move,” she said. "The pain was so intense in every joint, in my hip, everything."

So when Blair finally received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, which she shared with the world in 2018, she actually felt relief.

"If I could have acknowledged that there was something real — a label that people understood — it would have just helped me emotionally," Blair said of the days she was left wondering what was going on with her body. "If I could have found this label and given myself some solace that I was actually a fucking trouper, I would have been much easier on myself."

Blair revealed last month that she was "in remission" after undergoing a stem cell transplant in 2019, a process documented in her upcoming nonfiction film, Introducing, Selma Blair

The treatment — which was suggested to Blair by actress Jennifer Grey, whom she had never met before — sounds excruciating: chemotherapy for two months to reduce her immune system to almost nothing, then the transplanting of cells previously taken from her body in an effort to rebuild that same system. 

The procedure was so delicate that the 49-year-old had to film herself in some instances. No one was even allowed in her room because of the high risk of infection.

Despite the MS, Blair has continued to appear onscreen. She says that she might even act again in the future "if there's the right thing."

Introducing, Selma Blair premieres Oct. 15 in theaters and Oct. 21 on Discovery+.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Apple taps ‘CODA’s Siân Heder to helm & write Judy Heumann’s memoir ‘Being Heumann’; ‘Oklahoma’ Tony Winner Ali Stroker eyed to star

A picture of director Siân Heder, a white woman with medium-length light brown hair. A picture of the book Being Heumann 
From Deadline:

Apple Original Films has landed rights to a package based on Judy Heumann’s bestselling memoir Being Heumann. Siân Heder, whom Apple signed to a multi-year overall deal in the wake of winning an auction for her Sundance sensation CODA, is adapting the film to direct. Ali Stroker, the first actress who uses a wheelchair for mobility to appear on Broadway and the first to win a Tony for her work in Oklahoma, is being eyed to star.

Heder will produce the film with David Permut through his Permut Presentations, and Heumann’s managers John W. Beach and Kevin Cleary of Gravity Squared Entertainment. Heumann and her co-author Kristen Joiner will be executive producers. Alex Astrachan is co-producer.

From the time she contracted polio in 1949 in Brooklyn which confined her to a wheelchair, and was deemed a fire hazard at age 5 and told to stay home, Heumann has been a crusader for the rights of the disabled. The book was published last year by Beacon Press, and expands the activism of Heumann that was part of the Barack & Michelle Obama-produced documentary Crip Camp, for which Heumann won a Critics’ Choice Award for Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary. The movie will explore her efforts to plan the 504 Sit In in San Francisco, an important protest that led to standardizing rights for the disabled. She went on to a distinguished career, including serving in the Clinton Administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education.

CODA (which stands for Children Of Deaf Adults) will be released by Apple globally on August 13 in theaters and on Apple TV+. The film swept the awards at Sundance, including the Grand Jury Prize, and Heder’s deal with Apple includes a first-look on features, as well as an exclusive deal for series written and developed by her. Heder’s partnership with Apple includes recent collaborations on the critically acclaimed, NAACP- and Spirit Award-nominated series Little America as well as CODA.

Heder is repped by ICM Partners, Mosaic Media Group and attorney Mitch Smelkinson; Stoker is with KMR Talent, Schachter Entertainment and Schreck Rose Dapello.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Marlee Matlin to Hollywood: Disability is ‘not a box to be checked off’

“We need other Oscar winners who are deaf,” says Marlee Matlin, the only deaf actor to win the coveted award. “We need to see more deaf actors hired, more disabled actors hired—and not only actors. I’m talking about producers, directors, writers—giving the entire Hollywood workforce an opportunity for deaf people and disabled people to participate.” 

What about Matlin’s other Academy Award record: her status as the youngest best actress winner in the ceremony’s history? “That one I’d like to keep,” she says with a shameless grin. “Anyone over 21, fine! Go ahead—win the Oscar. I don’t care.”

