A Hollywood ending: Hiring employees with disabilities

The entertainment industry has a poor track record of casting people with disabilities, and in rare instances when characters with intellectual or physical disabilities are written into scripts, those roles are all too often played by actors who don’t have a disability. The percentage of people with disabilities employed by the entertainment industry behind a camera is a tiny sliver of the 20 percent of the American population who have a disability, as classified by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1990.

Given that background, I was surprised to learn that a major Hollywood talent agency has quietly employed an adult with intellectual/developmental disabilities for close to a decade. I recently attended an award event in Beverly Hills where Paradigm Talent Agency, listed among the top seven talent agencies according to The Hollywood Reporter, was named the “Vanguard Employer “of the year by Best Buddies International, the sister nonprofit to Special Olympics. Founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Best Buddies works for the social integration and economic independence of people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD).

For the past nine years, Best Buddies participant Bradley Gunther, 62, has been working three days a week at Paradigm, where he is now the longest serving employee in the mailroom. And as was clear from his interactions with his colleagues, he is not only appreciated for the sunny personality he brings to his job, but well loved as a friend. In his acceptance speech, Gunther thanked Paradigm employees for taking him out on the weekends, and even bringing him groceries to his home when he was out during a medical leave.

The partnership between Paradigm and Best Buddies started when TV and movie producer and writer Ben Silverman, a member of Best Buddies’ board of directors, called Debbee Klein, co-head of Paradigm’s literary department, and encouraged her to take on a Best Buddy participant as an employee.

“It was not really a request; it was more of a demand,” Klein told the audience, laughing.

Thanks to Silverman, Best Buddies has been able to place other adults with I/DD in other entertainment workplaces, including Fox and Warner Bros.

There’s Zvi Burston, an observant Jewish young adult with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair and works as a production assistant on the Netflix series “Fuller House.” He does the same kind of work as any production assistant, such as helping with supplies and answering phones and emails. But because it can be tough to navigate a wheelchair around cameras, he sometimes needs to have his hours scheduled differently than other staff members.

An unexpected consequence of hiring an employee with disabilities is how it can change the entire workplace. At Paradigm, employees realized that having Gunther on board contributed to a more positive overall perspective.

“This is a tough business,” Klein told The Hollywood Reporter. “It can get very intense and competitive. Most of us are so wrapped up in our deals and our clients’ lives, but Bradley reminds us every single day, when he walks the hall with a smile on his face, of what’s important in life. I’ve never not seen him like that, ever.”

As an employer of a Best Buddy participant at the nonprofit Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust, I have found this overall impact to be true. When we launched last year, our board and senior staff members were supportive of the idea that one of our first hires should be an adult with I/DD. In fact, we created a part-time office clerk position with that goal in mind.

With Best Buddies, an employer gets to interview various candidates from its participant pool and receives ongoing job coaching, which is key to a successful work experience. Although I’m a parent and professional in the disability field, I quickly realized that I wasn’t so good at breaking down a task into its component parts, which often is necessary for people with certain types of disabilities. Enter the job coach, who quickly can figure out the best way to explain an assignment, often using visual prompts.

In Los Angeles, the nonprofit Rosies Foundation also is dedicated to creating employment opportunities that empower people with diverse abilities through professional development and social enterprise. One of its first projects is a repurposed short school bus that is now an ADA-accessible food truck, selling popsicles and other frozen treats at various venues, with its crew members taking on the various roles and responsibilities.

Since adults with disabilities continue to be the single largest minority of Americans who aren’t working — 82.1 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor — this is a good time for more employers to create positive change and hire an adult with I/DD. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if it can work in Hollywood, it can work anywhere.

MICHELLE K. WOLF is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional. She is the founding executive director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at jewishjournal.com/jews_and_special_needs.

