Thursday, July 22, 2021

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

From Deadline:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featuring a deaf-blind character played by deaf-blind star Robert Tarango, “Feeling Through” is a prime example of a project that “walked the walk and talked the talk,” as Matlin puts it. She signed on as a producer upon her first viewing—“18 minutes of probably the most incredible feeling I’ve ever

had, that really struck me at my core,” she says. The film has appeared in accessible screenings and talkbacks across the country, winning more than a dozen festival awards in addition to the Oscar nod. If all of Hollywood took authenticity as seriously as Roland did, Matlin says, there wouldn’t only be “little inclusivity cliques.”

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

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

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

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

See the "CODA" trailer here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

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


from USA Today

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

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

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

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

It can also be counterproductive. 

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

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

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

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

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

The history of the term 'special needs'

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

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

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

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

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

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

The term 'special needs' is harmful, experts say

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

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

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

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

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

What parents say about their children with disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

What you should be saying instead

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 15, 2021

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

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

from MovieMaker.
By Drought filmmakers Megan Petersen and Hannah Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue the real challenges!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, April 23, 2021

Why ‘Crip Camp’ deserves to win the Oscar for Best Documentary

By Kristen Lopez at IndieWire:

I spend a lot of my time talking about the state of disability representation in media. It’s never been a good time to be disabled, and movies and television have only perpetuated the belief that our lives are sad, broken, and fodder for able-bodied inspiration. I’ve prefaced my answer to the question, “What’s the best disabled movie?” with “Well, nothing’s perfect but….” for years.

That all changed when I watched Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s “Crip Camp.” There are two competing storylines within the Netflix documentary. The first is about Camp Jened, a summer camp in the Catskills. Full disclosure: I never got the opportunity to go to summer camp and I’ve been bummed ever since. My parents knew nothing about summer camps for the disabled when I was growing up, and even if they had, as first-time parents of a disabled child they lacked the confidence to send me out on such a voyage to the unknown.

In one key moment in “Crip Camp,” the kids talk about the assumptions their families make about them. Really, the entire documentary focuses on breaking down assumptions about those with disabilities. These kids are perceived to be perpetual virgins, to be dumb, to be otherwise lesser-than. Their parents care, but these kids know their parents underestimate them. I love my parents, but we’ve had our fair share of discussions about the regrets I’ve had through life feeling like they didn’t encourage me. Hearing these teens talk so frank, it showed what I’d been missing being the only disabled girl in my bubble.

More importantly, “Crip Camp” is the story of how Camp Jened galvanized these kids to become activists for the Disabled Rights Movement. Their time at this camp, feeling the true freedom and equality they didn’t find at home, caused them to understand that they (and by extension all of us with disabilities) have the power to ask for more than what we get.

Some viewers might balk at the subject matter of “Crip Camp” as too didactic or dour. But let’s be honest here: That’s the ableism talking. For too long, disabled narratives have been presented as sad and educational because, again, our lives are generally shown through the prism of being sad and educational. That’s not what “Crip Camp” does. Instead, it shows what disabled narratives can be.

In an interview last year with Newnham and LeBrecht, the latter discussed how he saw this film as “a golden opportunity” to finally tell the type of disabled stories he’d always wanted. LeBrecht wanted to tell a story about his time at Jened, a place where he found liberation, joy, and a sense of normalcy outside of his home. Newnham said she’d watched LeBrecht “spend a lot of his time and energy as an advocate for better representation for people with disabilities,” especially disabled filmmakers, so when he brought up his time at Camp Jened it seemed, for LeBrecht especially, “like a golden opportunity.”

The problem is, because the disabled landscape on film and TV remains heavily skewed towards white men, and disabilities remain aesthetically relatable to the able-bodied, “Crip Camp” challenges all of those assumptions. These kids at Camp Jened aren’t just talking about sex or having a crabs outbreak — summer fun for the average kid, amiright? — they’re doing it and not being conventionally attractive. Disability remains so stigmatized because people aren’t used to seeing disability as it is.

An able-bodied, proportionate woman sitting down in a wheelchair is not the same as someone with brittle bone disease in a wheelchair, or someone who is quadriplegic. Seeing someone with polio or spina bifida talking about sex, there’s an immediate shock from the able-bodied audience because they’ve never interacted with a person who has that disability, let alone hear about their sex life. If disabled people were shown in all different forms, as they are in “Crip Camp,” that shock would disappear.

