Saturday, January 15, 2022

How children’s author Cece Bell, ‘El Deafo’ give deafness a lead role in new Apple TV+ animated series


From Steven Aquino, the diversity, 

equity & inclusion contributor at Forbes

Considering the world is entering into its third year amidst a pandemic, it’s hard to recall what life was like before it. At this point, 2019 feels like ancient history. It might as well have happened during the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

As a tech journalist who’s covered Apple at close range for years, I remember 2019 for the star-studded event the company held in March at Apple Park to announce, amongst other things, the hotly-anticipated Apple TV+ streaming service. The glitzy event was the closest I’ve ever come to covering a red carpet show, only nobody wore their fanciest designer clothing. It was quite something to sit in the audience and watch Apple parade A-lister after A-lister onstage to hype up their new project: Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Momoa—even Big Bird was there. Afterwards, as I was milling around the press area in the Steve Jobs Theater with Apple PR folks and fellow reporters, I distinctly remember being alerted at one point that JJ Abrams was standing twenty feet away. He was surrounded by other people, but to this day, it’s kinda cool to think I once was in close proximity of a celebrity.

When TV+ launched that November, it debuted with shows like The Morning ShowSeeDickinsonFor All Mankind, and moreAnd the roster has grown considerably since. One of its newest titles is the animated series El Deafo, which premiered on January 7. It shows the journey of a young girl named Cece who loses a substantial amount of her hearing following an infection. In its press release announcing the show, Apple described Cece as “[learning] to embrace what makes her extraordinary.”

Apple’s trailer for El Deafo is on YouTube.

El Deafo is based upon the graphic novel of the same name, written by author and illustrator Cece Bell. The book is autobiographical of sorts, as it mirrors Bell’s own childhood experience with being born hearing and then becoming deaf. In a recent interview with me, Bell said the impetus for the comic started a decade ago. She felt a need to come to terms with her deafness, as she was reticent to tell anyone she was deaf nor discuss it. Having already been a published children’s author, she figured what better way to confront her feelings than by writing for others. “I felt like the graphic novel would be the perfect format to try to share this story,” she said.

As for how El Deafo came to be for the small screen, veteran TV writer Will McRobb contacted Bell and expressed how much he enjoyed the novel and was interested in developing a version for TV. Bell was a fan of his prior work, so she felt comfortable working with him. (Both Bell and McRobb serve as executive producers.) “[It] all just sort of fell into place after that,” she said. “But it took somebody like him being [someone] I already respected for me to really dive into turning the book into a show.” The decision to make the show animated was an easy one as well, given the book is in cartoon form. Another reason for animating El Deafo was, of course, the pandemic. With the animation studio located in Ireland, it was easiest (and sensible given Covid) to work remotely by passing around notes and having virtual meetings. The remote aspect of production came in especially handy when doing the post-production audio work, which includes Bell’s voiceovers, both of which play crucial roles in the show.

Bell described the audio work as a “very complicated, very tricky” process; she worked closely with engineers to get it right. In order to achieve maximum authenticity, Bell told them to “take beautiful sound and make it sound terrible.” The complicated and tricky part was Bell needing to explain to engineers what she hears and what it feels like, and then ask them to recreate it. Characters’ voices on the show are purposefully distorted, almost to an unintelligible level, to try to give audiences a sense of what Bell’s world sounds like. She clarified, however, that what’s heard in the show isn’t literally what she hears—it’s an approximation of what she perceives to hear.

“I was so involved [in the sound design], and I read more notes than you would ever want,” Bell said with a laugh.

One poignant point Cece the narrator makes in the pilot episode is that, although she lost her hearing, she did not learn American Sign Language. She became deaf in 1975, and explained deafness and sign language were not as socially accepted then as they are nowadays. Bell explained how, growing up, she attended a school dedicated to deaf children; communicatively, teachers pushed students to learn to talk vocally and become lip-readers rather than learn sign language. Bell had about four-and-a-half years of typical hearing and language, so she grasped the concepts of lip-reading quickly. Sign language was never an option for her, not only because it wasn’t taught but also because Bell “didn’t want to be pigeon-holed,” she said. She thought of herself as a hearing person, and felt learning sign language would stigmatize her as an official deaf person. Sign language is inherently performative, and Bell didn’t want to be gawked at by her peers. “I just felt like I was that kid who didn't want anybody to see me as a different person,” Bell said. “I didn't want anybody to look at me. That was me as a kid, but I don't think I really understood it [sign language] the way I do now.”