Scripted or non-scripted, TV doesn’t reflect reality for disabled population

The ultimate nonprofit working on diversity, dignity and respect in Hollywood, GLAAD recently released its annual “Where We Are on TV” report. It is a comprehensive report on diversity in primetime characters in the 2016-17 television season. This marks the 21st year that GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has tracked the presence of diverse characters on television, and now the second year it has counted diversity of characters on original series that premiere on the streaming content providers Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.

GLAAD’s findings include a record-high percentage of recurring characters with disabilities on scripted broadcast television. Frankly, the numbers are abysmal. But the trend is going in the right direction. Currently, 1.7 percent (15 characters versus last year’s 0.9 percent or eight characters) have disabilities. 

As a person with a disability, I am deeply grateful for GLAAD’s focus on disability. Ableism — discrimination against people who have disabilities — is frequently left out of diversity discussions despite the fact that 56 million Americans have a disability. Its report shows the stark numbers that come from a systemic problem of ableism in Hollywood. It is a wake-up call that also points to a pervasive stigma among audience members against people who have disabilities, and other minorities, given that there is not enough of a widespread outcry against this practice.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey’s one-year estimate reports that 12.6 percent (39.9 million people) of U.S. non-institutionalized citizens report living with an apparent disability. In its count, GLAAD  included characters who would be covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which includes people living with non-apparent disabilities such as cancer or HIV and AIDS. Inclusion of those disabilities would greatly increase the figures found by the U.S. Census Bureau. While the percentage of series’ regular characters who have disabilities has increased in broadcast entertainment this year, primetime programming continues to fall incredibly short in reflecting the reality of this demographic.

This year, we see the highest percentage of inclusion since GLAAD began gathering disability statistics in the 2010-11 season. According to the report, Fox leads the way among broadcast networks, counting five regular characters who have disabilities. On Fox, “Empire’s” Lucious Lyon has been diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis, oldest son Andre lives with bipolar disorder, and out musician and middle son Jamal has post-traumatic stress disorder. On “Rosewood,” series lead Dr. Beaumont Rosewood has a pair of holes in his heart, and “24: Legacy” features a character who has post-traumatic stress disorder. NBC’s “Superstore” includes a character who uses a wheelchair, while “Taken” and “This Is Us” each feature characters diagnosed with cancer. The new series “Trial & Error” features a character with the cognitive disorder prosopagnosia or facial blindness and dyslexia.

 ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” continues to include out Dr. Arizona Robbins, who uses a prosthetic leg, and “How to Get Away with Murder’s” Oliver Hampton, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive during Season One, has been made a series regular for the upcoming third season. The new comedySpeechless” is centered on JJ DiMeo, a teen living with cerebral palsy. One of the characters on CBS’ “NCIS: New Orleans” uses a wheelchair, and a character on the drama “Scorpion” has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety. Lastly, a character on The CW’s “The 100” has mobility issues because of a severe leg injury. There is one LGBTQ recurring character in broadcast entertainment with a disability: Philip on Fox’s “Empire,” who has post-traumatic stress disorder.

On cable series, Freeform includes recurring deaf, lesbian student Natalie on “Switched at Birth,” and “Pretty Little Liars’ ” Jenna who is blind. On Showtime, “Shameless’ ” Ian Gallagher has bipolar disorder and his boyfriend, Caleb, is HIV-positive.

In streaming series, there are three LGBTQ characters who are cancer survivors who have opted for double mastectomy (Tig on Amazon’s “One Mississippi,” Valerie on Amazon’s “Transparent,” and Maxine on Netflix’s “Wentworth”) and Gobber on Netflix’s “DreamWorks’ Dragons” is an amputee. “Transparent” lead Maura has heart issues that prevent her from further medical transition, and recurring character Shea disclosed that she is HIV-positive this season.

Last year, GLAAD partnered with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and AIDS United to release a guide for talking about HIV and AIDS in the media. This year, broadcast is the only platform to include a regular character that is HIV-positive on scripted programming, though it is notable that all three platforms include at least one HIV-positive character.

ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” has broken new ground with normalizing living with HIV through Oliver’s story as the virus is portrayed as part of his life, and he is given stories outside of being HIV-positive. Previous episodes also have educated the public on relationships between serodiscordant couples (one partner who is HIV positive, with one partner who is HIV negative) through conversations about the HIV prevention medication PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) and establishing guidelines for their romantic relationship. This same type of conversation was included in Showtime’s “Shameless” earlier this year as Caleb disclosed his status to boyfriend Ian before the couple’s first sexual encounter. The most recent season of Amazon’sTransparent” includes trans woman Shea disclosing her status as HIV-positive, but the moment is sadly portrayed as an admission that comes during an argument with a prospective new love interest, who then leaves.

GLAAD, like our group RespectAbility, is happy to see more series including HIV-positive characters, and hopes to see more creators fairly and accurately telling stories about people who have HIV, just like many other conditions and disabilities. However, as noteworthy as these figures and other characters with disabilities in the report are in comparison with previously tracked seasons, they fall far short of the percentage of people with disabilities in communities nationwide. 

The only way to create authenticity within broadcast entertainment is if characters with obvious and hidden disabilities are included within every script and storyline, just as they are found within the diversity of our everyday experience. All too often, these characters are featured when there is a focus on disability within the script, when, in reality, characters with disabilities should be included in the vast majority of roles that are nondescript and have nothing to do with a particular disability. Only then will these percentages improve.

Progress also is key in unscripted/reality television. A&E’s new Emmy-winning show “Born This Way” tears down barriers in many ways. Not only does it star seven young people who have Down syndrome, those individuals are diverse. Christina is Latina. Elena’s mother is from Japan, and they show the immigrant experience. John is African-American. This is important for several reasons. One is that when disability is depicted in culture, it tends to be white. 
Real storytelling requires exploring people with multiple minority status (i.e., person of color plus disability, LGBTQ and disability). Second, far too many people of color in the United States who have a developmental disability are not receiving the diagnosis, school accommodations and high expectations they need to succeed. There are currently 750,000 people who have disabilities behind bars in the U.S. — and the majority of them are people of color. The individuals who star in “Born This Way” and their families are models of how disability can and should be accepted and addressed in minority communities. 

Also worth noting from unscripted TV is the success of “Dancing With the Stars,” which has done a lot for disability inclusion. Amy Purdy, an amputee, for example ,was a star. Nyle DiMarco, who is deaf, also was a star there and appeared on “America’s Next Top Model” as well. Marlee Matlin appeared on “The Apprentice” and other shows.

GLAAD’s work helps a social justice issue where a marginalized group of people is not given the right to self-representation. RespectAbility is honored to work alongside them in the battle to end stigmas and advance equality. Together we must end hate and low expectations through more inclusive shows and casting, through the media holding the industry responsible, through the avoidance of stereotypical stories and ultimately through the telling of stories that depict people with disabilities without focusing only on the disability. “Born This Way,” in featuring people with disabilities, hits all the marks while also being a fun and fabulous show. But we must all fight for full diversity and acceptance for the LGBTQ community, for all races and ethnic groups, ability status and more. All of us are equal —  and the shows and films we see should mirror the world at large.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the president of RespectAbilityUSA.org, a nonprofit working to end stigmas and expand opportunities for people with disabilities. Dyslexic herself, she also has experience raising a child with multiple disabilities.

Californians with disabilities want to work

It’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, historic landmark legislation meant to ensure the civil rights of people who have disabilities. Since the ADA was passed, architecture and infrastructure have improved, yet attitudes and opportunities have not. Today there are many ramps to get into buildings, but far fewer to get into jobs.

Only 3 out of 10 of California’s 1,793,900 working-age people with disabilities are employed. This creates poverty, powerlessness and poor health. People who have disabilities want and deserve the opportunity to have the dignity, friendships, income and purpose that jobs and careers provide.