When the pandemic first started, I saw it as an opportunity to confront the systemic inequalities that keep disabled people feeling like they aren’t part of society. If the last year has had anything passing for a silver lining, it’s that aspects of daily life that people with disabilities have long wanted to happen finally did.

“Crip Camp” brings a similar reckoning. If it won the Best Documentary Feature, that would be a clear example of what disabled audiences want to see. To reward its success would prove, once again, that there is a way to make disabled stories fun and accessible to everyone.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony is poised to make history on a few fronts, from Best Director frontunner Chloé Zhao’s win to the possibility of Viola Davis being the second Black woman to win Best Actress. But if “Crip Camp” wins, it will represent another groundbreaking achievement — LeBrecht would be the first disabled director to win an Oscar — and it would be just as significant.

Singer with disability shines in Broadway star Ali Stroker's new kids book


From The Associated Press:

NEW YORK (AP) — Broadway star Ali Stroker says she always felt like her "most powerful self" when onstage, and now as the co-author of a new book for kids, she's trying to empower others.

Stroker teamed up with her friend and middle grade author Stacy Davidowitz and set out to create a familiar character: a young girl in a wheelchair named Nat who wants to perform in a local musical.

"The Chance to Fly" — published this week — was a way for the actor to share her own experiences as a person with a disability and big dreams. Stroker, who has used a wheelchair since a car accident paralyzed her when she was 2, says she wanted to help kids with disabilities recognize themselves in the book.

Even before winning a Tony in 2019 for her role in the Broadway revival of "Oklahoma," Stroker served as an example of a person who doesn't let limitations prevent her from achieving her goals. She made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to win the award and dedicated it to all kids with disabilities waiting to be represented in theater.

Stroker said she was driven to write "The Chance to Fly" because she didn't have any stories like it to read when she was in middle school. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Stroker talked about the challenges of writing a story similar to her own, representing people with disabilities, and naming her wheelchair.

AP: Nat loves musicals and performing. How did performing make you feel at her age?

Stroker: On stage, I felt like I was my most powerful self because people were looking at me and staring at me. But it wasn't just because of my wheelchair and it was a safe place to be different kinds of people. For a long time, I felt like I had to be, you know, like happy and OK and inspirational for other people. And when I was on stage and I was playing a character who was going through something, I got to express all those other things that were living inside of me. Writing this book as well and going back to those really vulnerable, scary, first time moments was so healing. And I think teenage Ali was just really brave and really tough. And I feel so proud of where I am now.

AP: Nat sometimes feels embarrassed about her wheelchair. Was it hard to write about that?

Stroker: It was a challenge for me to go back to those moments. One of the ways I describe it is just like you feel like you're like so hot and you feel like people are looking at you for the thing that you are most self-conscious of, and maybe the thing that you have the most shame about. And it's just overwhelming. But I wanted to write it because whether you have a disability or you're in a wheelchair or not, you have those self-conscious and really difficult moments in your life, especially as a teenager, when you just want to be like everybody else, but you're not like everybody else. And the reason it needed to exist in this book is because I want young people to know that they're not alone in feeling like that.

AP: The adult directors of the show cast Nat but tell her she doesn't have to dance, which upsets her because doesn't want special treatment. Why was that important to include?

Stroker: What's so beautiful about living with a disability is that your creativity to solve problems is so accessible. It's so heightened because this is a part of your everyday life. Nat is really disappointed, but then she goes away and she shares with her friends, her peers what's going on, and then they offer to help her and they are going to not wait for the adults to solve the problem, but they are going to come up with the answer. That's an ideal situation when you can ask your home team, the people that you trust the most for help, and then you can come up with a creative solution.

AP: There are more opportunities recently for stories about people with disabilities. Is that encouraging?

Stroker: I really believe that one of the shifts that needs to happen is that actors with disabilities are cast in roles where the storyline is not about disability and that we are able to just exist in stories and have disabilities and have that not be the storyline. Because that's one of the ways in which I believe some of the change can happen. I think that we are in a diversity movement, but oftentimes disability is not included in that movement because there is an opinion that in order for disability to be included, it has to be addressed. And I am here to say that you can cast somebody — like what happened with "Oklahoma." I can play Ado Annie — my wheelchair is never addressed in the entire show. And yet we get to live this experience with a character who has a disability and we get to watch it and we are there with it, but we don't have to talk about it.

