Monday, December 19, 2016

Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 works to move young disabled people toward media careers

By B.A. Haller
©Media dis&dat
Transparency statement: I participated as a mentor for all three Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 events.

All photos by B.A. Haller. The photo at right is from the November 14 White House event with Maria Town, left, senior associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Towson University mass communication student, Ben Pearce. 

In three summits during fall 2016, Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 (LCA 2.0) provided mentoring and networking for young disabled people interested in media careers.

Tari Hartman Squire, CEO, EIN SOF Communications and the Loreen Arbus Foundation, in collaboration with City University of New York (CUNY LEADS & CUNY Coalition of Students with Disabilities), Deaf Film Camp, DisBeat, Gallaudet University, National Disability Mentoring Coalition, PolicyWorks, SIGNmation and NY Womenin Film & Television, hosted events at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice (October 31), the White House (Nov. 14), and Gallaudet University in D.C. (Dec. 12).

“Loreen and I are proud of Team LCA 2.0 collaborative Phase I accomplishments, including two Think Tanks that coincided with ADA25, adoption by the Clinton Foundation as a ‘Commitment to Action,’ co-branded CBS News/LCA 2.0 Internship, three Resume Review, Speed Interviewing and Flash Mentoring Summits, and expanded partners," Squire said.

“We look forward to launching Phase II with adding Summits in Hollywood, Informational Webinars, expanded Internships, deeper focus on the Disability Narrative Imperative, collaborations with Industry Associations and Unions, and building the groundwork for our LCA2.0 Mentoring Data Tracking System. We welcome new partners and collaborators who want to support the next generation of media professionals with disabilities,” Squire explained. 

Becky Curran (pictured left), coordinator of EEO and diversity at SAG-AFTRA and who participated as a mentor at the Oct. 31 LCA 2.0, explained how important these events are for young disabled people: "LCA 2.0 is a wonderful opportunity for college students, who happen to have disabilities, to find mentors in people like them, who are in professions that they want to seek out for the near future."

The summits drew high school students, college students and recent graduates with disabilities who participated in resume reviews, flash mentoring, networking discussions and heard from speakers and panelists with disabilities about how they got into media work.

Rutgers University journalism/media studies/theatre 2013 graduate Melanie Waldman said the events she attended gave her a new perspective on the vibrant and diverse community of people with disabilities: “Before attending the summit, I don't think I truly realized just how broadly the disability community extended. Between mentors, mentees and the event organizers, whether able-bodied or not, every single person in attendance was working towards the same goal.

“I think that it's incredibly empowering to know that my community is not just around to be present as a support system, but that they are truly working at their utmost capacities to further our future careers into the world of entertainment and media. It's given me the motivation to take a look at my own work and realize the true power I have within myself to help change the ‘disabled narrative’ as a millennial post-grad with disabilities,” she explained. 

Waldman blogs about her experiences as an amputee at Where’sWaldman.

Ben Pearce, a public relations student at Towson University who graduated in December 2016, attended the Nov. 14 LCA 2.0 at the White House. He said, “more than anything, this event opened my eyes to the lack of media representation of those with disabilities. I'd gotten so used to it, I never even thought about it. It's refreshing to see efforts being made to change that trend. What I took away from it is that I want to be a voice for the disabled community in the media, to show what we're capable of and hopefully because of it, one day my disability won't be much of a factor anymore.”

LCA 2.0 Partners also invited select high school students to measure impact on career exploration of youth with disabilities.  The mother of a high school student with cerebral palsy said, “My teenage daughter attended one of these events a few weeks ago at the White House, and I believe it may have changed her life… What you don’t know is that she has had a challenging time in middle school, feeling increasingly isolated and stigmatized by her ‘typical’ classmates. You offered her a radically different narrative for her life—and gave her a stronger sense of her own future than she otherwise would have had at her age. After the networking session ended she immediately marched over to Maysoon (Zayid), asked her to exchange business cards, and said ‘I hope we can work together someday.’ That is not something she would have done before.”

