Thursday, August 8, 2019

Can Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, change Hollywood?

From the South Florida Sun Sentinel (From left in picture: Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf)

Boynton Beach actor Zack Gottsagen faces life with a contagious optimism, an undaunted confidence in himself, and in others, that inspires people to accomplish things they may think impossible, even while they are doing it.
It is all the more remarkable for someone who has spent much of his life hearing the word “no.”

He would never talk or walk, doctors said. He would not be in the school play, his high school said. A feature film starring someone with Down syndrome would never get financing, said two young filmmakers who then spent five years making sure it got finished, living in a tent for much of that time.

Audiences across the country soon will be introduced to Gottsagen in “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a bittersweet buddy comedy whose release in more than 500 theaters on Aug. 23 is as improbable as the standing ovations that film-festival audiences have given its star, an unknown 34-year-old actor with Down syndrome who willed the story, from a script no one in Hollywood wanted to read, onto the screen.

Veteran film actor Shia LaBeouf, Gottsagen’s co-star in “The Peanut Butter Falcon” — along with Dakota Johnson and Oscar nominees Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church — calls the Zack effect “magical.”

And no one fell under Gottsagen’s spell with more intensity than LaBeouf, the mercurial Hollywood antihero who was arrested and jailed during filming near Savannah, Ga., in 2017 after a booze-fueled breakdown that threatened to pull the plug on the project.

It was a moment of reckoning for the film and for LaBeouf, who has acknowledged that a face-to-face, tough-love conversation with Gottsagen got him sober and changed his life.

“There’s something about Zack that feels altruistic and, dare I say, omnipotent. He can look through you in a way that feels really beautiful,” says Tyler Nilson, who co-directed “The Peanut Butter Falcon” with Michael Schwartz. “I made a promise to him. I made a promise to him that we were going to do this film and I was going to deliver on my promise, hell or high water, living in a tent or whatever.”

‘Like a brother to me’

In “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” rated PG-13, Gottsagen is Zak, a young man with no family who has been consigned to a rural North Carolina nursing home, looked after by a caring staffer, Eleanor, played by Dakota Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey”). One night Zak escapes, intent on finding the wrestling school in Georgia run by his favorite ring villain (Thomas Haden Church) and realizing his dream of wrestling stardom as a character he will call the Peanut Butter Falcon.

This opening escape scene, with Gottsagen tumbling from a window in his underwear, seems determined to reassure the audience from the get-go that, yes, it’s OK to laugh at an actor with Down syndrome. Because he’s an actor, who is trying to make you laugh.

Nearby, an Outer Banks shrimp boat captain, Tyler (LaBeouf), barely scraping by and battling depression over the death of his older brother and dark impulses that lead to petty crimes, makes enemies of the wrong people. He is fleeing in a stolen boat when he crosses paths with Zak. Improbably, the hard-hearted Tyler develops a soft spot for Zak and agrees to let him tag along on his way to a new life as a fisherman in Florida. Perhaps, he says, he’ll even help Zak find his wrestling school.

With Eleanor and Tyler’s enemies in parallel pursuit, the two march through cornfields, wander along country roads and train tracks, and drift down the coast on a makeshift raft, meeting blind backwoods preachers, moonshiners, truckers and brawlers in a journey that invites comparisons to Mark Twain and the dark comedy of the Coen Brothers.

Scheduled for initial screenings in New York, Los Angeles and other select cities on Friday, Aug. 9, the film also features veteran actors John Hawkes and Jon Bernthal, rapper Yelawolf and wrestling legends Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley.

Critical to the success of “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is the relationship between its protagonists. Tyler’s brutal candor is balanced with an evolving warmth and protective patience, while Zak opens his troubled friend’s eyes to a simple code of life defined by honesty and fidelity. This mirrored the close bond the two actors nurtured off screen.

“Since we did this, Shia has been like a brother to me,” Gottsagen says during a conversation in his Boynton Beach apartment, surrounded by pictures and memories from the shoot, including a clapper board autographed by the cast and a copy of Down Syndrome World magazine, with Gottsagen, LaBeouf and Johnson on the cover. 