AP: Nat names her wheelchair Peaches. Have you named your chairs?

Stroker: It's just this really beautiful way to personalize this thing. You know, my wheelchair is a part of my every moment, every day my wheelchair sits right next to my bed when I sleep. My wheelchair is my access to the world. And I like to have a good relationship with my chairs. And so a really fun way of doing that is for me to name them. And sometimes there are days that you just want to use those names instead of talking about your equipment. My last chair was Twilight Flake — that was her racing name. She had sparkles!

Monday, March 22, 2021

SXSW Review: "Best Summer Ever," the first film with a fully integrated cast and crew of people with and without disabilities

From Flixist

Part Grease, part High School Musical, Best Summer Ever is a musical taking on the high school genre with a fully-integrated cast of people with and without disabilities. The conversation around inclusion, disability, and representation in Hollywood needs to be changed — starting with creating inclusive films. From that standpoint, it’s a pioneering production and a really wild ride.

Best Summer Ever
Director: Michael Parks Randa and Lauren Smitelli
Release date: March 18, 2021 (SXSW)
Rating: Not yet rated

Best Summer Ever is a lot of fun, full of actors and young people who are all so talented. I’m glad that the storyline hasn’t been specifically diluted for people with disabilities: the writers’ goal is to treat the film like a traditional high school story where everyone is equal and the storyline isn’t contrived specifically around disabilities. It’s presented with closed captions for accessibility and the film is wholly inclusive in its cast and crew.

The plot’s driven by the usual hallmarks of the genre: Anthony (Ricky Wilson Jr.) is a popular quarterback hiding the fact that he spent the summer at dance camp, and he meets Sage (Shannon DeVido), a girl who is always on the move with her family. The highest-stakes part of the film is that Tony might get exposed as a dancer to his high school, when the entire school seems to count on him to win this year’s football season, breaking a 25-year losing streak for the team.

There’s a really bizarre storyline in which Sage’s two mothers grow cannabis for medicinal use, so they’re always on the move, traveling around the country seeking out the next growing season. It has a lot to do with their very anti-establishment philosophy and it seems to ring true throughout the entire film, affecting each of the characters. 

True to the genre, it can feel a bit cliched at times, but it’s all part of the fun. The rival cheerleader Beth (Madeline Rhodes) is brilliantly over-zealous, stringing along with a group of followers who do her bidding. A plot unfolds beneath the subplot of the teen romance, as Beth sets out to sabotage Sage’s new life. She’s no match, though, for the pair of savvy teens and their plan to confound everyone’s expectations of them.

If the plot felt contrived at times, I couldn’t have predicted the madness of the ending. It took a turn I didn’t expect and gave villains their comeuppance, meting out justice with plenty of slapstick comedy. A special mention has to go to Emily Kranking who plays Nancy, Sage’s first friend in her new town, and the actor responsible for some of the best comedic delivery of the film.

In the end, Tony reconciles two of his passions – football and dance – with a little help from Sage. And the finale is an explosive, show-stopping number that rounds everything up just as you’d hope. There’s a bonus end-credit sequence showing the cast and crew in rehearsals, and not only is it representative, it’s clear they’re having a blast. Best Summer Ever is a fun, heartwarming, and inclusive film for this year’s festival, the likes of which we need to see more of in Hollywood. 

Monday, March 8, 2021

The New York Times, National Center on Disability and Journalism partner to enhance coverage of disability issues

 NCDJ logo and New York Times logo together on black and grey grid.

By Kasey Brammell, NCDJ

The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University is partnering with The New York Times to create a new fellowship program to enhance coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities.

The program, to launch later this year, will place an early-career journalist in The Times newsroom each year for the next two years to develop expertise and report on a range of disability issues. It is set to be funded by philanthropy.

The fellow will be part of a larger fellowship cohort at The Times and will receive mentoring from both a Times’ staff member with expertise in covering disabilities and the NCDJ, which provides support and advice to journalists around the world who cover such issues. The NCDJ also will provide training to the Times’ newsroom.

Nearly one in five people in the United States lives with a disability, but these issues are undercovered, said Ted Kim, director of Early Career Journalism Strategy and Recruiting for The New York Times. “Few avenues exist to develop journalistic expertise on disability issues because such beats do not exist at most news outlets,” he said. “The lack of coverage, in turn, results in a lack of awareness about issues that affect a large portion of the country.”

