September 21, 2019

Championing Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities

Photos courtesy of RespectAbility

After nearly two decades working on the business affairs side of the entertainment industry, Delbert Whetter, 48, is finally working toward producing his first film. Whetter, who lives in Santa Monica and is a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, is trying to bring the real-life story of an all-deaf Oregon high school track and field team in the 1980s to the big screen. When he talks about it, his eyes light up behind his wire-rimmed glasses. 

“My brother was on the team, so the story is very personal for me,” he said recently at the Mid-City offices of Film Independent, a nonprofit arts organization that champions independent filmmakers. For Whetter, who is deaf himself, the road to becoming a producer has been long and winding. 

“This business is all about who you know,” Whetter said with a sign language interpreter beside him. “Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges for entertainment professionals like me with disabilities is developing relationships throughout the industry in a way that’s accessible. A meet-up might happen in a restaurant that’s not accessible to a person in a wheelchair. Maybe a cocktail hour will take place without sign language interpreters.” 

But one organization is making things more accessible for people like Whetter. On June 27, Whetter and 21 other Hollywood hopefuls convened at Film Independent for part of a first-of-its-kind Summer Lab Program geared toward entertainment professionals with disabilities. 

Organized by RespectAbility, a nonprofit dedicated to empowerment and self-advocacy for individuals with disabilities, the free, five-week, nine-session program features speakers, screenings and networking opportunities. It runs through July 19 and participants include writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and animators with physical, cognitive, sensory, mental health and other disabilities. Comcast NBC Universal, the Walt Disney Company and television producer Jonathan Murray have supported the program financially and by donating space for sessions. 

“This is a wonderful opportunity for people with disabilities to develop relationships with experienced people in the business in a completely accessible way,” Whetter said.

At Film Independent, featured guest speakers included representatives from GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau and Film Fatale, a nonprofit that supports female feature film directors. David Renaud, a writer on the television show “The Good Doctor,” also spoke. 

“I want to get disability included in all diversity conversations,” Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s vice president of communications, said while participants schmoozed with guest speakers over wine and cheese. “I want to change the equity hiring mindset for everyone who’s hiring within the entertainment industry. It’s not just going to happen. It doesn’t just happen to include any marginalized group. Someone has to be intentional about it.” 

“I want to get disability included in all diversity conversations. I want to change the equity hiring mindset for everyone who’s hiring within the entertainment industry.” — Lauren Appelbaum 

Although RespectAbility isn’t a Jewish organization, president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi founded it in 2013 with fellow Jewish philanthropists Donn Weinberg and Shelley Richman Cohen to help advocate for the more than 56 million Americans living with disabilities. Appelbaum told the Journal that RespectAbility’s Jewish roots inform everything it does and helped guide her work creating the Summer Lab Program. 

“Jewish ideals are very much talking about inclusion and welcoming people in,” she said. “So it’s a natural fit drawing upon my Jewish background to want to be utilizing those ideals in the disability community.” 

Although she can’t go into specifics for confidentiality reasons, Appelbaum said the program is already netting rewards for participants. Several have secured “exciting meetings” with production companies after networking at previous sessions. 

“But also, I’ve heard from some of the participants that they’ve never met another filmmaker with their disability before,” Appelbaum added. “They’re feeling like they’re not alone and that they have a community.” 

Marc Muszynski, 34, a Jewish screenwriter and comedian who lives in Los Feliz, echoed that sentiment. 

“You don’t encounter a lot of other people with disabilities for all the reasons this lab exists,” he said. “Seeing all these other incredibly creative people who are already starting their careers — and some of them are very far into their careers — and just getting to meet them is amazing.” 

Muszynski, who is severely visually impaired, has experience working on network television shows as a writer’s assistant and even wrote an episode of the NBC sitcom “Abby’s.” He credited the lab with providing unique opportunities that he and other participants don’t often come by. 

“This incredible group is also exposed to studios, networks and organizations that can actually make a difference in their careers,” he said. “I think so much of the entertainment industry is finding the people who are willing to help you. This lab has been amazing at helping me meet and be inspired by other people in the same boat as me and then presenting the opportunity to meet those executives who can help, too. That’s invaluable.”

Aaron Wolf, 34, the documentary filmmaker behind “Restoring Tomorrow,” an acclaimed 2017 film chronicling the restoration of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, spoke at Film Independent and at a previous session. Wolf, who has dyslexia, first learned about RespectAbility two years ago when he met Laszlo Mizrahi at an event and was instantly galvanized by the organization’s dedication to disability rights, what he calls “the civil rights fight of our time.” 

“My eyes lit up when I met her,” Wolf said. Since then, he has remained engaged with the organization and made it a point to be at the inaugural Summer Lab Program. 

“RespectAbility has it all in the name,” he said. “It’s about respecting everyone’s ability. We need that. Too many people are left out, whether it’s a visible or nonvisible disability. We need to be accepting of everyone for who they are and what there strengths might be.”