As the film has forced audiences to rethink what it takes to be a movie star and how to respond to a comic actor with a disability, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” has enchanted viewers across the country, winning audience awards at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin and the Nantucket Film Festival. Gottsagen and his family have been at many of the screenings.

“Every showing he’s been at, he’s gotten a standing ovation. Even places where they say nobody gets a standing ovation, like Nantucket, he does. It’s just incredible,” says his mother, Shelley Gottsagen. “It’s very emotional. People want to stay and talk afterward, sometimes for an hour, two hours. They pour their hearts out. It touches them so deeply.”

Heroes and villains

Filmmakers Nilson and Schwartz met Zack Gottsagen several years ago as volunteers at Zeno Mountain Farm in Los Angeles, a camp where performers with and without disabilities meet every year to write, produce and star in original short films.

Zeno Mountain Farm was profiled in a critically praised 2014 documentary, “Becoming Bulletproof,” that followed filmmakers and cast as they shot a western (“Bulletproof”), with Gottsagen as the villain.

Nilson and Schwartz were shooting ideas for short films and commercials at Zeno Mountain Farm, both teaching and learning, when they first noticed Gottsagen.

“We saw Zack give a performance in a short film that was really, really fantastic. He was making decisions as an actor that were really informed and present, adding meat to a character. It was something that I had personally not seen from an actor in my entire life,” Nilson says by phone from Washington, D.C., where “The Peanut Butter Falcon” had a recent screening.

A friendship formed over films and filmmaking, with Gottsagen telling them he had studied acting at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach (he graduated in 2004), taught acting and dance at the local Jewish community center, and worked as an usher at Alco Boynton Cinema.

When Gottsagen told them he hoped to be a movie star one day, Nilson and Schwartz tried to let him down easy.

“It was one of those moments for Mike and I where we were, like, ‘I love you, Zack, but I don’t know if the opportunity is going to arrive for a feature film starring somebody with Down syndrome,’” Nilson says. “And Zack, very sweetly and lovingly, was, like, ‘What if we did it together?’ We thought about it for, like, two seconds, and said, ‘You’re right. Let’s do it together.’”

They started with a blank slate and an empty checkbook, Nilson and Schwartz working odd jobs and living in a tent in Los Angeles. They wrote a script and set the film in the Outer Banks because Nilson had lived there and knew people who would lend them boats and property on which to shoot. Gottsagen enjoys pro wrestling, so that became part of the story. Nilson would play the Shia LaBeouf character.

At that point the scant resumé that Nilson and Schwartz brought to the project included credits for writing, directing or producing a half-dozen videos and short documentaries with such titles as “Alex Honnold: At Home Off the Wall,” “The Moped Diaries” and “Taking My Parents to Burning Man.” Nilson once had a bit part in the 2007 Judd Apatow-John C. Reilly comedy “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” and he also had worked as a hand model in a variety of commercials for cell phones, soft drinks and beer.

“I was living in a tent in Los Angeles, but I had made a promise to Zack and Mike that we were going to do this,” Nilson says. “But we were nobodies, with no agents, no manager, no famous friends and a guy that has Down syndrome. We went to the library and checked out books, you know, ‘How to Make a Movie.’ " [Laughs]

They sent the script to industry people they thought might be receptive. No one would read it. After a year of seeing the script ignored, the three shot a five-minute trailer (a “proof of concept” in industry jargon) that gave the viewer a feel for the film’s atmosphere and tone, but also "showed that Zack had the chops to do the acting,” Schwartz says.

They distributed the trailer in cold-call emails and by any means necessary (“I don’t even want to tell you what kind of tricks we used,” Schwartz says) and it found its way to producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who had helped make a 2013 movie called “Charlie Countrymen,” which starred LaBeouf.

“That’s when things started happening,” Schwartz says. “Shia LaBeouf FaceTimed us on his phone and said, ‘I saw the proof of concept, I’ve read 30 pages of the script, and I’m doing it. Will you please let me do it?’”

No fear

Ask Gottsagen if he was intimidated by his celebrity co-stars and his reply is matter-of-fact: “Actually, no. I felt good for that.” Perhaps because he understands he is a good actor, with nuanced comedic skills. “Yes, I am,” he says, looking you in the eye.

