Oscars 2021 – Disabled actors, characters take center stage at this year’s Academy Awards

Crip Camp team pictured on the red carpet of the academy awards

2021 will go down in history books for the record number of Oscar nominations for disabled actors and characters in the Academy Awards. Disabled actors and disabled characters won nominations in prominent categories, all signs of inclusive storytelling becoming a more authentic part of Hollywood.

With three team members on wheelchairs, one accompanied by a service dog, the much talked about Crip Camp made a strong statement for disability inclusion on the Oscars Red Carpet in the 2021 Academy Awards. The documentary tells the story of Camp Jened, a summer retreat in the Catskills where many young people with disabilities experienced the joys of community from 1951 to 1977.

“We’re on the red carpet! #Oscars,” Crip Camp’s official Twitter account said proudly. “Sending hope & gratitude to my friends on the #CripCamp team today!,” tweeted “Crip Camp” writer David Radcliff, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. “No matter what #Oscars bring, I hope this is a tipping point after which seeing disabled people at awards doesn’t seem so revolutionary. Thank you for all the work you’ve done & the doors you have helped to open.”

And Crip Camp has indeed opened doors. It may have lost out in the Best Documentary Oscar category but the nomination clearly led to a major push for disability inclusion in the awards ceremony. For the first time an accessible stage was created and there was captioning for the broadcast as well.

Spotlight on movies on disability
The greater emphasis on disability inclusion was evident all around. A Google commercial during the 2021 Oscars generated nearly as much attention as the nominees. This was a Google ad featuring a pair of grandparents who are deaf using various pieces of technology to communicate amid the pandemic.

“Thank you so much @Google for featuring this story during the @Oscars2021Live_ about a CODA (Child of Deaf Adult),” was one of the tweets. “I absolutely loved the inclusion of the grandson signing “more” when he was eating. Sign language at its finest! #Google #Oscars2021 #inclusion.”

Netflix’s Coming-of-Age Tale ‘Audible’ Follows Deaf High School Football Team

Three high school students from the netflix film coming-of-age

By Leo Barraclough, Variety

Netflix’s coming-of-age documentary “Audible,” which world premiered this week at Hot Docs Film Festival, follows Maryland School for the Deaf high school athlete Amaree McKenstry and his close friends during their senior year.

Director Matt Ogens speaks to Variety about the film, whose exec producers include actor Peter Berg, the Emmy nominated creator of “Friday Night Lights,” and deaf actor and model Nyle DiMarco, winner of “America’s Next Top Model” and “Dancing With the Stars,” and a deaf community activist.

Ogens, whose credits include Emmy winner “From Harlem With Love” and Emmy nominated “Why We Fight,” grew up about 30 miles from Maryland School for the Deaf, and his best friend since the age of eight is deaf, so he knew of the deaf community through his friend and knew of the school.

In addition to documentaries, Ogens directs branded content and commercials, and about 10 years ago directed a campaign about high school football teams around the country, and the Maryland School for the Deaf was one of them. He stayed in touch with the school because he “felt like there was a bigger story to tell,” and shot the doc last year, which was “the perfect year, because of the characters we landed with and the dynamic in the film,” he says.

Ogens decided to focus on the school’s football team and McKenstry, one of its star players, in particular. “I was trying to capture the teenagers’ point of view, rather than doing something observational from my point of view. I wanted to create an immersive audio-visual experience of what it sounds and looks like to be a teenager, and all those high school touchstones – your senior year, the homecoming dance, and sports. And so that semester of high school and that football season gives it a nice narrative arc to ground yourself in, but also, at least in this case, and I think in many cases in sports documentaries, sports can be a great metaphor for life, and more so with these kids – resilience and proving yourself, and the ups and downs of life off the field mirrored the season in a way as well.”

As one would do for a narrative film, Ogens was looking to “cast” his lead “character,” and McKenstry stood out. “It’s tough because every kid at that school has a great story. It’s about Amaree and his relationships, but also, in some ways, I hope he’s an avatar for the other kids there and represents them in some way. He had some conflicts. I thought it was interesting that he was not born deaf. He had meningitis around two to three years old. At the same age, his father left the family.”