Kristin Gilger, interim dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU and director of the NCDJ, echoed the need for more and better coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities. “This fellowship program is an important step in the right direction at one of the nation’s top media institutions,” she said.

The application is now open for the first fellow, who will join The Times in June. Preference will be given to promising early-career journalists who also have experience living with a disability or who have developed a deep understanding of disability through the experiences of a family member or loved one. The deadline to submit an application is 5 p.m., New York Time, on March 31, 2021. Applicants are advised to submit well before the deadline.

The fellows will be part of The New York Times Fellowship program , a talent pipeline initiative started in 2019 to seed and diversify the next generation of journalists in local newsrooms across America. It trains journalists in reporting, audio, visual and other disciplines.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism is a service of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. For the past 12 years at Cronkite, the center has provided support and training for journalists and other communications professionals with the goal of improving media coverage of disability issues and people with disabilities.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Slamdance Film Festival's new 2021 Unstoppable program of films features 22 films with disabled actors, filmmakers, disability themes

 From the Slamdance Film Festival:

The Slamdance Film Festival's new 2021 program, Unstoppable, features 22 short films from up and coming disabled filmmakers, feature actors with disabilities, or highlight the conversation of disabilities in today’s world. 

The online Festival runs Feb. 12-25.

Unstoppable is entirely programmed by disabled artists and the program’s mission is to amplify the contributions of the disabled community and advocate for their rightful inclusion in our industry. 

As an organization known for giving voice to talented creators whose stories otherwise might not be discovered, it’s in Slamdance’s DNA to undertake this new purpose.

“I’m honored to be part of the wonderful Unstoppable team and embrace the idea of creating a safe space for filmmakers with disabilities and take our creativity as seriously as everyone else in this industry. I feel like we are building a bridge for others to cross and I am so proud to be a part of it,“ said Unstoppable programmer Juliet Romeo.

Presented by Hulu, the Unstoppable online short film showcase of creators with disabilities is available on the Slamdance YouTube channel.


A$$ Level (USA)
Director: Alison Becker / Screenwriter: Santina Muha
A$$ Level is a comedic music video that celebrates life with a disability while paying homage to 90s dance videos.
Cast: Santina Muha, Lydia Hearst, Travis Coles, Amy Hessler

Best Friend (United States)
Director / Screenwriter: Cory Reeder
After moving cross-country, a young girl with Down syndrome struggles to fit into her new surroundings.
Cast: Gitane Neil, Kim Kendall, Robert Buscemi, Diana Elizabeth Jordan

Committed (United States)
Directors: Rachel Handler and Crystal Arnette – Screenwriters: Kara Moulter, Rachel Handler, Melanie Waldman
When Calvin announces that he’s proposing to Leesa…and then they’re moving to the suburbs, Rebecca enlists Dennis’s help to sabotage the proposal and keep their friends around for good.
Cast: Rachel Handler, Jaleesa Graham, Colin Buckingham, Damond McFarland

ENDOMIC (Canada, US) World Premiere
Directors / Screenwriters / Producers: Camille Hollett-French, Ipek Ensari
An exhaustive meta-analytic review documenting a mysterious “women’s” issue, otherwise known as endometriosis1 (1term used to describe a clinical etiology that thus far has only been identified in primates with a female reproductive system, an anatomical structure of decidedly lower importance in comparison to those of the male primate.)
Cast: AJ Simmons, Ipek Ensari, Rhiannon Collett, Natasha Richards

Feeling Through (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Doug Roland
A teen-in-need’s reluctant act of kindness toward a DeafBlind man becomes a night-long journey, creating a bond between them that gives the teen hope for the future.
Cast: Steven Prescod, Robert Tarango

Flying Eggs (United States)
Director: Sheldon Chau – Screenwriter: Antonio Garcia Jr.
A teenage boy in a Brooklyn apartment interrupts a man on his morning run by throwing eggs out the window.
Cast: Antonio Garcia Jr., Christopher M. Lopes

Full Picture (USA) World Premiere
Director: Jacob Reed – Screenwriters: Santina Muha, Jacob Reed, Elizabeth Reichelt, Stephen Sanow
Santina has been in a wheelchair since she was six years old. With meetings, hangouts, and classes happening virtually due to the Coronavirus quarantine, she’s experiencing something new: Choosing when (or if) to disclose her disability.
Cast: Santina Muha