Lights! Camera! Access! began seven years ago as a “Call-to-Action” Summit produced by EIN SOF for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the Television Academy’s Diversity Committee. Current LCA 2.0 events were in response to the growing awareness that to make positive change in the representation of people with disabilities in the media, disabled people need to work in the media. LCA 2.0 reports its objectives as: “1) Increase disability employment in-front-of and behind-the-camera/keyboard; 2) Improve authentic disability-inclusive diversity portrayals in television, film, advertising, and digital platforms; 3) Expand accessible media with captions/audio descriptions to those who are Deaf, blind, or have other disabilities.”

LCA 2.0 summits are also a response to the July 2016 Ruderman Family Foundation WhitePaper about lack of TV representation of disabled people: “Although people with disabilities make up nearly 20% of our population, they are still significantly under-represented on television. What compounds the problem is the fact that even when characters with disabilities are featured on the small screen, they are far too often played by actors without disabilities.” 

At the November 14 White House summit, Scott Silveri, creator of the ABC network comedy “Speechless” that features a main character with a disability played by a disabled actor, spoke about his focus on authentic casting. The show is based on Silveri’s family; he has an older brother with cerebral palsy.

In picture right, the creator/producer of the ABC comedy "Speechless" Scott Silveri speaks to attendees via a telepresence robot named ALF (Accessible Life Form) that resides at the USDA TARGET Center.  

“Because there is so little representation of people with disabilities on television, we cast a net far” to audition a disabled actor, he said. He saw quickly that Micah Fowler, who plays the disabled character JJ, would be the best actor for the role because “he brought warmth and humor to the role, without the benefit of lines.” (The JJ character on Speechless is a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, like Fowler, but is nonverbal, unlike Fowler.)

“It was important me that we cast someone with a disability because first of all. Just for the reality of the show, we didn’t want to be faking it,” Silveri said. “And to do a show about inclusion and to get it wrong so fast... I didn’t want to mess it up in the most obvious way. Because the show has found a home on the network, I am hoping that experience will be replicated, because people are seeing that these stories are stories that can find an audience.”

Maria Town, senior associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, helped organize the White House summits. Her work focuses on connecting the White House, the federal government, and the disability community.   

At the White House summit at Gallaudet University on Dec. 12, Town questioned “Breaking Bad” actor RJ Mitte about what he wants the future of disability media to look like. Mitte has cerebral palsy.

“I look forward to seeing more people with disabilities on television. There is such a small percentage of characters that actually have disabilities on current television. We need people to see people with disabilities and bring the normality of it,” he said.

Mitte added that he thinks through events like Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0, the media will make a positive turn in disability representation.

“I hope to see more realism, more honesty, and more truth in our television because that’s what people are hungry for,” Mitte explained. 

Mentor Emily Ladau (pictured left), communications consultant and writer at Words I Wheel By and Editor in Chief of Rooted in Rights, said she wanted to give back: "I attribute much of my early career success to mentors who provided guidance and support, so when I was offered the opportunity to serve as a mentor for LCA 2.0, I knew what an honor it would be to pay it forward to the next generation of media-makers in the disability community."

Anna Pakman, director of Digital Strategy, Empire StateDevelopment in New York, moderated panels at all three events on the topic of media careers. Speakers on the Dec. 12 panel Pakman moderated were:  Scott Lewers, senior vice president, TLC Productions; Tyrone Giordano, community engagement strategist, Communication Service for the Deaf; and Roger Purcell, director of Customer and Competitive Intelligence, Conde Nast.

Pakman said: "Whether it’s the boardroom or the writer’s room, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you don’t exist. It’s important to build a talent pipeline, not only so that this generation has more of an opportunity in the industry, but also so that our stories get told for years to come."

In the picture right, Pakman, right, does a resume review with a Deaf student filmmaker from Rochester, N.Y.

At the Oct. 31 LCA 2.0, Vanderbilt University’s Next Steps Ambassador Program and Eye to Eye were inducted into the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall ofFame.