That grin of Matlin’s appears often over the course of our hourlong video interview. Alongside Jack Jason, her producing partner and sign language interpreter for almost 40 years, the star of the upcoming indie film “CODA” is effervescent and wry, quick to follow an irreverent joke with a proud “Yeah, I said it. So what?” expression.

And it’s clear Matlin is the kind of person who knows who she is, what she wants, and most of all, what she’s owed when it comes to accessibility for the Deaf and disabled communities—her call to arms since growing up legally deaf in suburban Illinois. “You have to keep reminding people that we’re still here and that we still deserve access just like everybody else,” she says. “I’m looking at theater [stage productions]: They’re still not open-captioned. We’re talking about televisions; we’re talking about press conferences. When the president is speaking on TV about a national emergency, you need to have an interpreter right there on the screen, because the captions don’t cover it all.”

The most recent in an endless list of examples? At a screening of “Cruella” with her family, Matlin’s caption glasses worked just fine until the film’s first song. “They don’t provide captions for the music lyrics!” She shakes her fists, at a loss for words. “Oh, I was just burning up.” Deaf audience members should always be able to choose between a variety of accessibility options, she says. “They can’t decide for us.” 

The actor and activist is all too familiar with the two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance of championing inclusivity. An outspoken member of the National Association of the Deaf, she fought for the passage of the 1990 Television Decoder Circuitry Act, which requires TVs to include closed-captioning technology. In 2010, she found herself again appealing to Congress to demand the same of streaming sites—on the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, no less.

But Matlin’s impatience and frustrations are forever tempered with optimism. “I think we’ve come a long way,” she says. “People are learning as we go along.”

Just look at the sea change that’s transforming the entertainment industry. “A Quiet Place” and its new sequel prominently feature American Sign Language, while Lauren Ridloff is poised to star as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first authentically deaf superhero in “The Eternals.” Deaf West Theatre has taken over Broadway, including with its 2015 production of “Spring Awakening,” in which Matlin starred. And this year’s Academy Awards recognized “Crip Camp,” a documentary on the disability rights movement; best picture nominee “Sound of Metal,” which features deaf characters; and “Feeling Through,” Doug Roland’s live-action short film that included Matlin and Jason as executive producers.

Featuring a deaf-blind character played by deaf-blind star Robert Tarango, “Feeling Through” is a prime example of a project that “walked the walk and talked the talk,” as Matlin puts it. She signed on as a producer upon her first viewing—“18 minutes of probably the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had, that really struck me at my core,” she says. The film has appeared in accessible screenings and talkbacks across the country, winning more than a dozen festival awards in addition to the Oscar nod. If all of Hollywood took authenticity as seriously as Roland did, Matlin says, there wouldn’t only be “little inclusivity cliques.”

So is there hope for the industry to make good on its promises of authentic minority casting, representation, and opportunities? Are artists with disabilities finally getting their due? “There are a lot of people in the business—people who are deaf—who are busier than ever,” says Matlin. “It’s all opening up! And people are very, very excited! And that’s great, and I don’t want to diminish the excitement. But I don’t want this all just to be the flavor of the year—deafness and disabilities just this year, and then, next year, we’ll move on to something else. It’s not a box to be checked off.”

The 2021 Oscars also marked a watershed moment for Matlin, who returned as a presenter 34 years after the last time disability in entertainment received mainstream attention: her winning feature debut, Mark Medoff and Hesper Anderson’s “Children of a Lesser God,” from director Randa Haines. The producers of the 1986 film had seen Matlin as a supporting character in a local Chicago production of Medoff’s play, and selected her after a yearslong, nationwide search for an authentically deaf actor. “That was my first Hollywood experience,” she says, reflecting on her whirlwind introduction to the industry. “The whole world was watching…. There I was, thrust onto the world stage.”

What many people don’t know is that within 48 hours of winning the Golden Globe for her performance, Matlin checked herself into rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. She learned of her Oscar nomination, and began working with Jason on coordinating press interviews, from behind closed doors at the Betty Ford Center near Los Angeles. “The bottom line is: I listened to myself. I listened to what I needed to do in order to be healthy and proceed with a clear mind,” Matlin explains. “So now, it’s been 34 years that I’ve been sober,” she adds proudly.