In the film, we see his father attempting to rebuild their relationship. Other elements in Amaree’s story include the death of a close friend, Teddy, and his relationships with cheerleaders Jalen Whitehurst and Lera Walkup.

“You’re seeing the team, but through the eyes of Amaree, and even the other characters like Coach Ryan or Lera, his on again, off again, girlfriend and cheerleader, or Jalen, his friend and cheerleader. This made it singularly focused, which is nice and tight,” Ogens says. “I also think this could be a springboard for something larger.”

Click here to read the full article on Variety.

Gamers With Disabilities Praise Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart’s Accessibility Features

cartoon Video game characters preparing for battle


The recent gameplay showcase of Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart was met with praise across the gaming community. With a detailed look at levels, items and gameplay modes, there was a lot to get excited about if you have your eyes on this next gen platformer.

Right at the end of the video, Insomniac also highlighted a wide range of accessibility features that will be in the game.

It’s hardly common practice for a game showcase to mention video game accessibility, even though it is a subject that will affect thousands of players. This break with industry convention is being met with praise among accessibility advocates, who say that such segments should feature in more gameplay trailers.

“I have mobility issues so the use of my hands is a problem in games”, explains Bobby, a freelance gaming and accessibility writer. “The toggle option will give me the ability to work the controls around my own ability level, such as toggling aim instead of being forced to hold it down to aim, using auto-aim features to help me when my hands become tired.”

Bobby has raised awareness on video game accessibility in the past, particularly in Nintendo titles that fall short. Despite the industry taking progress slowly, he tells TheGamer he’s incredibly happy with what was seen at the showcase. “This to me was very meaningful as I felt considered and seen as a disabled gamer. This does appear to be more inclusive than most other AAA games on the market right now”.

Sharing this sentiment is fellow accessibility advocate, Laura Kate Dale. After the showcase, she tweeted “I am so, so glad this is becoming a Sony first party game staple. Other developers, take notes on this. Such a great accessibility feature.”

Both Laura and Bobby allude to The Last of Us Part 2 in their praise of Sony. It was lauded for its accessibility last year, which was so well designed that a sightless player was able to complete the game multiple times.

Speaking to members of r/disabledgamers on Reddit, others were also happy to see Sony platform the topic in this manner. User tysonedwards shared that they would benefit from the visual accessibility features, as Rift Apart allows for extensive changes to the shades used in-game. The user says this will allow many with low vision to play what would otherwise be an “unapproachable game”. u/chaZ04 agrees, sharing that everything seen so far looks promising.

However, Sony hasn’t always got accessibility right. Despite the praise, u/tysonedwards also commented: “given Sony’s overall aggressive stance towards accessibility features within the hardware and operating system like screen reader support, text-to-speech, reduce motion, system wide subtitle toggle, combined with their policy of issuing PSN bans under a Code of Conduct Violation for use of modified controllers in ‘competitive games’, I won’t be buying.”

Click here to read the full article on The Gamer.

Feeling the Music and Fueling Inclusivity – A Moment with Mandy Harvey

Mandy Harvey onstage sideview signing in to microphone bright pink show lights in background

If you watch Mandy Harvey perform, one of the first things you notice about the “America’s Got Talent” finalist is her amazing voice. What you might miss is that she’s not wearing any shoes.

“[It’s] so you can feel things better when you’re standing on the stage,” Harvey told NPR news. “You can feel the drums, and you can feel the bass. So, being able to feel the music through the floor, it makes me feel like I’m a part of the band and not just the only person in the room who doesn’t really understand what’s going on.”

This award-winning singer, songwriter and motivational speaker lost her residual hearing at the age of nineteen while a freshman vocal major at Colorado State University. She pursued multiple career options, but returned to music, her true passion. She quickly became an in-demand performer and has released four albums as well as a book about her incredible journey.

