It has been eight years since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign began to call attention to the systemic barriers to diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. Even in 2023, at the 95th annual Academy Awards, Black women actors, directors, and their films were snubbed, even as the Asian American feature Everything Everywhere All at Once took almost all the top awards. There were no women in the Best Director category, and social media was afire about the snub of Viola Davis’ directorial debut Woman King.
Director Cashmere Jasmine (Oreo, Project CC for Disney’s Launchpad Collection) was disappointed, especially to see Davis walk away without any awards. “There was both relief and a deep, deep sadness when I heard Viola Davis speaking on The Breakfast Club [podcast] about just getting people to do hair and makeup, and that it was always going to be a fight, and that you’ll always have to push, no matter who you are or how high you go.”
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Jasmine was one of many panelists in a recent webinar featuring Black disabled filmmakers. The event was organized by RespectAbility, a group focused on fighting stigmas and providing guidance for creators with disabilities in the entertainment industry, policymaking, leadership positions, and faith communities. Jasmine is a Black woman who is disabled, and she says the barriers to entry in the entertainment industry are real, and they become apparent early in the process—even at the point of pitching a film.
Those barriers are formidable: More than a quarter of the U.S. population lives with disabilities, including about 5.5 million Black Americans. Furthermore, the disabled and Black communities have been proven to flock to films made for, by, and featuring people representative of the community. However, an overwhelming 95% of characters on-screen are not disabled. That majority is still overwhelmingly white and male. Only 4.1% of the programs on-screen feature disability themes.
Jasmine says the studios and executives don’t trust someone who looks like her when she walks in the door. “They have a formula that they know has quote-unquote ‘worked for them,’ and it’s often somewhat exclusionary, or often may be overly conservative.” She explains that the struggle is to compromise enough to make the studio executives see the vision without losing that “lightning in the bottle” uniqueness that makes the story hers. Just to get her project green-lit, she has to prove “this was not only beautiful and profitable, but unique, and really reached not just the audience you’re used to reaching, but an audience that’s even broader than that.”
Hers is a real story about the barriers a disabled Black woman has to break in order to get her film project considered by a company like Disney. Being disabled actually adds further complication to the barriers Blackness brings to filmmakers trying to break into the industry.
RespectAbility, the organization that hosted the webinar, is in the business of telling the industry how to step up for creatives with disabilities. In fact, each of the panelists on its most recent webinar was an alumnus of RespectAbility’s Entertainment Lab.
Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s senior vice president of communications, says the original target of the organization’s mission was politics, but the entertainment industry has become a large focus. Appelbaum has worked to build a community where both the creatives and the people seeking to employ them can connect and educate themselves on the needs of the disabled.
Writer Diane J. Wright, who moderated the Black Excellence webinar, asked the panelists about their inspiration to join the industry. Immediately, the conversation turned to representation—the connection between seeing themselves represented in the industry and having actual access.
Writer and director Juliet Romeo offers a different perspective on the representation conversation. “What the industry can do is—could have done [is]—to help us create representation,” she said. “Because I feel like if I saw myself or I saw that there were writers and directors growing up that looked like me, then I would have believed it. I would have been, ‘Yes, this is what I want to do.’” Instead, Romeo describes a very circuitous route to her current filmmaking career. And she wasn’t alone.
Actor, writer, and producer Erika Ellis also didn’t see Black women filmmakers like herself and thought the only way into Hollywood was to buy her way in by financing her own film. “I had it in my head that [if] I get into finance, then I can finance films, and then I can put myself in a film. But I didn’t know a direct route. … I found my way, the long way, I should say.”
Ellis went on to describe how the lack of representation translated into barriers to access to the industry for her. “But growing up, I still didn’t know how to get there. And I think when I finally did, I got in through another, you know, organization, a diversity hire, basically, in a program.”
Romeo adds that the barriers to access for aspiring creatives are only compounded when you are a first-generation immigrant, Black, and disabled.
Romeo says her family was supportive of her desire to become a filmmaker, but they never saw what she did as work. She comes from a Caribbean family who believes success was only found in manual labor or the professions, and definitely not in creative fields. “The safe jobs are, you know, in the medical field. So become a nurse. Become a doctor, right?” Romeo became a nurse, and only later began making her first documentary about a friend’s health journey.