As if that full-circle moment at this year’s Oscars wasn’t enough, bookending it is Matlin’s buzzy new film. “CODA,” which won the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, sold to Apple TV+ for a record-breaking sum and is premiering Aug. 13. It’s the story of Emilia Jones’ Ruby, a hearing child of deaf parents (known as a Child of Deaf Adults, or CODA) who is torn between familial loyalty and pursuing her dreams of becoming a singer. Playing her family are Matlin and her Deaf West co-stars Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant in roles that, according to writer-director Sian Heder, the project’s initial investors tried giving to hearing actors.

See the "CODA" trailer here:

“I felt like I would rather see the movie not get made than see it get made with hearing actors playing deaf roles,” says Heder, noting Hollywood’s offensive tendency to reward nondisabled performers in disabled parts. “There are amazing stories in those worlds, and there are amazing actors. I mean, I was stunned by the talent in the Deaf community…. It was an asset to the project to have the kind of creative freedom that came along with having authentically cast actors.”

“I said to [the producers], ‘If you don’t listen to me, and you don’t respect me and my community, then I won’t be in the film,’ ” reveals Matlin. “People think that, like with makeup or a costume, you can just put on being deaf or being disabled. It doesn’t make sense, because there are so many deaf actors out there who can represent our community.”

“CODA” also marks a long-overdue milestone for Matlin; from “The West Wing” to “Dancing With the Stars” and her Emmy-nominated performances on “Picket Fences,” “Seinfeld,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” and “The Practice,” her onscreen appearances have almost never included deaf scene partners. “I think it was a very different experience for her to be acting alongside two other deaf actors and be able to improvise and have unscripted moments,” says Heder, who hired ASL masters to establish a cohesive signing dialect and learned the language herself to facilitate on-set communication.

As it turns out, ASL is an ideal language for a film set, where directors can give actors notes from far away or while cameras are rolling. “Suddenly, the whole crew was signing even when there weren’t deaf actors on set,” says Heder with a laugh. “Like, you’re working boat to boat and you need to communicate with someone, and you don’t have a walkie! I think people are daunted by how [procedures] would have to change in order to create an accessible set. But I will also just say: Moviemaking is problem-solving.”

Matlin would do it all again in a heartbeat. She remains, as ever, cautiously optimistic about the progress the film’s success may indicate: “I hope that with ‘CODA,’ we can start a trend again where deaf actors, as we did with ‘Children of a Lesser God,’ carry the film,” she says. “I want to see more of us carrying films, rather than playing third and fourth and fifth on the IMDb list.”

How, then, do we capitalize on the industry’s momentum and create inclusive spaces in front of and behind the camera? “In order to make sure that it doesn’t stop,” answers Matlin, “we need to continue creating; we need to continue collaborating. We need to continue! I mean, you can’t just sit back quietly and complain. You have to be proactive. And I’ve always been that way. That’s part of the business.”

That advice goes for getting cast as much as fighting for inclusivity. Aspiring actors looking to endure only a handful of auditions, as Matlin has, should follow her lead. “I’m the kind of person who thinks, Who is it that I can reach out to? It’s not necessarily easy to do. But it shouldn’t stop you from giving it a try.” When a character on Aaron Sorkin’s series “Sports Night” mentioned having a deaf sister, Matlin reached out to say she was a fan and, yes, asked for the part. Not long after she took Sorkin to lunch—“Chinese food,” she remembers—he created Joey Lucas on “The West Wing” for her. “So I’m always happy to approach people, to be assertive,” she says with a shrug. “I’ve never been one who’s been afraid. I hustle.”

A quote from Matlin’s memoir, “I’ll Scream Later,” gets to the root of that philosophy. Reflecting on a childhood spent in frustration over her inability to communicate, she writes, “Whoever or whatever was trying to hold me back—I would fight against it as if my very life depended on it. And I now believe that it did. That fight, that intensity, that relentless need to break through and connect, has, in many ways, propelled me through this life.”