DiverseABILITY Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Harvey about her personal journey, her songwriting career and the impact she’s had on disability inclusivity – both within and without the music industry.

DiverseABILITY: You partnered with Voya Financial and Disability:IN to create and headline a concert that featured multiple artists (musicians, and even a painter, with disabilities) in October 2020 for National Disability Employee Awareness Month, encouraging and highlighting the push to hire people with disabilities and special needs in order to create more inclusivity in the workplace. Why was this event so important to you and what were your considerations as you planned and orchestrated this event? Do you think it had the measurable impact you were hoping to achieve?

Harvey: First and foremost, I wanted to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is incredibly important because it is painfully obvious that a lot of businesses are not inclusive. They’re missing out on having a lot of really talented and amazing workers be a part of their company and team. And so, it was important to me to be able to encourage businesses to hire diversely.

There are a lot of businesses that are already striving, but [there were also] a lot of other businesses that made big commitments to hiring inclusively with the event. So that’s a measurable impact; even if that means one company hired one person – that’s a measurable impact in my life. We had a lot of CEOs make good commitments to change for inclusion, which is amazing.

The other part that was important to me is that I wanted to have a concert that was totally inclusive. With everything going virtual, there’s all these pop-up concerts but most of them are not inclusive or they’re featuring people who are not necessarily living inside of that community. And so, I wanted to allow different people to have the opportunity to showcase their art and to further the understanding that it doesn’t matter if you have an ability or disability, that you are an active contributor to the world, and you have the ability to make a difference.

Mandy Harvey book cover
Photo Credit: Amazon.com

DiverseABILITY: When you imagine inclusive spaces, especially in the music industry, what do they look and sound like? How are they different from what is most often seen and experienced by our society now?

Harvey: For the music industry, having an inclusive environment is so rare that it’s difficult to know what that would look like. I have personally been invited to several concerts where the building ended up providing an interpreter, but the interpreters didn’t have any access to the feed, so they couldn’t understand what the singer was singing. They were not given any materials, so they ended up just standing there and staring at me for the entire concert.

To be able to have different forms of communication throughout a concert, or in the music industry in general, is difficult because it’s one more thing for a company to have to think about — but at the same time, when you don’t think about it, you’re excluding a large pool of people who could be attending your shows and who want to.

Having lyrics available, having an interpreter who actually knows the songs ahead of time and is prepared to be there, even for big corporate events, having some type of audio description or captioning would [all] be amazing and beneficial. And not just for the people who are needing it — how many times has there been a concert or a corporate event where you didn’t understand what they were saying because too many people were talking at the same time? If you could actually see the captions in front of you, you would be more of a participant than you were before.

DiverseABILITY: The song that introduced and catapulted you into the spotlight was your self-written “Try.” It deals a lot with the issue of self-advocacy, which is the very difficult but necessary first step towards achieving anything in life. If you could expand on that song today and its message, now that you’ve traveled and spoken to so many fans who love it and have shared their stories with you, what would you add or change? What would you tell the young woman who wrote that song those years ago?

Harvey: I think that having that first step is so incredibly important, to be brave enough to even contemplate getting up off the floor. However, I’ve written other follow-up songs to “Try” that continue forward with the next stages of what I did — including the song “This Time.” The central idea of that is, “Yes, I’m trying. I keep failing, but I’m going to continue to try. However, because I’m not doing it alone, I know that I’ll be successful.” So, that song is a lot more about gathering a team around you of people who can encourage you when you fail or fall apart, and who can push you past your comfort zone to achieving something beyond maybe what you’re capable of even dreaming in that moment.

I don’t think there was anything that I could have said to that young woman that would have really hit home at the time. I needed to live my experiences, and I would have ignored anything that you said in the midst of that pain anyway. I was told everything, but I needed to find my own path.

DiverseABILITY: There’s a great song by another beautiful artist called “I Was Here” that boldly declares, “When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets/ Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget.” What do you want your something to be? When it’s all said (or signed) and done, what does your legacy look like?