Bell is finally learning sign language, little by little, now that she’s an adult. It hasn’t been easy for her. “I’m very slow,” she said.

The addition of El Deafo to the TV+ lineup is significant not only for attrition’s sake—Apple’s used its nigh-infinite war chest to pour considerable resources into building the service’s catalog, with new content appearing all the time—but for representation too. For all of the incessant talk about subscriber numbers by analysts, the company deserves the utmost credit for being amongst a select few streaming providers to tackle disability representation in Hollywood with tenacity—and authenticity. Bell’s series joins the ranks of See and CODA, as well as the recently-cancelled Little Voice, as positive displays of disability. As disability has been historically portrayed in TV and film as something to be pitied and overcome—too often resulting in feel-good, patronizing fodder that the disability community derisively refer to as “inspiration porn”—Apple instead has positioned disability matter-of-factly. To wit, that being disabled is not something out of a Shakespearean tragedy—it’s simply part of who we are as humans. Put another way, Apple has taken the same thoughtfulness it uses for the accessibility support for its products and applied it just as meaningfully to the shows it bankrolls for TV+. Apple is certainly not above criticism, but again, is deserving of more recognition for its effort to boost inclusivity of our marginalized communities. It gives TV+ an undervalued differentiator as it competes in the market.

As for Bell’s relationship with Apple, she couldn’t have been more complimentary of her dealings with the company. “Overall, it’s just been a terrific experience,” she said. Bell has had “100% involvement” with El Deafo every step of the way, saying Apple has listened to her and given whatever support she needed. Executives never questioned, for example, Bell’s insistence that the lead voice actress be deaf and have similar life experiences to hers. I asked if the aforementioned disability-centric shows were factors into her signing on with Apple for El Deafo, and Bell said her deal was struck long before stuff like CODA arrived—in the days when TV+ carried a fraction of the content that’s available currently. Like seemingly everyone else on the planet, she adores Ted Lasso, telling me it was the first show she watched. “This [being on Apple TV+] has been a happy accident, you know. I’ve ended up at the right spot,” she said.

Bell had kind words to say about Tara Sorensen, who leads creative development of children’s programming for Apple Worldwide Video. Sorensen, Bell told me, was adamant about El Deafo staying true by preserving its authenticity. Bell called Sorensen “a great, great advocate for the book from the beginning.” Bell noted that, although there were hiccups along the way—Bell often was the only deaf person in meetings—“everyone listened and was willing to absorb information,” she said.

The show is still very much in its infancy, but feedback on El Deafo has been terrific thus far. One of the comments Bell receives most often are notes from people who say they love the show, but felt they needed to adjust the volume of their TV because the show’s distorted audio made it seem like their set was broken. She also hears from many parents, who are excited for their children to see what other kids’ lives are like, and to be exposed to esoteric pieces of technology like hearing aids. Deaf children in particular, she added, are “very excited” to see themselves on TV and to personally identify with the experiences the animated Cece goes through. “It’s been really, really fun [working on the show], and I’m very relieved people are enjoying it,” Bell said.

Apple has posted a video to YouTube that features special commentary by Bell.

The three-part El Deafo can be found now in Apple’s TV app.

Friday, December 17, 2021

‘The Music Man’ once had a disabled character. Then he was erased.


From The New York Times:

Pictured: Michael Phelan as Winthrop Paroo and Rebecca Luker as Marian Paroo in a 2000 revival of “The Music Man” at the Neil Simon Theater in Manhattan.

Credit...

By Amanda Morris(Amanda Morris is a 2021-2022 disability reporting fellow for the National desk. @amandamomorris)

Many know Meredith Willson’s 1957 Broadway musical, “The Music Man,” as a light comedy centered on a cheeky scam artist who pretends to be a musician and sells the idea of starting a boys’ band to a small town in Iowa. The show is being revived on Broadway starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, and will begin performances this month.

But several newly recognized drafts of the musical, written between 1954 and 1957, show that originally, the story focused more on the town’s persecution of a boy in a wheelchair — carrying a much more serious message than the final draft. At the time, children with disabilities were routinely institutionalized in horrid conditions and denied an education.