Gottsagen says he taught himself how to act by watching favorite movies, including “Grease,” “Hairspray” and “The Greatest Showman.” Also a singer and dancer, he’s performed for years with the SpotLighters, a Palm Beach County program sponsored by Arts4All Florida, and Southern Dance Theatre in Boynton Beach.

Nilson and Schwartz say Gottsagen’s professionalism and improvisational skills were noticed by his more seasoned castmates.

“If you were doing a scene with him, you had better be ready. Zack brought it,” Nilson says.

Shelley Gottsagen and her wife, Navy and Air Force veteran Trish Carland, have nothing but good things to say about LaBeouf.

“He said to me, when we first met him, ‘How do you feel about having your son hanging around with me? You must be not so happy about this.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know you. Let me get to know you,’” Shelley Gottsagen says.

“Shia has the biggest heart. He’s so kind,” she says. “When they walked onto the set, when they first started to film, Shia’s name was up there, top billing, on the call sheet. And Shia said, ‘Take that down. Zack has top billing.’ Actors don’t do that.”

During filming in the summer of 2017, LaBeouf was arrested in downtown Savannah and charged with obstruction, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. The incident was amplified when TMZ shared police body-cam footage of the actor’s profanity-laced tirade against the arresting officers.

When LaBeouf arrived at a cast party a couple of days later, Gottsagen immediately confronted him. They sat cross-legged on the floor, facing each other, and had an emotional conversation, according to Shelley Gottsagen and Carland.

“His actual words were, ‘Don’t blow it for me. This is my one chance,’” Shelley Gottsagen says. “They talked it out for over an hour. … They are at one point crying together, at one point laughing and hugging each other. Shia gave him a commitment.” 

Gottsagen is more circumspect about what he and LaBeouf shared. “I was really mad about what he did. I just don’t like to see Shia like this,” he says. “Shia knows everything about what is going on with him. Shia knows about my words, about what I said. And that’s why Shia was trying to fix himself for the better. What he was before, instead of the old Shia, who did what is wrong.”

In a 2018 profile in Esquire magazine, LaBeouf said the episode had a profound effect on him.

“To hear him say that he was disappointed in me probably changed the course of my life,” LaBeouf said. “Zack can’t not shoot straight, and bless him for it, ’cause in that moment, I needed a straight shooter who I couldn’t argue with.

“I don’t believe in God... But did I see God? Did I hear God? Through Zack, yeah. He met me with love, and at the time, love was truth, and he didn’t pull punches. And I’m grateful, not even on some cheeseball s--- trying to sell a movie. In real life. That mother------ is magical.”

Lesson in inclusion

Confronting movie stars is not the only example of Gottsagen’s courage. He did all his own stunts in “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” telling the filmmakers that using a body double, which the Screen Actors Guild had provided, would compromise the movie’s authenticity.

This includes an intense scene in which Tyler pulls a floundering Zak (the character can’t swim) across a river as a shrimp boat bears down on him.

“Did you see there were sharks in the water? Which they didn’t tell me until last week!” Shelley Gottsagen says, with a nervous laugh.

Zack Gottsagen has lived on his own for 12 years and you don’t have to look far for the source of his self-determination.

“Shelley was a huge proponent of independence,” Carland says.

Shortly after Gottsagen was born, doctors at a Brooklyn hospital diagnosed his Down syndrome and told his mother he would never walk or talk, he would be a “total vegetable” and was better off in an institution.

“I thanked them and told them I’m a vegetarian, and I’ll take my vegetable to go,” Shelley Gottsagen says.

She continued to be an aggressive advocate for her son’s independence and his talents, especially when they did not seem apparent to others. She had to intervene when Dreyfoos School of the Arts was reluctant to admit him, she says, acknowledging that his subsequent experience with the theater department was frustrating. “They wouldn’t really give him roles,” she says.

Zack Gottsagen was the first student with Down syndrome to be fully included in mainstream classes in the Palm Beach County School District, according to his mother. She says his success is a lesson in the benefits of inclusion.

“This is what happens when kids are not segregated, when they are allowed to be able to be with everybody and learn from everyone. The best experiences he had in school were the kindness and friendliness of other students without disabilities,” she says. “They say kids are cruel. They’re not. Kids don’t discriminate.”