An estimated 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. The good news is that evidence shows that people with disabilities can be highly successful workers. For example, Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson and finance wizard Charles Schwab are dyslexic. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas uses a wheelchair, as did President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Today in California, 115,600 youths with disabilities, between the ages of 16 and 20, are preparing to enter the labor market. They have high expectations and deserve the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Young people with disabilities may simply need some thoughtful help to transition into the workforce.

People who are blind, deaf or non-verbal frequently use assistive technology. Similarly, people with developmental disabilities can benefit greatly from internship opportunities and job coaches. Comcast, Ernst & Young LLC, Lockheed Martin, Sprint and other companies have seen that people with disabilities can be extremely capable and loyal workers.

Vocational rehabilitation programs in California helped 11,187 people with disabilities find work in 2012. It’s not good enough.

Under the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, which I voted for, Gov. Jerry Brown can further break down the silos between the branches of government so that education, transportation, workforce development, health care and other departments work together with employers to create strategies to enable people to obtain jobs and careers. He has access to a large pool of funds from the federal government that he can use to enable people with disabilities in California to get jobs.

Project SEARCH and Bridges to Work continue to produce outstanding results for employers, people with disabilities, and taxpayers around the country. Project SEARCH California has become one of the largest and most successful programs for integrating people with disabilities into the workforce by building relationships between the private and public sectors. By expanding such programs, California can enable people with disabilities to get jobs and careers. It’s a win-win-win for people with disabilities, employers and taxpayers alike.

Rep. Brad Sherman has represented California interests in Congress since 1997.

ADL, Jewish federations regret failure to ratify disabilities treaty

Two national Jewish groups expressed regret at the U.S. Senate's failure to ratify a disability rights treaty.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 61-38 in favor of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; but it needed a two thirds vote, or 67 votes, for ratification.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a United Nations international human rights treaty designed “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” Some 126 countries have ratified the treaty, and 154 countries have signed but not ratified the treaty, like the United States.

The Anti-Defamation League in a statement noted that the treaty had as its basis existing American law,  the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. 

“The adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) set an important standard against discrimination that is too rare in countries around the globe where people with disabilities are marginalized and denied basic protections,” ADL said in a statement. “This treaty simply aims to take our own model standard to countries around the world to empower and protect people where they live. We are profoundly disappointed that 38 Senators did not see fit to affirm America’s commitment to be a global leader promoting the promise of equality and human dignity for all.”

Also expressing regret was the Jewish Federations of North America.

“Despite this move by the U.S. Senate  today, Jewish Federations will continue to stay committed to ensuring individuals with disabilities are able to live healthy, independent lives,” said William Daroff, vice president of public policy and director of the JFNA's Washington office. “We hope that the next Congress will take this up so we as a nation are able to ensure individuals with disabilities are supported on an international scale.”

Preteen Advocate Educates Nation About Diabetes

At first glance, Emma Klatman’s summer vacation sounds like that of a typical 11 year old. She attended summer camp and traveled to Washington, D.C. Instead of merely a participant at camp, however, Klatman was a featured speaker. And in our nation’s capitol, she came not to sightsee but to lobby legislators.

Klatman serves as the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) 2003-2004 national youth advocate. Her duties entail promoting research and public policies relating to diabetes, and visiting diabetes summer camps to involve other children in the fight against the disease.

“Emma acts as an ambassador on behalf of all children with diabetes,” said Stewart Perry, chair of the ADA’s National Government Relations and Advocacy Committee. “She puts a face on diabetes in children.”

Perry accompanied Klatman on her recent legislative visits in Washington, D.C., where she urged Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and aides to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Diane Watson (D-Culver City) to increase funding for research and to insure that diabetes medications be covered under Medicare.

Adapting to her new role like a pro, Klatman presented her case to a supportive Feinstein as the senator walked from her office to a hearing.

“People don’t want to talk to kids when they’re in a hurry, but she did,” Klatman said.