In the version that debuted in 1957, the only character that doesn’t fall for the scheme is Marian Paroo, a well-read single woman who has a shy younger brother with a lisp, named Winthrop. But the con man, Harold Hill, manages to charm Marian and wins her over in part by being kind to Winthrop and including him in the band.

In the earlier drafts, Marian’s younger brother was a character named Jim Paroo, a boy in a wheelchair who, in some versions of the show, has limited use of his arms and could not speak. Wherever Jim goes, townspeople want to lock him up, and in some versions, this drives him to hide and live in the school basement instead of at home.

Then, Harold comes along and challenges the community’s assumptions about Jim by bringing him into the band and finding an instrument he’s capable of playing with his limited range of motion. An early title for the show, “The Silver Triangle,” highlights Jim’s instrument of choice and contribution to the band.

“I think that Jim was very much at the heart of the show,” said Dominic Broomfield-McHugh, a musicology professor at the University of Sheffield in England who discovered many of the earlier drafts in 2013 at the Great American Songbook Foundation in Indiana. These discoveries were published in May in Broomfield-McHugh’s new book, “The Big Parade: Meredith Willson’s Musicals from ‘The Music Man’ to ‘1491.’” The book explores the musical’s journey from “The Silver Triangle” to “The Music Man” we know today — and has a chapter devoted to the various early drafts of the show.

“When you read the first draft, it feels quite thin until you get to the scenes with Jim or about Jim, and suddenly it becomes very dramatic and serious,” he said. “I still feel astonished when I look at it.”

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Most of the songs and scenes in earlier drafts are also significantly different, according to Broomfield-McHugh. In one deleted song, Jim, who is nonverbal in this version of the show, starts to sing onstage alone.

“What Willson was trying to do was to sort of say, even though he can’t physically speak, he has all these thoughts and ideas going around in his head,” Broomfield-McHugh said.

Though Willson’s writing of disability was sometimes gimmicky in ways that could now be seen as offensive — in one scene, music inspires Jim to stand up for the first time — Broomfield-McHugh believes that the playwright was trying to spark a conversation about how people with disabilities were treated at the time.

He found evidence that the playwright had visited organizations for disabled children but couldn’t find any other personal reasons that Willson may have had for writing about this issue.

Just 10 months before the show opened, Willson dropped the character of Jim, replacing him with Winthrop at the urging of producers who felt there was no place for serious representations of disability onstage.

“But I sense such a frustration in him that he really, really tried for years to make it work like this,” Broomfield-McHugh said.

One memo urged Willson to change the character, stating that “physical disability in a child is impossible to view in any terms but pity and sentiment, the problem is to find some other form of disability besides physical.” The memo is undated and unsigned, but Broomfield-McHugh believes it was written in early 1957 by an employee of a producer. He found it in Wisconsin Historical Society archives, tucked in the back of a script that belonged to the producer Kermit Bloomgarden, who took over production of the show in 1957. 

Another letter to Willson, written in 1955 by the playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, says, “The easy solution is to dump Jim Paroo,” but that doing so “might conceivably reduce a major work to the dimension of mere entertainment.”

Today, audiences can more regularly see disabled actors onstage thanks to efforts by small theater companies like The Apothetae, which produces works centered on the disabled experience; and Theater Breaking Through Barriers, an Off Broadway organization that regularly casts actors with disabilities.

But on Broadway, which can elevate shows into mainstream commercial hits, authentic representations of disability are still few and far between, said Talleri A. McRae, a founder of National Disability Theater.

There have been some successes. Ali Stroker made history in 2019 as the first actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award for her role as a flirty fiancée, Ado Annie, in ‘Oklahoma!’; Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, played Laura in a 2017 production of “The Glass Menagerie.” There was also the casting of a disabled actor in the role of Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” in 2019; a 2015 revival of “Spring Awakening” by Deaf West Theater, which featured deaf and hearing actors side by side; as well as Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer-winning 2017 Off Broadway play“Cost of Living,” about people with disabilities.

Even with this progress, many disabled characters are not written in well-rounded ways, and actors without disabilities are often cast in these roles, McRae said.

To her knowledge, the character of Nessarose in “Wicked” — who uses a wheelchair — has never been played by a disabled actress on Broadway, and the same was true for the character of Crutchie, who uses a crutch in the show “Newsies.”

“Look how far we haven’t come,” said Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy and the founder and artistic director of the Apothetae. “Or how far we have yet to go.”