Friday, July 5, 2019

Marlee Matlin to star in new Disney+ comedy series Life and Deaf

From Deadline:

Disney+ is finalizing deals to put in development comedy series Life and Deaf, starring and executive produced by Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, Deadline reports. The project hails from Switched at Birth creator Lizzy Weiss, Patricia Heaton and David Hunt’s Four Boys Entertainment and CBS TV Studios, where Four Boys is under a pod deal. 
Written By Weiss and based on the life of Jack Jason, Matlin’s long-time interpreter, Life and Deaf is a half-hour family comedy about a kid growing up in the ‘70s with deaf parents — and the mischief that ensues when, as their ears and mouthpiece, he is given the “keys to the kingdom.’ 
Heaton, Hunt and Rebecca Stay of FourBoys will executive produce along with Weiss, Matlin and Jason. CBS TV Studios is the studio.
The project reunites Matlin with Weiss, with whom she worked onSwitched at Birth. Her recent TV credits include co-starring on the third season of ABC’s Quantico, as well as roles on Syfy’s The Magiciansand Fox’s Family Guy. She’ll next be seen in Limetown for Facebook Watch. Matlin made her film debut in Children of a Lesser God, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. 
Weiss created the Peabody-winning Switched at Birth, which ran for five seasons at ABC Family/Freeform, featuring multiple deaf actors and characters including Matlin who was recurring. She was also the showrunner for Season 1 of Facebook Watch’s Sorry For Your Loss, and wrote the surf girl movie Blue Crush. 
FourBoys Entertainment is currently in pre-production on the movie Florence, Not, Italy, which Hunt will direct, and is also producing the Heaton-led comedy series Carol’s Second Act for CBS and CBS TV Studios along with creators/EP’s Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Kapital Entertainment. It’s set to premiere this fall on CBS. 
At Disney+, CBS TV Studios has a series order for Diary of a Female President, from writer Ilana Peña and Gina Rodriguez’s I Can and I Will production company.

Nike releases para-sport mannequins


From Sarah Kim in Forbes:

In the midst of fiery, as well as controversial, talks about Nike’s recent release of plus-size mannequins, the general public has missed the other story: Nike has also unveiled parasport mannequins in their flagship London store. Para-sports, also known as adaptive sports and disabled sports, includes activities for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
However, this inclusion and significance of the first disabled or para-sport mannequin have been largely overlooked due to the heated discussions surrounding its plus-size mannequins. Sportswear brands notoriously only feature able-bodied mannequins, so the fact that a major company like Nike has promoted the visibility of disabled bodies is a major step forward.
"Highlighting a full range of athlete figures, [the Londontown Nike flagship store] shows multiple plus-sized and para-sport mannequins, a first for the city's store," Nike said in a press release.
The inclusion of para-sport mannequins significantly disrupts and breaks the damaging assumption that people with disabilities can’t be athletes. However, this lack of acknowledgment of these mannequins implies that, at least in the United States, people don’t see athletes with disabilities as equals.
This notion becomes apparent when it comes to the coverage of the Paralympics, which happens after each Olympic Games and involves athletes with a wide range of disabilities. Paralympians strive for equal treatment and recognition that Olympians receive, but this has not been the case ever since its inaugural games in 1988.
Not only are the Paralympic Games not covered by TV networks or the news, but they also receive little to no advertisement. However, if society truly believed that those disabled athletes are as worthy as their able-bodied counterparts, the story would be different. In the mainstream discussions on diversity and inclusion, disability is too often the last thought, if it’s mentioned at all. It’s time to change the discourse, and Nike should be celebrated for being one of the first to do so on a large scale.
It is a disservice to Nike and people with disabilities that these para-sport mannequins have not gotten the recognition and the praise it deserves. Para-sport athletes and Paralympians achieve the same level, or great, of achievement as their able-bodied counterparts do; they accomplish the unthinkable. So, it’s about time that they receive this caliber of representation.
“It’s good to see big brands beginning to reflect a greater variety of shapes and sizes,” Paralympic champion Tanni Grey-Thompson told Elle. ‘The plus-size mannequin has stolen the headlines, but the para-sport mannequin represents a step in the right direction for the positive portrayal of disability sport and physical activity for all.
There is tremendous hope that other retailers and brands would follow in Nike’s footsteps and reevaluate the true meaning of diversity and inclusion. By seeing the para-sport mannequins, not only will disabled shoppers will feel seen and heard, but it will also normalize disability, and show that it should not be erased or hidden from the public eye.
Nike has become a leader and the embodiment of inclusion and equality, and in doing so it has set a new precedent for other brands. In the core of its mission of including plus-sized and para-sport mannequins, Nike wants the world to accept every body size and ability.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

