Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Disabled actress Shannon DeVido cast in Amy Poehler project, 'Difficult People'

From New Mobility:

Comedian Shannon DeVido’s star has been on the rise since a February appearance on the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and landing a role on the upcoming Hulu original series Difficult People, produced by Amy Poehler.

Joining the cast of Difficult People has been the biggest break in
 DeVido’s career. “It’s a really cool opportunity and I’m very grateful that they did think outside the box,” says DeVido, who has spinal muscular atrophy. In Difficult People, DeVido, 32, plays a strange hipster storyteller who is made fun of by series co-stars Juile Klausner and Billy Eichner. Filming for the series is underway, but Hulu hasn’t yet set a premiere date.

DeVido grew up in Holland, Pa., and attended Middle Tennessee State in Nashville. During college, she played Yenta in the production of Fiddler on the Roof. “I got to be the really funny character who was the comic relief in a very dramatic show,” she says. DeVido enjoyed the comedic role and it led her to join the Philadelphia-based improv group, King Friday, five years ago. The group disbanded in 2012. She also performs with the improve groups Wussy Riot, Hell on Wheels and Axis of Evil.

Improv acting is a passion for DeVido. “I love doing improv mainly because I get to do it with other people who make me better and make me excited to be on stage,” she says. The camaraderie of being around other comics sparks DeVido’s creativity. “These people I get to play with on a regular basis are so brilliant and so funny and make me want to be funnier,” she says.

One of her most creative comedic ventures has been the Youtube Web series, Stare at Shannon. The ongoing series puts DeVido in hilarious situations like driving her wheelchair through the drive-thru or learning the intricacies of roller derby. “I have so much fun doing it and I’m very grateful that my friends are as weird as I am and will come along for the ride,” she says.

DeVido’s comedy often takes dead aim at the stereotypes surrounding disability. Her audiences appreciate she’s doing something different but it takes them time to become comfortable laughing. “There is always that tension because as a society people are scared to laugh at disability,” she says.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Harvard and MIT sued for neglecting people with disabilities in online courses

from The Verge: (Pictured is an example of incorrect auto-captioning on a Harvard YouTube channel.)

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is filing lawsuits against both Harvard and MIT for failing to provide adequate captions for their online educational material. The complaints allege that both universities have "denied access to this content to the approximately 48 million — nearly one out of five — Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing," and that in doing so have violated federal law.

"If you are a hearing person, you are welcomed into a world of lifelong learning through access to a community offering videos on virtually any topic imaginable, from climate change to world history or the arts," said Arlene Mayerson, one of the lawyers taking the case against MIT. "No captions is like no ramp for people in wheelchairs or signs stating ‘people with disabilities are not welcome.'"

Both suits cover material including podcasts and online lectures, with the complaints stating that the content is "either not captioned or is inaccurately or unintelligibly captioned, making it inaccessible for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing." However, some of the lawsuits' accusations may be misguided. Examples of bad captioning cited by the NAD are actually produced by YouTube's automatic captioning system, not by Harvard or MIT.

Christine Griffin, a co-counsel on the case and a director of the Disability Law Center in Boston, tells The Verge that this was immaterial. Harvard and MIT were both contacted multiple times about these and other problems, says Griffin, and that even if YouTube was directly responsible for these particular examples, it is the universities themselves that "have the ability and authority to make sure what gets posted is captioned and captioned accurately."

A spokesperson for Harvard told The New York Times that the university would not comment on the case but that it was waiting for the Justice Department this year to "provide much-needed guidance in this area." A spokesperson for MIT meanwhile said that the university was committed to making its online material accessible and would be providing captioning in all its most popular courses and new material.

If the lawsuits are successful, however, the outcome wouldn't just affect Americans, but deaf people around the world. Harvard and MIT are both founding members of edX, a nonprofit and open source platform for massive open online courses (MOOCs). Courses hosted on edX are available anywhere with internet access — and the same is true for the material that Harvard and MIT have posted to YouTube and iTunesU.