Part of the problem is inaccessibility for acting training programs, said Mozgala, who is also the director of inclusion for the Queens Theater’s program Theater for All, which helps support and train disabled playwrights and actors. In his own acting program at the Boston University School for the Arts, he was the only person who identified as disabled and said many actors with disabilities have been told to sit out of certain classes, such as movement classes, because professors felt uncomfortable teaching students with disabilities.

Another barrier is the perception of audiences. Nicholas Viselli, the artistic director of Theater Breaking Through Barriers, said audiences still feel uncomfortable watching disabled actors or characters onstage. For the plays he stages, he said he often receives donations from people who say they think the work is important but don’t want to come see it.

“When you advertise disability, it becomes a turnoff,” Viselli said. “People are like, ‘I’ll feel bad for them. It will perhaps diminish my experience.’”

In the end, the version of “The Music Man” without Jim was a hit; it won five Tony Awards, including best musical, ran for 1,375 performances and was adapted into an Oscar-winning movie in 1962.

“The Music Man” has since been criticized for making light of its con artist’s problematic, predatory behavior, such as a scene in which he follows Marian home and tries multiple times to seduce her.

The legacy of “The Music Man” may have been different if Willson’s original vision had made it onto the Broadway stage in a way that authentically represented people with disabilities. Many of the stigmas and barriers it tried to confront still persist, according to Penny Pun, the managing director of the National Disability Theater.

“A lot of these works are being put down before they even see the light of day,” Pun said. “So how do we know if they have mainstream appeal? They never get a chance.”

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A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 16, 2021, Section C, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: In Early Scripts, ‘The Music Man’ Included a Disabled Character. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe



Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Please stop comparing disability mimicry to blackface by Dominick Evans

Note: This is a reprint of Evans, D. (2017). "Please stop comparing disability mimicry to blackface," on the Dominick Evans website, which experienced a breach and was shut down. Reprinted with permission, 2021.

By Dominick Evans, (He/They), Hollywood Inclusion & Representation Consultant, Filmmaker, Writer, Streamer, Influencer, and FilmDis Founder. Evans is pictured.

Those of us who are white in the disability community need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation. There are black and brown disabled people in our communities. They often go ignored, are not listened to, and they are speaking out about the things that our greater community does that are harmful to them. One of those things is culturally appropriating terms that have been taken from concepts relating to racism and the oppression of Black and brown bodies. I know it gets tiring to hear this new term or that new term, but when it comes to those who are multiply marginalized in our community, we need to actually listen to what they are saying.

I spend all day, most days studying film, television, and other media. We've had this discussion before, and I think it's an important one we need to have again. We as disabled people and our allies need to stop calling the unfair casting of non-disabled people as "disabled" and the exclusion of disabled actors from media such as film and television as "cripface." The term has specifically been taken from blackface, and I see the comparison between the two over and over again. We spoke about it during our #FilmDis discussion back in 2015, which was led by disabled POC. They have told us to stop doing this over and over again, and I don't know if the message is not getting through to everyone, but I believe we should listen.

I know that we have struggled to find a word or phrase, although, generally, using "cripping up" has been better accepted, and I've also started using disabled mimicry, which I think fits simply because mimicry is often embedded in (often unintentional) mockery. Whether non-disabled actors intend to mock us is not relevant to using the term, because whether there is malice or not that is what happens. It is a mockery of disability, through the weird vocal intonation or accents we hear when portraying CP or Deaf characters, the twitching, writhing bodies portraying strokes or spasticity, the rigidity of body posture, curling and flopping of wrists, or whatever physically stereotypical things these actors take on to portray what they think it means to be disabled. Yes, disabled bodies do some of these things, but they do so naturally and organically. It's not something easily done if your body does not curl or twist or writhe or flap on its own, and often becomes to focal point of disabled portrayals by non-disabled performers.

Nobody is saying this is not bad or horrible. In fact, it is very harmful. It harms the disability community, which is why I scoff at the defense of actors doing it. I recently saw an article asking if we should take away the Oscars from actors like Tom Hanks and Daniel Day-Lewis for their performances that are nothing short of disabled mimicry. Even Day-Lewis, who I know some disabled people support, associates disability with nothing more than physically curling up his body and contorting it, while using his voice to grunt and growl. All of these factors have turned disability into nothing more than physical characteristics, and that is the personification of disabled mimicry. Take away their Oscars for doing real harm to actual disabled people? What a novel idea! While it is nice to think of that in retrospect, we need to look forward about what can be done to prevent this in the future.