Human Helper (United States)
Director / Screenwriter: Shaina Ghuraya
Human Helper is a sci-fi comedy short about a doctor’s mission to make artificially intelligent human-like helpers not ableist.
Cast: Nicole Evans, Alora Kinley, Anthony Golden Jr., Shauna Turnmire

How Much Am I Worth? (United States)
Directors: Rachel Handler and Catriona Rubenis-Stevens
This stirring documentary explores the failures of the U.S. health system through the lens of four disabled women.
Cast: Rachel Handler, Andrea Dalzell, Jaleesa Graham, Denise Castelli

I Wish I Never (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Shaina Ghuraya
This music video tackles the reality of women with disabilities in abusive relationships.
Cast: Angela Rockwood, Lucas Maschi

My Layers (Canada) World Premiere
Director / Screenwriter / Producer: Susanne Serres
A dance & art short film about psychosis – from mental illness to full recovery.
Cast: Kym Dominique-Ferguson 

On The Outs (USA)
Director: Jordan Melograna – Producers: Mark Stroh, David Carlson, Anna Guy, Jordan Melograna, Tina Pinedo
On The Outs follows three people with various disabilities, including vision impairment, brain injury, and mental illness, as they reenter the community from Washington State prisons.
Cast: Eldorado Fleetwood Cadillac Brown, Tyrone Gatherings, Kara Moser

Road to Zion (USA)
Director: Andrew Reid – Screenwriters: Andrew Reid, Jeremy Palmer
A Jamaican immigrant finds his life in LA shaken by forces outside his control as he struggles to understand how far he is willing to go to protect his family.

Safety Net (Australia) North American Premiere
Director: Anthea Williams / Screenwriter: Julian Larnach
Thirteen-year-old Terry is in emergency care with guardians after his mother’s arrest. Cheeky and living with a disability, he outwits one guardian while finding exactly the connection he needs from the other.
Cast: William Best, Nikki Shiels, Steve Rodgers

Single (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Ashley Eakin
A girl born with one arm gets set-up on a blind date with a guy who has one hand, and she is pissed!
Cast: Jordan Wiseley, Delaney Feener

Stilts (United Kingdom) North American Premiere

Director / Screenwriter: Dylan Holmes Williams

A young man tries to escape a surreal dystopia where everyone wears ginormous metal stilts.

Cast: Tom Glynn-Carney, Con O’Neill, Hebe Beardsall, Amanda Hale

The Bin (Philippines) US Premiere

Director / Screenwriter: Jocelyn Tamayao

A father struggles to connect with his son, who grows to love a language not native to his tongue.

Cast: Patrick Silver Padao, Brian Arda, Zernice Mae Cruz, and Juner N. Quiambao

The Butterfly Circus (USA)
Director: Joshua Weigel – Screenwriters: Joshua Weigel, Rebekah Weigel
The story of a renowned circus troupe traveling through the devastated American landscape at the height of the Great Depression, lifting the spirits of audiences along the way. During their travels they discover a man without limbs in a carnival sideshow, but after an intriguing encounter with the showman, he becomes driven to hope against everything he has ever believed.
Cast: Nick Vujicic, Eduardo Verastegui, Dou Jones

The Co-Op (USA) World Premiere
Director / Screenwriter: Cameron S. Mitchell
A robber’s plan goes horribly awry when he realizes the store he has targeted is full of disabled people.
Cast: Josh Matthews, Emilie Krause, Emma Mitchell, David Mitchell

Union (USA)
Director / Screenwriter: Julia Neill
A young Civil War surgeon in the Union army visits home with an unexpected companion: a soldier whose arm she amputated.
Cast: Scott Barton, Amanda Forstrom, Zack Rukavina, Evan Casey, Barbara Zablocky

Unspoken (USA)
Directors / Screenwriters: Emma Zurcher-Long, Julia Ngeow & Geneva Peschka
A groundbreaking point-of-view documentary exploring a non-fluent speaker’s world. 14-year-old Emma challenges societal judgment surrounding autism…one keystroke at a time.
Cast: Emma Zurcher-Long

Verisimilitude (United Kingdom)
Director: David Proud / Screenwriter: Justin Edgar
A struggling disabled actress gets a job advising a film star how to be disabled for his latest role.
Cast: Ruth Madeley, Esther Smith, Laurie Davidson, Alice Lowe