"The main issue here is simply equal access," said Griffin. "The laws we're saying these universities violate are not recent laws. They were passed twenty to forty years go. [Harvard and MIT] take millions and millions and millions of dollars of federal money and deaf people pay those taxes too."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

'American Horror Story' actress Jamie Brewer becomes first model with Down syndrome to walk the runway at Fashion Week

From The Today Show:

When Jamie Brewer strides down the catwalk during New York Fashion Week, she'll not only be showing off an original design by Carrie Hammer, but she will also become the first woman with Down syndrome to grace the runway.

“Young girls and even young women … [see me] and say ‘hey, if she can do it so can I,’” says Brewer, an actress known for her work on “American Horror Story” and an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. “It’s a true inspiration being a role model for any young women to [encourage them] in being who they are and showing who they are.”

Brewer is modeling as part of Hammer’s “Role Models Not Runway Models,” a campaign the designer started when she was first asked to show her line at Fashion Week a year ago. Hammer wanted to represent the women who bought her designs and realized that featuring her clients—leaders of multibillion dollar businesses, heads of global nonprofits, pioneers of cutting-edge research, and women who just rock—would do exactly that. For her first show, she invited her friend, Danielle Sheypuk, who uses a wheelchair, to be a model.

“I called up my existing clients who were all incredible women and one of them happened to be a doctor and a sex therapist who happened to be in wheelchair,” Hammer told “It was never intended to be this incredible statement.”

But it was. Hundreds of women and girls contacted Hammer to thank her. One email stuck out: Every time Hammer read it, she cried. It was from Katie Driscoll, co-founder of Changing the Face of Beauty, a nonprofit that encourages media to include people with disabilities. She wrote: “Thank you for being the change that is long overdue. I could literally cry every time I read an article talking about your decision to include a model who just happens to have a disability! YOU are what this world needed!”

Driscoll’s daughter Grace was born with Down syndrome. After sharing her story with Hammer, Driscoll asked a favor.

“She asked if I would have a role model for Grace,” Hammer says.

“Role Models Not Runway Models” took off, and Hammer received hundreds of nominations for women to model in her shows—including one from Karen Crespo, who lost her limbs to bacterial meningitis and longed to walk the runway to boost her self esteem. She appeared in Hammer’s fall Fashion Week show. But the designer didn’t forget about Grace. She asked Driscoll to suggest a good role model, and the mom immediately named Brewer.

“I explained to her how important it is for my daughter to have role models like [Brewer] to see that [anything] is possible,” says Driscoll.

While most recognize Brewer for playing Addie in “American Horror Story: Murder House,” Nan in “American Horror Story: Coven,” and Marjorie in “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” she has long worked as an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. At 19, she was elected to the State of Texas ARC Board; she also worked on the Executive Board for the State of Texas ARC and the Governmental Affairs Committee for the State of Texas, where she was the only member with a disability.

“Jamie is an activist for intellectual disabilities, she is a writer and artist and amazing actress,” says Hammer.
Hammer designed a dress that she hopes plays up Brewer’s fabulous qualities.

“‘American Horror Story’ is dark, scary, bewitching so we had to go with black and Jamie has a beautiful body with a teeny waist and curves and we went with an A-line,” she says. The dress is also special for another reason—Hammer hopes that First Lady Michelle Obama will wear it.

For her part, Brewer feels excited for her spin down the runway.

“It’s amazing, it’s really neat. Many women have many sides to their personality, this dress fits...mine,” she says. “I am honored to be in it.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

'My Kitchen Rules' in Australia: Does reality TV do a better job of depicting people with disability?

From Daily Life in Australia, by Carly Findlay:

Like most reality TV addicts of Australia, I'll be tuning in to the new season of 'My Kitchen Rules' tonight – for the cooking, the snark, and perhaps most of all for Emilie -- a Queensland contestant with a disability. (On the right in the picture.)

Emilie has been deaf since birth. She says she has no hearing in her left ear and wears a hearing aid in her right. She is candid about her deafness on the show's preview, laughing at the way punters talk to her and the way some people bizarrely dumb down their language.

