Film

#Media and #Disability Representation – 6 Recommendations

Film reel, strip, and clapper with blue text. Media and Disability - 6 RecommendationsIt is well understood that film and television are a part of our cultural experience. In fact more than 50 years ago, the Supreme Court observed how film impacts “public attitudes and behavior in a variety of ways, ranging from direct espousal of a political or social doctrine to subtle shaping of thought which characterizes all artistic expression.” and that they “are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” and their “importance as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform.” The representation of disability within film and television should be a part of that cultural exchange.[1] 

In the last couple of years we have seen a marked increase in the visibility of disability in the media. Examples include very visible national advertisements that include individuals with disabilities – Swiffer, with a one-armed dad; a blind mom and her use of Facebook, a lesbian couple learning to sign to adopt a child from Wells Fargo, an aunt who is a wheelchair user in a Honey Maid commercial, and the presence of models with Down Syndrome in several Target print ads just to name a few. And of course, one cannot talk about increased visibility and not mention Nyle DiMarco’s win in Dancing with the Stars, the success on Broadway of Spring Awakening with its diverse cast, and of course the television series, Speechless.

What is also visible is where disability is perhaps not treated as well. These include mainstream media commenting critically on the prevalence of disability in Oscar wins. As was noted in one article, “Since Dustin Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar playing “Rain Man,” a majority of Best Actor Oscars were taken home by men playing the sick or handicapped.” Also, the response to disability protests for films such as “Me Before You” which, arguably only offer dangerous stereotypes that it is better for an individual with a disability to die (usually beautifully and/or tragically) rather than live with the impairment. For the first time, media outside the disability community blogosphere was examining this trend and finding fault.

According to the U.S. Census, there are 56 million people with disabilities; that breaks down to approximately one in five Americans. GLAAD’s 2015-16 study, “Where We Are On TV”, highlights that fact that only eight characters had a disability this season, representing 0.9% of all characters. What is perhaps more distressing is that the percentage and number of series regulars with disabilities has actually decreased. This is not the direction to go.

In response to criticisms within the industry we are seeing strong commitments and investments in diversity; we are seeing the establishment of myriad programs, contests, and fellowships that aim to support diverse filmmakers and actors. Unfortunately, it is rare that “diversity” is inclusive of disability. As such, I am writing to urge the open, named recognition of “disability” within the larger umbrella of diversity, for the recognition of the significant exclusion of disability from many programs and projects focused on addressing the broader issue, and for concrete actions to address this ongoing invisibility of disability. Without direct investment and recognition of disability with inclusion and strong internal mandates there will never be any development of future disabled film and television talents, both in front of and behind the camera. Therefore, I would like to propose 6 Media and Disability recommendations. They aren’t perfect, and they doesn’t cover everything, but it is a place to start.

Six Media and Disability/Diversity Recommendations*[3]

1.  SPECIFIC INCLUSION. Include “disability” as a named minority status when promoting any diversity initiatives.

Often diversity programs, internships, contests etc. focus on gender or race without recognizing that disability is also a minority status/identity. This exclusion sends a message, “Disability need not apply.” Considering that disability is a fact of life for more than 20% of the American population, it is crucial that disability is explicitly included.  In addition, many of these projects do not recognize the intersectionality of disability and that it often exists side-by-side with other statuses.

2.  DATA COLLECTION. Ensure “disability” is included in any surveys or demographic questions for all projects, programs, memberships and other processes.

Without asking, it is impossible to get any idea of the representation of this population. As an example, the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study titled “Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity.” The in-depth scrutiny included 109 films released by major studios in 2014 and 305 scripted series that aired on television and streaming services from September 2014 to August 2015. Disability was not included in their examination. On a positive note, Annenberg’s upcoming studies will include disability as a part of the analysis. However, the Screen Actors Guild does include disability as part of voluntary data collection and is a key source of information about this population in the entertainment industry. It is unclear how many other associations, fellowships, workshops, and programs actually have members and participants with disabilities because the question isn’t asked. This kind of demographic information, even when only provided voluntarily and even when only viewed in the aggregate, is invaluable to gaining an understanding of who and where these industry professionals are.

3.  EXPLORE NEW MEANS OF OUTREACH. Looking for people with disabilities but aren’t finding any? You may be looking in the wrong/same places.

When seeking individuals to fit roles in front of or behind the camera, to participate in programs or internships, or to support your media diversity/disability activities, choose different conferences, consider a different sourcing agency, pick a different place to advertise.  Consider creating a fellowship for filmmakers from underrepresented communities, or setting up an internship program with a minority-serving institution, particularly those with film programs. Build partnerships. Actively reach out to professional, academic, or advocacy organizations related to disability and/or media. There are plenty of talented people with disabilities who can bring value to your productions.