"Feeling Through," a short film featuring a deaf-blind actor in a lead role for the first time, premieres in NY

From Patch:

PORT WASHINGTON, NY— Short film "Feeling Through" makes history by showcasing the first deaf-blind actor in a featured role. Deaf-blind actor Robert Tarango stars in the film (pictured right in the photo).
It is the story of a homeless teen and deaf-blind man who strike up a friendship on the streets of New York City. 
The Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, a division of Helen Keller Services, announced the kick-off of a national screening tour for the film. 
The film's New York debut was June 25 at the Port Washington Library's Lapham Room. Doug Roland, the film's writer and director, was on hand, as were cast members.
"Feeling Through" was inspired by Roland's encounter with a deaf-blind man in New York City years ago.
"It occurred to me that I had never met anyone who was deaf-blind before," he stated via press release. "And I certainly had never seen a deaf-blind individual in a film."
In order to accurately represent the deaf-blind community, Roland reached out to HKNC Executive Director Susan Ruzenski. A strong collaborative relationship between them ensued.
"Working with Doug on this project has been an absolute pleasure," she said. "Everyone at HKNC is thrilled for him and the film."
The Port Washington screening of the film took place during Deaf-Blind Awareness Week.
More information about "Feeling Through" can be found on its Facebook page

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

CBS signs pledge to audition actors with disabilities

From The Hollywood Reporter

The company is the first in Hollywood to respond to the Ruderman Family Foundation's call.
CBS Entertainment is pledging to improve disability inclusion in Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter has exclusively learned.
The company — which includes the network, CBS Television Studios and streamer CBS All Access — has become the first in the industry to respond to a request from the disability advocacy organization Ruderman Family Foundation: to commit to auditioning actors with disabilities for each new production going forward. CBS will now do so for each of its new projects that gets a series pickup.
"The Ruderman Family Foundation commends CBS for its leadership in becoming the first major media company to pledge to audition actors with disabilities for roles in their productions," Foundation president Jay Ruderman said in a statement. "It is our hope that other major media companies will follow their lead and foster opportunities that will lead to more authentic representation of people with disabilities in popular entertainment. Enhanced visibility of disability onscreen will help reduce stigmas people with disabilities face in everyday life."
The idea is to encourage studios, networks and production companies to be more mindful of opportunities to populate their onscreen worlds with representations of disability that reflect the real world. According to the Foundation, 55 million Americans (about 20 percent of the population) have disabilities, but fewer than 2 percent of television characters do. And of those characters, 95 percent are played by able-bodied actors.
In May, a CBS series was one of four shows honored with the Foundation's Seal of Authentic Representation, a new mark of recognition for films and TV series that feature actors with disabilities in substantive speaking parts. CBS' NCIS: New Orleans, which features wheelchair user Daryl "Chill" Mitchell (pictured) as series regular Patton Plame, received the Seal alongside ABC's now-canceled Speechless (starring Micah Fowler, who like his character has cerebral palsy), and Netflix's Special (created by and starring comedian Ryan O'Connell, who also has CP) and The OA, which features wheelchair user Liz Carr in a recurring role.
"We take pride in our commitment to cast and hire people with disabilities in our productions," CBS Entertainment executive vp diversity, inclusion and communications Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i said in a statement. "We salute the Ruderman Family Foundation for advocating for this very achievable and important goal."
The pledge reads as follows:
We recognize that disability is central to diversity, that the disability community comprises the largest minority in our nation, and that people with disabilities face seclusion from the entertainment industry.
We understand that increasing auditions, no matter the size of the role, is a critical step toward achieving inclusion in the industry.
This studio pledges to increase the number of actors and actresses with disabilities who audition for parts on television and in film.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

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

From Variety:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

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

from Bloomberg:

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

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

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

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