Klatman’s interest in acting (she also attended the Youth Academy for Performing Arts this summer) and a natural poise gives her the confidence to lobby effectively. In one instance, she pulled out her “finger stick” and pricked her finger to show what it’s like to check blood sugar — a constant necessity for those with diabetes.

Visiting diabetes summer camps for children in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin, Klatman told the young campers that they can also be advocates, whether by helping other children understand how to manage their disease or by contacting a legislator about important issues. She said this enables children to “gain self-esteem and think that you really make a difference.”

Perry said that youth advocates like Klatman can be more effective than adults in showing children that they “can live a normal, happy, healthy life with diabetes if they take care of themselves.” Her example, he said, shows “this is what you’re capable of — what you can aspire to be.”

Klatman was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 7. She is one of the more than 13,000 American children annually diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (previously known as juvenile diabetes), which involves a failure by the body to produce insulin. With overweight and inactivity increasing among U.S. children, more cases of Type 2 diabetes are now being seen in children and adolescents. In the past, Type 2 diabetes was considered an adult disease.

Prior to her diagnosis, Klatman experienced symptoms typical of diabetes — she was drinking and urinating frequently, felt constantly hungry and often fatigued. It was at a Purim celebration at Temple Beth Am that her parents realized something was seriously wrong. Her father, Chris Klatman, recalled noticing that Emma appeared peaked, and assuming that she needed something to eat. He bought her more hamantashen and soda, which only served to further elevate her blood sugar. A trip to the doctor quickly confirmed diabetes, and Emma’s life changed from that day forward.

Today, she wears an insulin pump, a blue plastic device that resembles a slightly oversized pager, which is attached to a tube under her skin. The pump automatically administers insulin throughout the day and Klatman presses a button to inject additional insulin based on the food she consumes. She must check her blood sugar levels at least six times a day by pricking her finger and placing a drop of blood in a small device called a glucose meter. Like all people with diabetes, Klatman must keep tight control of blood sugar levels since low levels (hypoglycemia) can lead to loss of consciousness and high levels (hyperglycemia) can eventually cause kidney, nerve, blood vessel and eye damage.

“Sometimes I get so mad that I have to test 10 times a day and I’m not like most kids…. I have something to worry about and they don’t,” Klatman said.

But she said the process has become routine, and even generates admiration among her peers.

Klatman is quite matter-of-fact about her disease and her ability to accomplish her goals. With her youth advocate duties involving monthly travel, she said, “I’ll have to work twice as hard with school, but I’m capable.”

In some ways, Klatman’s illness seems to take a greater toll on her parents, who believe research — particularly stem cell research — may hold the key to the cure for this and other diseases. Until then, her mother, Carol Eisner, noted, “As parents, we’re never relaxed. We really deal with life with Emma test by test.”

While Emma said she can eat anything, her mother elaborates that “eating is never, ever the same…. It’s like keeping strictly kosher: Every single bite that goes into your mouth has thought behind it. For every morsel [you need to ask]: How many carbohydrates does this have and how many units of insulin do I have to give myself for this?”

Because of the frequent need for diabetics to monitor blood sugar levels, one of the ADA’s top priorities involves insuring that children with diabetes be allowed to check glucose levels and inject insulin where and when they need to at school, rather than being forced to walk a distance to the nurse’s office or another isolated location.

Perry talks about other barriers children with diabetes may encounter in schools. “They’ve been told they can’t play football. They can’t be cheerleaders. They can’t go on field trips,” she said. “We want kids with diabetes to be treated no differently than any other kid — not segregated and not discriminated against.”

Emma reflected on what having diabetes means to her.

“I don’t like to refer to myself as a diabetic. I refer to myself as someone with diabetes. It’s something that [requires me to do] more in my life. But I’m still Emma.”

For more information on diabetes, e-mail nya@diabetes.org  or call 1-800-342-2383.