On a related note, when incorporating characters with disabilities or other chronic conditions, reach out to actual people with disabilities. Find consultants who can help you ensure you are “getting it right.” Hire writers and/or directors with disabilities. There are many aspects of culture, technology, relationships, and how people with disabilities relate to society. Outreach to these communities helps you to add, not just accuracy, but depth to your projects (and not just on the subject of disability).

4.  EXPANDED OPPORTUNITY. Consider instituting a “Rooney Rule” for casting your projects (and make sure your location is accessible).

In football, “The Rooney Rule” requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate when filling a head coaching position. It does not guarantee hiring and is not an affirmative action plan. However, recognizing that discrimination plays a role in individual decision-making processes, such a rule requiring at least one actor with a disability to be auditioned for the role of a character with a disability offers an opportunity for positive change. Although not perfect, over the first three years of the institution of the Rooney Rule, the overall percentage of African American coaches increased from 6% to 22%.

Perhaps more importantly, considering the prevalence of individuals with disabilities within general society, casting actors with disabilities in background and/or as recurring characters, even if the character is not written as disabled, not only increases diversity, it allows your media to reflect society.

I recognize this bullet in my recommendation is about casting, however, I do think it is important to recognize that the Directors’ Guild of America (DGA) has been quietly pushing for a Rooney rule with regard to the selection of directors.  Granted, studios and networks rejected the proposition outright, but I have to admit that I think the DGA was on a good track. The difficulty lies, I imagine, in the way films are made. I don’t believe there are broad general “interviews” for directors. Not perfect, but it is a way to increase the opportunity for women and other minority (including disabled) directors.

5.  IT BEGINS WITH THE WORLD/WORD. Create more diverse characters to begin with in scripts and storylines. 

Our world is filled with thriving diverse communities and when writers create the worlds in their scripts, there is an opportunity to be more inclusive. Writers can and should explore writing more diverse and creative parts for actors/characters with disabilities. Defy stereotypes, change the token stories, flip the narrative. The is also the possibility of implementing a “Geena Davis type solution[2]” (simply change any character in a script into a woman) for disability.

Writers are often taught that if a character has a disability or is a minority or a woman, it must “serve the story” so there must be a reason for them to exist in the narrative. The truth is that in real life, people have disabilities, women exist, and people of color are just as likely to be doctors, or lawyers, or accountants as they are gangsters, homeless, or victims.It may get taken out. It may get changed later, but it begins with the script and there is no reason not to include diverse characters, is there?

6.  SPEAKING OUT. This is your industry too.

Disability/Diversity doesn’t belong to one person. Seek to increase disability in your work, but also speak out, encourage others to act, amplify the voices of filmmakers and actors with disabilities. Ask industry members with disabilities to participate in your projects, to judge your contests, to sit on your panels; ask them to talk about everything, not just their disability, ask about the craft.  Increasing the visibility of this population within the industry and helping the filmmaking community grow and improve is part of everyone’s job.

 

[1] Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 501 (1952). 

[2] *Loosely based on Molly McArdle’s “What Comes Next?: 23 Steps Toward Ending Publishing’s Diversity Problem,” http://www.bkmag.com/2016/02/26/what-comes-next-23-steps-toward-ending-publishings-diversity-problem/

[3] Two Easy Steps to Making Hollywood Less Sexist, Geena Davis, Hollywood Billboard. (2013). http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/geena-davis-two-easy-steps-664573

Touch of Love – Origin Story

In January of this year, I was very excited to see the completion of the short film, “Touch of Love.” It is based on my flash fiction piece by the same name. ToL was one of my first “pro” sales in 2007 – to Daily Science Fiction. (Psst, you can read it here if you like, or can purchase the reprint in the anthology 10 Tales of Steampunk). Since that time, the story has morphed and grown and increased in complexity.

2ndAnnualMinorityFilmmakersShowcaseIt’s debut screening was at Balticon in May of this year and I’m proud to say it made a Top 5 finish. I even posted a few pictures about the weekend. And yes, I loved every minute. In addition, on August 19, ToL was included as part of Baltimore’s Reel Independent Women Minority Filmmaker Showcase. (I really need to post a few pictures from that.) But in all this time, I never really got a chance to talk about the film. I know, I know, a work should speak for itself, but hey, it’s my blog and I thought why not take a few minutes to talk about WHY this film is so important to me.

