January 17, 2019

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.