Harvey: If I could work towards anything, it would be to continuously be a gracious and compassionate person in everyday life. Yes, I would like to have a ripple effect for change, positivity and inclusion, and to be able to be there for people on a grand-scale, but just being a person who can sit next to somebody and not say a word while they cry has an impact that is a legacy in itself.

“Try” is about understanding that you’re broken and wanting to be different. My new single coming out in March, “Masterpiece,” is saying that I am embracing the parts of me that are broken, and realizing that they’ve made me who I am.

The point of “Masterpiece” is to say that even though you might not know where you’re going in that moment, when you shoot forward in time and you look back on it, you’ll realize how much you’ve learned and how much you’ve grown. And that’s a part of such a big story that I feel people should know about.

I don’t ever want to change that girl who wrote “Try,” and diminish the struggle that she went through because that has changed and impacted who I am and how compassionate I am towards others, so much so that I would never want to take back any part of my past journey. I hope that people can truly embrace their journeys however difficult they may be, and realize that it’s making you stronger.

Mandy Harvey continues to perform around the United States and has been featured on CNN, NBC Nightly News, Canada AM, The Steve Harvey Show and in the Los Angeles Times. In addition to performing and speaking, Mandy has become an ambassador for No Barriers USA with a mission to encourage, inspire and assist others to break through their personal barriers. She published her first book on her life story, Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound, in 2017.

TSA To Improve Screening For Travelers With Disabilities

A TSA worker wears a mask while helping travelers get through a security checkpoint at Miami International Airport.

By Shaun Heasley, Disability Scoop

The Transportation Security Administration is set to start implementing new staff training and screening procedures to better serve individuals with disabilities as they make their way through airports across the country.

Beginning as soon as May, the TSA says that it will educate its officers to look for designations on driver’s licenses and other state identification cards denoting that a person has a disability that may pose a communication barrier.

Several states have updated their laws recently to allow people with disabilities to add what’s known as a “communication impediment designation” in order to alert law enforcement officers of potential issues. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., and 11 other lawmakers reached out to the TSA late last year to ask the agency to train its officers on the new driver’s license notations.

“We are updating applicable trainings to ensure that all (Transportation Security Officers) are aware of communication impediment designations and expect to deliver the updated training to the TSOs as early as May 2021,” wrote the TSA’s Darby LaJoye in a response to Kildee.

LaJoye said the TSA is also “discussing the possibility” of integrating communication impediment designations into its credential authentication technology which allows agents to retrieve pertinent information about a traveler by scanning their identification card.

Click here to read the full article on Disability Scoop.

This Fairhaven native actor proves minorities and people with disabilities can take center stage

Brennan Srisirikul posing in front of an all blue backdrop while sitting in his wheelchair

By Seth Chitwood, Standard-Times

FAIRHAVEN — Brennan Srisirikul knew about the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, but never had the confidence to submit a film — especially since he’s never made one. But after a crazy year, he knew it was time to go for it.

“With the anti-Asian murders in Georgia, it was personal for me, because I’m a mixed race,” Srisirikul said. “My dad is Chinese and my mom is American.” Srisirikul was born in Bangkok, Thailand and grew up in Fairhaven.

“My race wasn’t really ever something that I thought about,” he said. Srisirikul has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair all his life. “I’m disabled. So, in my mind, for so long, I thought like that was the only thing people saw.”

But, Srisirikul said that during the pandemic he first faced anti-Asian racism. “The first time it ever happened, someone walked up to me and shouted in my face, ’15 Dollah! 15 Dollah!’”

Srisirikul also is a singer and actor. He wanted to create a short film that not only addressed racism but incorporated his background in musical theater. Alas, “BRENNAN! A New Musical, But Actually A Short Film” was born.

The short film stars Srisirikul opposite John M. Costa as Mike, his therapist. They discuss the impact of COVID-19 and Srisirikul wanting desperately to perform because of his new-found confidence for singing. Srisirikul struggled with his singing voice ever since he was 14.