For deaf or disabled artists, or anyone from underrepresented communities struggling to gain access to the business of authentic storytelling, the roadblocks—and the odds of getting past them—are abundantly clear. But what can Matlin do but meet every challenge head-on? “You can de-challenge it,” she advises. “I don’t know if that’s even a word! It means that you can either barrel through it, break the barrier, or just simply walk around it.”

Matlin’s ultimate point is quite simple: Dare to claim what you deserve. “It’s up to you,” she says. “It’s up to you.” 

Friday, June 11, 2021

'I am not ashamed': Disability advocates, experts implore you to stop saying 'special needs'


Text box that says Disabled. #SayTheWord

from USA Today

In our daily lives, we may encounter phrases like "I am disabled" or "My child has special needs." And to someone who is not part of the community, this wording may seem synonymous. But it's not. 

Most experts and advocates vehemently oppose the term "special needs," and believe we need to eliminate it from our vernacular. Furthermore, they say avoiding the term "disabled" only leads to stigmatization. 

For some, the term "special needs" feels offensive. 

"I am disabled by society due to my impairment," says Lisette Torres-Gerald, board secretary for the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities. "My needs are not 'special;' they are the same, human needs that everyone else has, and I should be able to fully participate in society just as much as the next person."

It can also be counterproductive. 

Researchers from a 2016 study found people who are referred to as having "special needs" are seen more negatively than those referred to as having a disability.

Lawrence Carter-Long went viral with the hashtag #SayTheWord several years ago in an effort to promote the use of "disabled."

Carter-Long, communications director for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, says the word disabled connects members of the community "to each other, our common history, and to the lineage of all those who fought, protested and persisted so that one day we could be proud of disability history too."

Torres-Gerald says there is power in the word disabled.

"I am not ashamed to be disabled; I consider it a difference that allows me to view the world in a different way than other people."

The history of the term 'special needs'

It's not clear where the term "special needs" originated; one theory is "special needs" arose following the launch of the Special Olympics in the 1960s, according to the 2016 study published in "Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications." 

The National Center on Disability and Journalism says special needs "was popularized in the U.S. in the early 20th century during a push for special needs education to serve people with all kinds of disabilities."

Data shows it permeated the public consciousness over the last few decades. Special needs has grown increasingly popular in books the past several decades, while "handicapped" has decreased significantly.

The term is not a legal one – in fact, it only appears about a dozen times across thousands of pages of laws in the U.S. "Never once are children with disabilities or adults with disabilities referred to as children with special needs or adults with special needs," according to the study. "Rather, individuals with disabilities are always referred to in U.S. law as individuals with disabilities."

Jamie Davis Smith, whose daughter is disabled, points out that people with disabilities are entitled to certain rights as a result – from movie theater seating to Medicaid and more.

"Special needs" doesn't offer the same legal protections.

The term 'special needs' is harmful, experts say

"Special needs" has actually become a "dysphemism" – a derogatory term as opposed to a softer one. Like saying "loony bin" instead of "mental hospital." 

Quinn West, a disabled artist living in Chicago, grew up going to a mainstream school and felt the impact of the term "special needs." 

"Abled people assume that saying 'special' means a 'good special' when disabled kids who went through the system know that kids would use 'special' as an insult," West says.

West says it makes those who are disabled sound like an extra burden, when that's not the case; "I’m deaf, so like everyone else I need communication. That need isn’t anything extraordinary. It’s the same need for human connection, but I just need an accommodation to do so."

Nila Morton, a 22-year old college student, disabled advocate and model in South Carolina, says that words matter. "It’s OK to say 'disabled' and 'disability,'" Morton says. "Those words aren’t bad. The only reason they are seen as bad is because of the able-normative view of disability."

What parents say about their children with disabilities

Parents may be more comfortable using "special needs." But their children most likely won't take that with them into adulthood.

"While it is used by parents of disabled kids, as those kids become young adults, they do not use this term," Lauren Appelbaum, vice president of communications at RespectAbility says.