On her disability, her sister Sheri jokes that her only concern is that Emilie's critique of other contestant's food won't be anything near discreet: 'On the show, when they're whispering to each other, I don't think I'll be able to do that because Emilie's going to be like, (shouts) 'It tastes like s--t Sheri.'" 

I am excited that Emilie's place on the show will help raise awareness and break down stereotypes and misconceptions about disability, and viewers will be able to get to know Emilie's personality and skills. I am hoping that viewers will take what they've learnt about disability on reality TV into the community.

Indeed, Emilie is not the first reality TV contestant with a disability.  From X Factor Australia's Emmanuel Kelly to MasterChef Australia's John in 2011, my friends who are reality TV devotees recently provided me with an extensive list of Australian and international contestants with disabilities.

Could it be that there is a greater representation of disability in reality TV than on scripted TV shows, news and entertainment broadcasting?

Emma Ashton, editor of popular blog Reality Ravings, seems to think so. "Reality TV has always been at the forefront in showcasing diversity in their shows then drama, and this includes casting of people with disabilities", she says.

"It should also be noted that because of diverse casting on reality shows and seeing the viewing public embrace this has filtered across to casting of scripted shows.

"Even though it would be great to see Australian reality TV producers cast more people with a disability, they are streets ahead of their fictional colleagues", says Ashton.

That said, it's important to pay attention to the framing of the story – where the shows feature pity narratives encouraging viewers to feel sorry for disabled contestants. And we should call these out.  Ashton also warns of stunt casting – where contestants are cast for rating's sake.

 "There were criticisms about a UK show Britain's Missing Top Model, a reality show where each model had a disability", says Ashton. Some people said it was making a "spectacle" of people with a disability. However once it screened this criticism died down."

Contestants with a disability may also face cynicism and ridicule from judges, as revealed by former Australian Idol judge Ian "Dicko" Dickson on ABC2's Story Club  recently. Dickson, known for ridiculing many contestants on the show, revealed that he was not sure how to react to Quentin Kenihan's appearance on Australian Idol in 2003. "What did the reality TV arsehole manual say about dealing with a metre high contestant in a wheelchair?" asked Dickson.

There is also an additional platform for contestants to endure ridicule from. Viewers watch TV and simultaneously discuss it on social media. The comments can be vile – with viewers not shy in dishing out personal attacks on the contestants. But there is the equal potential for the second screen to enable viewers to comment beyond the disability narrative, and call out pity stories and personal attacks from other viewers.

The potential for ridicule from judges, fellow contestants and viewers is one reason Parkinson's disease patient and activist Alicia Friday Wright  won't audition for reality TV. "I will never do reality TV no matter how much exposure it will give to Parkinson's or disabilities," says Wright.

"They will never tell the story my way, with the respect and dignity it deserves. It will just be sensationalised and there's no educational value in that."

Disability activist Jax Jacki Brown believes it's important that reality TV producers focus on more than just the contestants' disabilities. "Diversity representation in all its forms in the media is really important because it people to see experiences outside their own and for stereotypical views people may hold to be challenged", says Brown.

"This is true of people with disability were often when we see disability in the media it is depicted in particular ways: as a tragedy, or as brave, courageous or inspirational, when really, like anyone our lives are much more complex than that."

Notable reality TV contestants with a disability:
  • Emmanuel Kelly from X Factor Australia 2011 was born without hands or feet.
  • John from MasterChef Australia in 2011 has cerebral palsy (he told me in a previous interview that he wanted to be treated like every other contestant
  • Katrina Chambers from The Block Australia 2011 has Crohn's disease.
  • Rachael Leahcar from The Voice Australia 2012 is blind.
  • Gemma KingHorn from Big Brother Australia 2014 has Marfan's syndrome – a condition affecting her height.
  • Sam Brahman from Big Brother Australia 2014 was born missing part of his leg.
  • Charla Baklayan Faddoul from The Amazing Race USA was born with achondroplasia.
  • Christine Ha from MasterChef USA 2012 is blind. She won season three and is now a restauranteur.
  • Andrea Begley won The Voice UK in 2013 - she is partially sighted as a result of glaucoma.
  • Sarah Herron from The Bachelor USA 2014 was born with one arm.