“The most dramatic thing that ever happened to me was puberty,” he said

Click here to read the full article on Standard-Times

Planning for a Lifetime: 5 Key Considerations (and Resources!) for Parents of Special Needs Children

Woman with a laptop and girl sitting on the floor by a couch looking at a tablet

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), developmental disabilities affect approximately 17% of children aged 3 to 17 in the United States. As medical advances have continued, it’s become more likely that children with special needs may outlive their parents. According to the National Down Syndrome Society, the average life expectancy of a person with Down Syndrome is 60 today. In 1983, it was only 25.

JAMA Pediatrics suggests the lifetime costs for caring for a person with autism to be $2.4 million.

As parents and caregivers to children with special needs, we’re faced with challenges most can’t imagine. The University of Wisconsin did a study that demonstrated mothers of a child with autism had stress hormone levels similar to soldiers in combat!

This stress emanates from ongoing worry for the health and safety of your child, guilt that you did something wrong, feeling like you need to be an expert on your child’s physical or cognitive impairment, tirelessly advocating for medical treatments, school programs and accommodations — and paying for it all.

Here are five important considerations, along with resources, for parents of special needs children:

  1. Emotional Well-Being for the Entire Family

Parents of children with developmental disabilities have higher rates of physical and mental health issues than parents of children without these conditions.

Are you taking time to look out for your emotional and physical well-being? Having a child with special needs places enormous stress on a marriage and other relationships. Too often, parents ignore their own mental health issues because they are understandably overwhelmed with caring for their child.

You can find a helpful list of support groups for parents of children with special needs here.

  1. Financial Planning

Planning and getting started early is critical for parents of special needs children.

Understand the ongoing estimated costs to help support your child. Set up a third-party special needs trust before your child turns 18. Inform and invite family members to participate in building financial security for your loved one. Anyone can contribute to the third-party trust and every little bit will help.

If your child is receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), paying for food and shelter from a special needs trust will cause a reduction in SSI benefits. That may be a worthwhile tradeoff if it’s the only way to meet preferred housing needs. You can pay for things like personal care, vacations or therapies not covered by Medicaid using the trust.

  1. Estate Planning

When you set up your estate planning documents, take the time to understand how to choose a trustee and trust protectors. The job of the trustee is to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries of the trust by safeguarding the assets of the trust and ensuring those assets are used as required by the terms of the trust.

A trust protector’s job is to supervise the trustee and protect the beneficiaries from any misconduct by the trustee. The trust protector can also perform other duties including replacing the trustee, assuming those powers are granted in the trust document.

The appointment of a trustee and a trust protector are among the most important decisions you’ll make to start building a support system for your loved one. A skilled attorney and advisory team can help make this difficult process less overwhelming and will be indispensable to you and your family.

  1. Living Arrangements

As your child ages, don’t wait to start looking for housing arrangements. You’ll want your loved one to be comfortable with the new living arrangements, and you’ll also want to help when you are able. It may be really difficult for your family, but imagine how much harder it would be to find housing when you’re gone.

  1. Letter of Intent

How will your child be cared for if you were no longer alive or able to do so? One thing you can do is start writing down information about your child that would be helpful to a new caregiver. Doing so is known as writing a letter of intent, and it’s one of the most important documents you can prepare for your child with special needs.

The letter of intent should include an overview of your child, information about daily schedules, diet, medical care, education, benefits received, employment, social activities, religious activities, behavioral issues and even funeral arrangements.

Once you address these issues, you may find comfort in knowing you have taken the time and effort to do your best to plan for the transition your child with special needs may ultimately confront.

Jeff Vistica, CFP™ (Certified Financial Planner), ChSNC® (Chartered Special Needs Consultant), AIF® (Accredited Investment Fiduciary) is the co-founding partner of Valiant Partners, a registered investment advisory firm, located in Carlsbad, Calif. Valiant Partners devotes its practice exclusively to serving the needs of parents with special needs children. Visit valiantfutures.com.