I digress.

Going further, I see the comparison between disabled mimicry and blackface not just in how we talk about disabled people being excluded, but also in comparing the oppression. Blackface comes from a long tradition of outright mocking Black people. Disabled mimicry is mocking, but rarely have I seen it done specifically as a form of mocking. Instead, it is done by people who think they know what disability is about or they think it is a great way to get to the Oscars, and they probably aren't that far off. Often, the actors think they are do-gooders taking on a "challenge" while writers and directors seek praise for "inclusion."

Blackface has long been done insidiously, not just to remind Black people of their place in society, but also to remind us white folks of our supposed "superiority over Black people. Looking back at cinema, the legacy of Birth of a Nation (1915) has painted Black people as foolish, intellectually inferior, a joke, a silly child. We see the infantilization of disabled people in film and other media, as well, but it comes from an entirely different place. Rather, it is done to make us look dependent, burdensome, or is even used as a plot device. Both forms of oppression are bad and cause harm to the communities they represent, but they have such different histories the comparison becomes problematic.

Consider the fact that there are disabled Black people who not only have to deal with disabled mimicry, but also blackface. Comparing the two can make these individuals feel invisible. This is what I've been told by numerous Black disabled activists, more than once when talking about disability, race, and the media. Add in the fact that over 80% of roles are male, 70% are white, and over 99% are cisgender and heterosexual when it comes to disabled roles, and Black and brown disabled women and trans folks are already feeling very excluded from the media. We need to start including Black disabled people, especially women and trans folks, not only in the discussion about media, but in the creation of it. That is hard to do when we consider we may be isolating Black disabled folks by comparing their/our oppression as disabled people, with their oppression as Black people.

Disabled mimicry comes from a place where disabled people have no voices because it is often assumed we cannot speak for ourselves. It comes from a place of ignorance about disability. It comes from people who may think they are doing something good for our community, but who are actually harming it because they have no concept of what our community is or what we believe or represent. Can it be malicious? Absolutely! Do I think most people are doing so maliciously? I don't believe so, and I have consumed a large amount of media that includes disabled characters and storylines. Where the problem comes in is that these creators don't want to listen. They are not exactly aiming to mock us. They would have to understand disability to know how. I don't think most of them even understand enough about disability to knowingly do that, but it does mock us and it does harm us.

Blackface was always meant to mock and dehumanize Black people, and therein lies the difference. At the heart of this discussion it comes down to intent. Whitewashing may have become more insidious like disabled mimicry, but the comparison is not helping anyone. At the heart of this is the fact that Black disabled people have asked us to stop the comparison, and we need to listen to what they have to say.

You do not have to believe me, but please listen to the Black disabled voices in our community:

Anita Cameron, legendary disability rights activist with ADAPT and Not Dead Yet says, "Cripface is appropriative and erases the history of Black folks and how we were insulted, ridiculed and put down by the White film establishment. When cripface is compared to Blackface, it is insulting, inappropriate and flat out wrong. Just don't do it. And yes, I'm Black and disabled. If I see that comparison taking place I will call it out! Blackface was meant to be cruel to Black folks."

As a community, we as disabled people have plenty of valid reasons for why disabled mimicry is not okay. Instead of pointing out how other groups are oppressed and excluded, I believe it would be much better if we chose to develop our own talking points about why disabled mimicry or "cripping up," whatever we choose to call it, is harmful, and when we do, let's include the multiply marginalized voices in our community, in the process.

Edited to include quotes.

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You can find Dominick Evans here: 

Website - FilmDis

Discord - CripCusader Community

Twitter - @DominickEvans

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment (GADIM) partners with FilmDis for TV study

 

Picture on left is of "Hollyoaks" star Tylan Grant, who is the first autistic actor to play an autistic character on British television. Pictured on the right is Sammi Haney, who plays Dion's best friend on the Netflix show "Raising Dion." Sammi, who is a wheelchair user, was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta Type III. The text beneath the pictures says, "The FilmDis study shows that only 11% of disabled characters on TV are played by disabled actors" (FilmDis, 2019).