I love Science Fiction. I love it almost as much as I love Steampunk. And I love them both for the same reasons – they give us the opportunity to look at social and cultural mores and ask, “What if?” Heinlein, Asimov, Norton, Clarke, Butler…all of them looked at the world as it is and wrote stories that made us question our assumptions about it. But it is very difficult to get us to see past our own illusions and ideologies. Our worldview, complete with all of its assumptions and value judgements are well learned, and as they said in the musical, South Pacific, “You Must be Carefully Taught” (referencing racism in particular). I won’t get into it here but there are a WHOLE lot of issues with that musical.

So what better way to reframe the tired arguments, to shake us out of our reverie and force us to consider another way…than another world? Science Fiction has always given us a view into a world that might have been. Dystopias like Brave New World or 1984 warn us of potential outcomes from current pathways, and more idealistic goals such as some of those espoused within Star Trek encourage us to strive towards a more equitable and peaceful future. In a fictional future we can more openly explore, race, disability, gender, nationalism (and jingoism), imperialism, environmental catastrophe and other issues that are so wrapped up in our current news and life that we have a tougher time viewing it in a neutral fashion.

ReelWomenGroupPhotoSteampunk gives us an opportunity to change history and use it as an opportunity to ask similar questions and wonder what our world would look like now.

The short story touches on the issue, but the film goes much further – I wanted to examine the nature of violence, particularly intimate violence and how it is learned. Research has shown us over and over how we learn behaviors and how our worldview is build up from our experiences and that if violence is a common part of it, then violence will be what we know and do and believe to be normal. So what happens if we become more, rather than less accepting of domestic violence; if we build a world that accommodates “appropriate” violence? Our lives, our technology facilitates it? We all know the trope of robots built to love humans; we already are building “companions” for the elderly and striving to create robots that can pass for human.

There’s an interesting paper on Robots, Love, and Sex:The Ethics of Building a Love Machine, the psychology of it, the kinds of ethics and design principles that would be involved that offered some great food for thought as I wrote and rewrote the script.

So, after reading that, I considered, how hard would it be to build robots to accommodate that future intimate violence? What happens when we teach them not only to accommodate it, but to love it? Love, hate, power, those are just words; the emotions connected to them are complicated and messy, so when we teach those emotions to our human analogues, can we be surprised at their mimesis?

Touch of Love Poster - Honeys Face

TOUCH OF LOVE

Honey is a Companion robot, human-like in appearance and biology, assigned to a domestic abuser as therapy. After a recent session, with a blend of injuries both human and machine, Honey is brought in for repairs. In the quiet moments with her builder, Honey learns to express her own feelings about love.

It’s not complicated to conceive of robots that people love. What will truly teach us about human nature is when we build a robot that can love us back. But human nature is a strange and fickle thing, and we might discover that we teach things we never intended.

How does a robot express love? The answer is all too human.

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Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens #Documentary Kickstarter – #history

For those of you who may not know, for the last year, I’ve been slowly working on a Civil War documentary. It wasn’t quite how I planned to spend my year (creatively I had planned on focusing on a novel) but something about the story fired my imagination and over the past few months, I’ve built a great crew who is really committed; folks from Discovery Communications, from the National Museum of American History, and from Docs in Progress as well as accessing some amazing resources from the Library of Congress and National Archives. And now we’re crowdfunding to raise money to cover research, licensing and then produce a short film.

This it! We’re down to the last few hours of the Kickstarter for the “Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens.” If you haven’t, please take a moment to go donate. If you have, thank you for helping us bring this amazing story to the screen.

Please help us spread the word about the documentary during these last few hours – Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram…even just word-of-mouth.GettysburgLightICPoster

The story: The Invalid Corps was a corps of men with disabilities who fought in the Civil War. Men who were injured in battle or who acquired chronic illnesses – men missing limbs, and eyes, with rheumatism, epilepsy, bullet injuries, those with what we would now call PTSD, and many others. Rather than be discharged, they continued to serve the Union cause.

In July 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early launched a surprise raid that takes him to the very gates of Washington DC. Almost every able-bodied soldier from the Union had already been sent south with General Grant for the siege of Petersburg, more than 100 miles away. The only defenders remaining were clerks, government officials, and the InvalidCorps. And with Lincoln himself on the ramparts, they couldn’t afford to fail. 
You can see the project details here:  
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Basically, this is a piece of disability and veteran’s history that just hasn’t been seen or heard before. We want to capture it and make sure that the service and sacrifice by these men isn’t lost forever.