Disabled Raccoon Walking on His Own Thanks to His Dog Best Friend and Student-Made Wheelchair

raccoon crawling on all fours using a custom made wheelchair

By Michelle Boudin, People

Odd couple Benton the Great Pyrenees and Boone the disabled raccoon are best friends helping each other make it through life with a positive attitude.

The duo lives at Nolin River Wildlife Sanctuary in Glendale, Kentucky — a sanctuary dedicated to nursing wild animals back to full health.

“Boone was diagnosed with a rare disorder, cerebral hypoplasia, that makes it very difficult for him to get around,” Mary Key, Nolin River’s founder, tells PEOPLE. “He came to us as a baby, and when it was time for him to start walking, I noticed there was a problem.”

Hoping to help Boone with his walking skills, Key looked up wheelchairs for animals on the internet but found that the nonprofit couldn’t afford the options available. So she reached out to a friend at nearby Central Hardin High to see if the school’s engineering students could help. The engineering teacher, Russ Pike, replied it was the perfect real-world project for his students.

“From the first time they brought Boone to class for the kids to meet him, they were fully on board. It’s pretty neat. Most of the time, you’re trying to get kids involved and engaged. Well, we had to reign them in because they were so excited,” Key says of the enthusiasm for the project.

Over the past few months, Boone regularly visited the high school so the engineering students could measure the raccoon for fittings and make adjustments to their prototypes. After a bit of tinkering, the students came up with a wheelchair — their third prototype — that worked for Boone.

“It’s amazing! The look on Boone’s face when we first put him in it … I was crying. He gets really engaged and gets a very purposeful look, and when he first moved in the chair, you could see him looking like this is different, and this is good,” Key says of Boone’s reaction to the custom creation. “He is absolutely adorable and unbelievably sweet, and now he can get around on his own.”

Click here to read the full article on People.

Singer with disability shines in Ali Stroker’s new kids book

Cover image of the childrens book of an Ali illustration

By the Sentinel-Tribune

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.

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.

Click here to read the full article on the Sentinel-Tribune.

SAG-AFTRA Panelists Say “Disability Consistently Overlooked In Conversation About Diversity & Inclusion”

RJ Mitte, Robert David Hall, Jason George, Orlando Jones, Danny Woodburn, Jay Ruderman, Micah Fowler and Marlee Matlin attend the Ruderman Studio-Wide Roundtable On Disability Inclusion

By David Robb of Deadline

The casting of performers with disabilities should be part of Hollywood’s ongoing efforts to be more inclusive, but it’s often not, even though the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 makes it just as illegal to discriminate against the disabled as it is any other protected group.

“Disability is consistently overlooked in the conversation about diversity and inclusion,” said Anita Hollander, national chair of SAG-AFTRA’s Performers with Disabilities Committee, who hosted the union’s panel Thursday on disability inclusion in Hollywood. The discussion was part of the guild’s Stop the Hate summit.

“There are just too few opportunities for performers with disabilities,” said Camryn Manheim, SAG-AFTRA’s national secretary-treasurer, in her opening remarks. “In fact, people with disabilities make up less than 3.5% of all onscreen characters. And when we do see characters with disabilities, they are often played by non-disabled actors. It’s a fact, the number of people with disabilities onscreen and working on set and behind the camera is just dismally low, and that must be addressed by our industry.”

Even so, the panelists agreed that things are getting better, both in the casting of disabled performers and with on-screen depictions of persons with disabilities.

Jay Ruderman, whose Ruderman Family Foundation is one of the nation’s leading advocates for the disabled – and for many years one of Hollywood’s harshest critics – noted that white papers the foundation has issued found that “A couple of years back, only 5% of characters with disabilities were authentically portrayed; then it jumped up to 22% a few years ago. We also did a marketing study showing that 25% of the United States population, the world population has a disability and there’s billions of dollars that the industry can make by authentic portrayal. And most people in this survey said they want to see authentic portrayal.”

But Hollywood has been slow to catch on. “In the last 30 years, half of the men that have won the Best Actor Oscar won for playing a disability when they themselves did not have a disability,” Ruderman said. “There is a mind-set that playing disability by an able-bodied actor is great acting.”