Smith doesn't want her disabled daughter Claire to have "special" treatment. Her daughter simply requires extra support. "I think it's really important that non-disabled people, people who don't know people with disabilities, understand that I'm not really asking for anything that special for my daughter, I'm just asking that she be able to participate in her community, in life, on an equal basis as my other kids," she says.

Parents who opt to use the term are not coming from a bad place.

"Parents, like all of us, are prone to adopt whatever is common in the ecosystem that surrounds them," Carter-Long says. "And since most folks aren’t born into disabled families, it’s no surprise that they just adopt whatever their friends and neighbors do. Even if it’s unintentionally bigoted. Even if it harms their kids in ways they don’t quite understand."

What you should be saying instead

The National Center on Disability and Journalism recommends never using it: "Our advice: avoid the term 'special needs.' Disabled is acceptable in most contexts, but we advise asking the person to whom you’re referring what they prefer."

Sonja Sharp, a metro reporter with the Los Angeles Times, prefers identity-first language: "disabled" over "person with disabilities." "It's cleaner, it's simpler, and it's more reflective of my reality," Sharp says. "The law defines me as disabled."

For Sharp, disability is at the core of her identity.

"Every significant experience – school, friendships, puberty, sex, career, marriage, motherhood – has been shaped by this body, made different because of this body," she says. "I am disabled the way I am Jewish – intrinsic and inseparable from me."

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Creators-Directors of film "Drought," now on Amazon Prime, say authentic casting can happen in any production

In the picture, (L-R) Hannah Black, Owen Scheid, Megan Petersen and Drew Scheid in Drought.

In the picture, (L-R) Hannah Black, Owen Scheid, Megan Petersen and Drew Scheid in Drought. 

from MovieMaker.
By Drought filmmakers Megan Petersen and Hannah Black

Megan Petersen and Hannah Black are the creators-directors-producers of Drought, which was just released on Prime Video. Black wrote the script, and she and Petersen also act in the film. Drought is set in a small, southern, drought-ridden town in 1993, where Sam (Black) tries to find a better life for her brother Carl (Owen Scheid) who is on the autism spectrum and fascinated by weather. She decides to steal their mother’s ice-cream truck and chase a storm. 

Here are Petersen and Black describing some of the challenges they faced and overcame on the film.

On the surface, it may appear that our North Carolina-based film had everything going in its favor: We have Mark and Jay Duplass on as executive producers, for crying out loud. But when gearing up for production, we had a couple of assumed challenges, and then real challenges, that we never anticipated. We’ll give you our top three of each.

Assumed Challenge No. 1: Finding a stellar team outside major film markets will be tricky.
FALSE! We are proof it’s possible to make a movie where you live, and that it can even an advantage. After searching nationwide for both cast and crew, we teamed up with two incredible production companies in our town, Lighthouse Films and Brightermoon Entertainment. They led us to an extremely talented 11-person crew, many of whom were stepping into multiple roles they’d never done before. The cast was also all local to our town.

This was not because of budget or compromise. North Carolina breeds some talented, hardworking, and kind individuals and making this film was proof. Speaking of amazing local talent…

Assumed Challenge No. 2: Casting an actor on the autism spectrum will be hard.
Not a challenge! Period. End of story. Anyone telling you different is lying or to put it quite bluntly… they didn’t even try. If there was anything challenging about casting the role of Carl authentically, it was that there were so many talented autistic actors that we had more choices than we knew what to do with.

Assumed Challenge No. 3: You can’t create a convincing period piece on a micro budget.
Sleepy southern towns are stuck in time y’all! A grocery with manual registers, check. An ice cream truck from the early ’90s, check. What made it all convincing was our Art Dept, Set Decorator, Props, and Editor, Parrish Stikeleather, a talented director and writer who happens to also be good at everything. His eye for detail and complete understanding of the script made Drought seem perfectly ’90s in the South. What else does the South bring? Summer heat. Yes, heat is tough. Especially when it is 105 degrees and nine people are filming in an old ice cream truck with no air conditioning. However, it added to the authenticity and gave it the real southern summer feeling we were wanting.