                                                  

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Email: bhaller@towson.edu                                         December 3, 2021

Website: https://www.gadim.org/

 

GADIM partners with FilmDis; revamps website

FilmDis study shows that almost 90% of disabled characters on TV are played by nondisabled actors

 

December 3, 2021 - The Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment (GADIM) is pleased to announce its new partnership with FilmDis, a media monitoring organization created by screenwriting and directing duo, Dominick Evans & Ashtyn Law. GADIM, which was founded in 2016 by journalist Patricia Almeida in Brazil, lawyer Cátia Malaquias of Australia, and professor Beth Haller of the USA, was created to promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in mass media. GADIM also announces its website redesign.

GADIM sponsored the second FilmDis study, which examined disability representation on scripted entertainment television in 2019/2020. The study found 1,198 disabled characters across 30 TV networks & streaming services, but it was rarely authentic representation.  Only 128 characters, about 11 percent, were played by disabled actors, which is defined as the actor having at least one of the disabilities they portrayed.

Other significant findings were that almost 43 percent of the disabled characters were cisgender white males. For more information about the study, visit GADIM’s Media Analysis Study web page, https://gadim.org/project/media-analysis-study/.

Evans and Law explain that “there is much more to disabled lives than what we see (on TV), and with Hollywood in desperate need of fresh stories and voices, disabled creators and their ideas for television are ripe for the picking. Hollywood just needs to let the stories bloom.”

GADIM’s revised website has several significant new features such as pages for media Best Practices in advertising, news, and entertainment media and a page about how mass media can make their content more accessible.

“The partnership with FilmDis and the revamped website allows GADIM to better reach its goal of helping mass media globally to improve their portrayals of disability,” said co-director Beth Haller. “GADIM believes that people with disabilities must be involved in all aspects of mass media content to convey their authentic stories.”

GADIM’s mission is informed by Article 8 (Awareness-raising) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). A summary of Article 8 states: “As a change of perceptions is essential to improve the situation of persons with disabilities, ratifying countries are to combat stereotypes and prejudices and promote awareness of the capabilities of persons with disabilities.”

GADIM activities include being judges for the MIPCOM Diversify TV Excellence Awards for the international television industry, providing feedback on disability representation for Lionsgate Films, and co-hosting a conference on Disability, Media, and Human Rights in 2018 in Perth, Australia.

GADIM will become a registered non-profit in 2022.

December 3 is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and on this day, GADIM joins the international #WeThe15 campaign in an effort to promote accessibility and inclusion globally for the 15% of the world’s population who live with a disability (1.2 billion people).

For more information about the FilmDis study, contact Dominick Evans at info@filmdis.com.

 

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Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Annie Live! casts Alan Toy as Franklin D. Roosevelt — the first polio survivor to take on the role

 

from People magazine:

Annie Live! has found its Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

On November 15, NBC announced that Alan Toy has been cast in the role, making him the first polio survivor to play the 32nd president in the beloved musical. Both Toy, 71, and Roosevelt contracted polio resulting in paralysis.  

"It is a huge honor to join such a talented ensemble," Toy said in a press release. "FDR has always been a role model of accomplishment for me, and I'm thrilled to be able to play him." 

"I tip my hat to NBC and the producers of 'Annie Live!' for authentically casting a person with a Disability for this role," the actor and activist continued. "I'm proud to represent the community and hope that we will continue to see more of the Disability Community in roles across entertainment media." 

Toy joins a star-studded cast for the upcoming live musical, airing Thursday, Dec. 2 on NBC. Taraji P. Henson will star as Miss Hannigan, Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, Nicole Scherzinger as Grace and newcomer Celina Smith as Annie.

Tituss Burgess has taken on the role of Rooster Hannigan, while Megan Hilty is filling in as Lily St. Regis after Jane Krakowski tested positive for a breakthrough case of COVID-19 earlier in November.

Henson, 51, previously opened up to PEOPLE about playing her iconic character. "Playing the villain is always fun," she said in October. "With Miss Hannigan, there is so much to work with and dig deeper into. It's just such a fun and iconic character to play."

She also expressed excitement about the project's timing, airing just as families are coming together to celebrate the holidays.

"Holidays are an opportunity to bring people together and prioritize happiness and, for me, that's what musicals do," she says. "They're joyous and fun and make you think and just make you feel as though you're part of a larger community."

Annie Live! airs Thursday, Dec. 2 (8 p.m. ET) on NBC. 

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?”