Continue to Deadline to read the full article

Photo Credit: Jerritt Clark/Getty Images

RJ Mitte – Seizing Every Opportunity

RJ Mitte collage with his cover image and several samll images of his work inclusing the cast from Breaking Bad

By Brady Rhoades

You might do a double-take when actor RJ Mitte, most famous for his role in the acclaimed AMC drama, “Breaking Bad,” gives you his take on disabilities.

“The best thing about being human is that the ability to overcome is amazing,” said Mitte, 28, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at age 3. “There’s no trick in life. Whether you’re 19 or 45, you can still set out and do what you wanted to do at 19.”

Second best thing?

“I believe if you have a disability, you have an asset. You’re coming from a different human condition.”

Mitte became a TV fixture with the debut of “Breaking Bad” in 2008 (the show ran for five seasons). “Bad” won 16 prime time Emmys and two Golden Globe Awards, among a slew of other accolades.

RJ Mitte at a red carpet event with three other individuals
Becky Curran (L), RJ Mitte (2nd R) and guests attend the 2017 Reel Abilities Film Festival at JCC Manhattan in New York City. (Photo by Jenny Anderson/WireImage)

Bryan Cranston portrayed a middle-aged chemistry teacher – Walter White – diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Driven by financial concerns and a shortage of time, he started cooking the purest crystal methamphetamine in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and making top dollar on his way to running an empire.

Mitte played Junior, White’s sweet, sarcastic and, ultimately, conflicted son.

For the role, Mitte had to exaggerate his Cerebral Palsy symptoms; unlike Junior, Mitte doesn’t use crutches or speak with a pronounced slur. However, the 28-year-old actor has faced many of the same medical and social challenges as his character.

“People with CP overcome hurdles every day,” Mitte told Brain&Life Magazine. “One thing I’ve learned from my disability is that when there is an obstacle, you adapt and grow. You can’t let that obstacle break you down and discourage you.”

When asked how Hollywood is faring when it comes to placing actors, directors and producers with disabilities in places of power and esteem, Mitte says he sees more opportunities than ever.

“You can’t make a movie now without the diversity talk, “he said. “You’ve got to say: ‘We need diversity.’”

And his view on what the industry’s doing as far as physical accommodations?

“Are the accommodations always there? No.” he said. “I try to make my own accommodations.”

But Mitte, who’s involved with SAG-AFTRA as a member of the union’s Performers With Disabilities Committee, says he’s seeing a change; a mutual effort.

“The key thing in everything is when both sides want it.”

RJ Mitte at a screening event, laughs while being interviewed
Breaking Bad star RJ Mitte is interviewed by Rachel McGrath, entertainment reporter at The Huffington Post. (Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images)

Breaking into Stardom

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Mitte was adopted shortly after he was born by Ray Frank Mitte Jr. and his wife, Dyna. He was a happy child who walked on his toes as a toddler – something doctors told his parents they would fix by the age of 4 if he didn’t walk properly by then.

A friend of Mitte’s grandmother recognized the signs of CP when he was 3 and urged the family to have him evaluated. After he was diagnosed, Mitte was then fitted with leg braces to straighten his limbs and used crutches throughout most of his childhood.

However, over time, his body became stronger through sports and exercise and he no longer needed any walking devices by his teenage years.

In 2006, Mitte moved with his family to Los Angeles, where his youngest sister, Lacianne Carriere, received an offer for a role in a film project. He became interested in film and took acting lessons, which then led to appearances on SHOWTIME’s “Weeds,” NBC’s “Vegas,” CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris” and a co-star role on ABC Family’s hit show, “Switched at Birth,” before being cast in his life-changing role on “Breaking Bad.”

RJ Mitte poses at the golden globes with the cast of " Breaking Bad"
Actors Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn and Betsy Brandt, writer-producer Vince Gilligan, actors R.J. Mitte and Aaron Paul celebrate winning Best Series – Drama for “Breaking Bad” in the press room during the 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, California. PHOTO / ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Mitte then reemerged on the big screen in “Dixieland” – his first non-handicapped leading role. Following that, he starred opposite Wesley Snipes in “The Recall” and was also seen in “Tiempo Compartido” (an official 2018 selection in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival).