Take a look and donate and share, before time runs out!

PS AND we some GREAT REWARDS!
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I’m a Docs in Progress Film Fellow!

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I’m a Docs In Progress Fellow! In the midst of all the madness of sewer breakage at our house I totally missed the official announcement! Holy crap…does this mean I’m a “real” filmmaker now?! (Whatever “real” means) 😉

Here’s the announcement:

Docs In Progress is pleased to welcome 10 filmmakers to our annual Fellowship Program. Now in its third year, the Fellowship provides a cohort of emerging documentary filmmakers from the Washington DC Metropolitan area the opportunity to come together over the course of eight months in a safe and supportive space to workshop their works-in-progress and get guidance from each other and from special guest experts on the challenges of filmmaking and the creative process.

Fellows are selected through a competitive review process. This year’s Fellows are Day Al-Mohamed (<— Look, it’s me!), Felicia Barr, Farran Nowlen Burrell, Anthony Cohen, Peggy Fleming, Jason Green, Emma Mankey Hidem, Bonnie Rich, Hanna Stawicki, and Saaret Yoseph.

 

MEET THE 2015 DOCS IN PROGRESS FELLOWS

Day Al-Mohamed
Silver Spring, MD
Day balances her time between being a published author of speculative fiction and comics and serving as a Senior Policy Advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor where she works to increase employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. She is producing a short film called “Invalid Corps” about a group of Civil War disabled soldiers who helped defend against a confederate army of 15,000 men at the Battle of Fort Stevens.

Felicia Barr
Washington DC
A freelance video journalist with a background in religious studies, Felicia has produced inventive and intelligent short-form video on arts and culture for several organizations, including the BBC. Her film 100 Faces of War Experience chronicles a project by an artist to create portraits of 100 people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Farran Nowlen Burrell
Washington DC
With a background in business and contract management, Farran also has a passion for people, travel, history, photography, food, and art. She is working on her first documentary Any One Child which focuses on the story of two teenage girls who shared eerily similar lives and fates decades apart, and the mothers left to deal with the grief of losing a child too soon.

Anthony Cohen
Brookeville, MD
Tony is an author, historian, and runs a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Underground Railroad. He has served as consultant to the National Parks Conservation, and Maryland Public Television, and trained Oprah Winfrey for her role in the motion picture Beloved. His film Patrick & Me chronicles the journey of his ancestor, a slave who fled from bondage.

Peggy Fleming
Washington DC
Peggy has been a park ranger, a cultural anthropologist, a teacher, and worked for President Kennedy in the area of civil rights. Since retiring, she has developed herself as a visual artist – first in photography and now in video. SHAW: A City Symphony is a visual and sound poem about Washington DC’s Shaw neighborhood.

Jason Green
Gaithersburg, MD
An attorney, political strategist, and entrepreneur, Jason served as Associate Counsel in the White House and started a technology venture to match job seekers to jobs based on skills. His film The Quince Orchard Project resurrects the history of a predominantly black community in upper Montgomery County, Maryland which developed after the Civil War, thrived or many years, and has since disappeared from the map.

Emma Mankey Hidem
Washington DC
A graduate of the prestigious Tisch School for the Arts at NYU, Emma has worked as an Associate Producer for some of the best documentary filmmakers in the country, as well as editing and/or producing for the PBS program Religion & Ethics and for production companies like Cortina Productions and LAI Video. She is in post-production on Blue Ridge Barnum, a portrait of a zany entertainer and sculptor of roadside attractions in Virginia.

Bonnie Rich
Silver Spring, MD
A producer and writer for more than 15 years, Bonnie has produced videos for nonprofits, events, fundraising galas, and college courses. She is in production on Searching for My Jewish Soul, a humorous personal documentary about how one Jewish family navigates the challenges of carrying on a religious practice in an increasingly secular society.

Hanna Stawicki
Silver Spring, MD
Hanna is a filmmaker, photographer, artist, and traveler who currently works as Production Manager at Meridian Hill Pictures and as a freelance documentary film editor. While in Nepal, she produced a short film about the effects of the caste system on the Dalit community. She is currently working on developing this into a transmedia project called Caste Out.

Saaret Yoseph
Washington DC
Saaret is a multi-media storyteller whose first documentary looked at public access and aesthetics as seen through Washington DC’s Metro Red Line. She has also taught digital storytelling for the Smithsonian. A firstgeneration Ethiopian-American, her project iEthiopia: The Round Trip looks at the Ethiopian diaspora’s complex relationship with “home.”