Well. With all these assumed challenges proving less difficult than we expected, the rest must have been really easy, yeah?

Cue the real challenges!

Real Challenge No. 1: Wearing a lot, like a lot, a lot, of hats on our first feature.
How does one act in an important emotional scene while seeing the grip truck stuck in sand or knowing a real storm is headed your way? To be honest, we look back and don’t know how our brains didn’t explode. A particular challenge was acting in scenes while pushing aside all other tasks that needed to be taken care of. We learned that it all comes down to trust. But how do you get trust? Well, you put together an amazing team. It was important not only for us as actors, but also directors, to trust in our team so we could be present in each scene. When you have an amazing team (see Assumed Challenge No. 1), this real challenge becomes much easier to handle.

Real Challenge No. 2: Life goes on. So does death.
Spoiler alert: The world continues spinning when you are shooting your movie. Who knew?! This means that things can happen. Like, really serious, Debbie Downer, soul crushing shit. There is no sugar coating this challenge. On Day 6 of production, Megan got the worst call anyone can get, receiving the news that her mother had passed away. We could get into the really tough decisions Megan had to make (trust us, you can’t even imagine) or the difficult calls that Hannah had to decipher making while wanting to be there for her best friend, but that could be a whole story of its own. The reality is, it was hard. Maybe the hardest moment during the making of this whole movie. Enter our perfectly wonderful and empathetic crew to save the day again. Their support, kindness, and belief in the movie kept the train rolling. Megan took time away while the rest of the team kept moving. When she came back to set, everyone was there with open arms and kept a keen watch on her through the rest of the shoot. In turn, she showed strength and grace that was out of this world. That was the day we all became family.

Real Challenge No. 3: Hurricane. Just when we thought we’d made it through the hardest thing a production could handle, a big, fat category 4 hurricane was headed straight for our town. One of the hardest challenges in any step of filmmaking is losing momentum. We were 12 days into an 18-day shoot and had to make the gut-wrenching call to stop production. The hurricane had a devastating hit on our town and surrounding areas. We were not sure if our locations were even still standing after the storm. The big lingering question mark was, were we going to finish this movie? Since you’re reading this, the answer is “Yes,” but at the time, we truly did not know what the future would hold. After a scene rewrite, cast and crew scheduling Tetris, and a two-month pause, our team came back together to finish out the movie in 44 degree weather; a vast difference from 105. But we did it! Once again, this rockstar cast and crew from NC prevailed!

At this point, we had a movie! A real life movie! We entered into festivals and…we got in!!! They were traveling us out to these festivals?! They were booking us hotels and throwing us parties and networking events and connecting us to audiences!!! We had arrived to the indie filmmaker’s big time!!!! Then…

Bonus Real Challenge: A global pandemic.
The difference here is we all went through this one together. Our sold out World Premiere at our home state RiverRun International Film Festival was cancelled and our festival run was looking quite different than we expected. However, we learned about digital marketing, networking with filmmakers across the country thanks to Zoom, and felt close to the amazing festival professionals, since we all had to work together to make it a success.

Maybe the coolest thing that happened was having our film play at the drive-in at our hometown festival, Cucalorus. Our cast & crew and folks from our amazing community filled every parking lot space in Wilmington, North Carolina, and there, we finally got to see our work on the big screen. All the challenges faded away as the car horns started honking with the roll of the credits. A moment we will never forget.

While this may seem like a cautionary tale of why to never make a movie, it is in fact the opposite. It’s why you can and should make your film despite any curveball thrown your way. The theme of our film’s story is that “there is no such thing as normal.” We guess you could say it also applies to the making of this movie, and all movies really. Normal doesn’t exist. There isn’t one path to take. So, if you have a story, please tell it. Find your path, gather your team, keep pressing through, and, as cheesy as it sounds, don’t give up, even when it gets really hard. The world needs to hear your voice too.

Megan Petersen and Hannah Black’s Drought is now available for rent or purchase exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.