In 2018, he starred alongside John Cusack and George Lopez in “River Runs Red,” and also guest starred on Starz’ coming-of-age television thriller, “Now Apocalypse,” which premiered in early 2019.

In 2020, he portrayed a disabled teen who seeks acceptance as a high school wrestler with Oscar winner Terrence Howard as his coach in “Triumph,” which was delayed because of the Coronavirus crisis. He also started shooting “Issaac,” a romantic thriller.

Most recently, Mitte turned to modeling as a celebrity face and model of GAP International’s “Lived in Spring” campaign, with his image appearing on mediums such as billboards, buses and life-sized posters in cities across the world from Tokyo to Dubai and across the U.S. He made his way to the catwalk, modeling in Men’s Fashion Week in Milan, Berlin and New York City for designers Vivienne Westwood, soPopular and Ovadia & Sons.

Cutting the Bullying

Aside from coping with his physical challenges, Mitte also faced his share of taunting and bullying as a child.

“I was verbally harassed, knocked down, and even had my hand broken,” Mitte told Brain&Life.  “Having CP made me a target for bullies, and I learned that kids with disabilities are twice as likely to be bullied as other kids.”

To bring awareness to bullying and prejudice, Mitte has engaged in public speaking and serves as the official ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy and Shriners Hospitals for Children and partners with Shriners to spearhead its #CutTheBull campaign to advocate anti-bullying for children with disabilities.

RJ MItte speaks to an audience at a runway event
RJ Mitte hosts the Runway Of Dreams Foundation Fashion Revolution Event at in New York City. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Runway Of Dreams Foundation)

Mitte has involved himself wholeheartedly in anti-bullying, through #cutthebull.

“Everyone bullies, not just kids,” he said. “I find with bullies that removing yourself from the situation is sometimes best… because a bully wants you to fight, they want an adversary.”

And if that doesn’t work?

“I always recommend to talk to your peers, talk to your allies.”

Mitte used every defense in his arsenal when he was bullied as a youth.

“Did it end the way I wanted it to end? Not always. I asked bullies straight out: ‘Why do you want to hurt me? Maybe you need help.’” And Mitte stresses that, often, you can’t go it alone, and to prioritize your own health and safety.

A Dream Sequel

Mitte has projects in the works, but one project — a dream, really — is never far from his thoughts.

He’d like to see a sequel to “Breaking Bad” in which Junior follows in his dad’s footsteps. You might call it Heisenberg 2.0. Better, more enriching, maybe, more evil. The kind of follow-in-pops’-footsteps that you don’t want to encourage in real life, but you might want to watch on TV.

And in true Mitte form, he’s pitched it more than once.

There are, of course, doubts. Could people see Junior in such a dark role? How do we make that happen? How can we keep the plot seamless and still make you a villain? There are a million moving parts.

RJ Mitte poses in front of an El Camino
RJ Mitte attends the premiere of Netflix’s “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” at Regency Village Theatre in Westwood, California. (Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic)

At this point, here’s one more thing you must know about Mitte.

He’s not big on the word “can’t.”

“I grew up with can’t not being a choice,” he said. “You can’t what? No, you’re going to go do this.”

It’s what he tells people with disabilities who ask him about obstacles. “Before “can’t” can even get out of the starting gate, just start doing the thing you want to do.”

If “can’t,” as Mitte said, is a decision, then his dream-role is just a greenlight away from becoming reality. He wants it. He’s envisioned it. He’s never stopped pitching.

Walter White Junior, sweet and devoted son, breakfast connoisseur, as the baddest of bad guys? Drug lord? Killer?

You might do a double-take.

Look again, and imagine not what is impossible, but what is possible.

Whatever you do, don’t count

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  1. 2021 ERG & Council Conference
    September 15, 2021 - September 17, 2021