Representation also provides a model for disabled creatives to follow after they begin working in the industry. Entertainment Lab alumnus Angel Williams, currently producer and writer for Truce Media, says the Lab workshops taught her how to speak up for herself and her needs as a creative with non-apparent disabilities.
During her own workshop in September 2022, alumni of previous Entertainment Labs talked about advocating for themselves in the industry.
Williams says she loved to hear the former students “telling their stories of how they learn to advocate for themselves and to request the accommodations they need.” She explains “listening to how they talk about pushing forward, advocacy for the self and others around them.” Williams says that now she is working on advocating for her own work breaks (which she needs for her disability, fibromyalgia, a condition that causes chronic fatigue and chronic pain) and accommodations. She is also open at Truce Media about being disabled.
Industry Rising to Meet “Us”
Wright’s second request to the panel started another important conversation within the inclusion debate. She asked the panel of Black women creatives about “some of the specific ways the industry could have risen to meet us.”
“We’re always asked about our identities and barriers and how we overcome them, right? As if who we are is the hurdle.”
This is the question we asked the other part of the RespectAbility community—the executive partners who employ the Entertainment Lab alumni and consultants. They were eager to share the ways in which RespectAbility has pushed industry executives and their companies to do better.
Stacie de Armas, the vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Nielsen, the media ratings and research company, says the RespectAbility relationship with her company began with a desire to “do better.”
De Armas explains that a few years before, she wanted to make a contribution using a budgetary surplus. “I said we want to make a contribution to your work. And then we’d love to also chat about your work and see how we can work together,” she says. Today, Nielsen hires alumni of the Entertainment Labs, and it regularly engages RespectAbility consultants to help inform projects where the company is measuring demographics for its new metrics systems, like GraceNote.
But de Armas and Nielsen also learned about “the work” aspect early on when she brought RespectAbility in to measure inclusion in the industry. They were looking for a metric to look at disability inclusion on-screen and off-screen. But, according to de Armas, “that’s not how RespectAbility works.” The RespectAbility team explained to her that there were several aspects of disability to be considered, and commenced giving a master class in disabilities to the Nielsen team.
De Armas and her team at Nielsen were impressed. “We knew at that point, too, we’ve got the right partner here because they’re challenging us. They want more than we even think we’re capable of, and they’re explaining to us why. And so with their support, we actually did do all of that.” Nielsen released data in a December 2022 report, “Seen on screen: the importance of disability representation.”
Grace Moss, vice president of DEI at Warner Discovery, also says that over the past few years, she has worked with RespectAbility to discover the barriers her company still maintains to disability inclusion, through consulting on scripts and helping ensure the sets of new shows are inclusive to not only the actors, but also the crew, creators, and anyone who visits a set. Companies learn that making sets wheelchair-accessible is more than adding ramps. Inclusive sets include quiet spaces for the neurodivergent, for example.
Moss even shared how a RespectAbility Lab alum helped her team realize that video submissions are much easier for people with disabilities connected to writing difficulty. This includes neurodivergent creators who express themselves better with visual tools. Moss says, “Now, the application to our Directors Lab is open, and they have a video submission option.” That component is available on the application to the Warner Discovery Inclusion program, called Warner Bros Discovery Access.
Shifting the Burden
Applebaum and her team are moving the heavy lifting of inclusion and access onto the broad shoulders of companies like Nielsen and Warner Bros Discovery. As they do so, one of the biggest barriers to inclusion—representation—is being lifted.
As a result, RespectAbility is seeding the industry with disabled people, especially Black creators with disabilities who are creating content for the screen and beyond. This includes policymakers, measurers (working with companies like Nielsen), and even journalists. Williams reiterates the importance of seeing other disabled people who work in the industry advocate for themselves and remain in their jobs. “It’s just how hard they go for making sure that we’re all included,” Williams says. “I’ve never had an issue where it’s like, ‘Hey, I need help with something!’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, we just can’t help you. We don’t even know where to tell you to go.’ Even if it’s something that they don’t do, they know what organization they partner with to ask.” Williams says RespectAbility empowers her to advocate and educate at Truce Media.
So, while the Oscars are still struggling to show the representation of people with disabilities, especially disabled Black women like those on the Black Excellence panel, RespectAbility and its alumni are seeding the industry with information, access, and representation needed to ensure that diversity and inclusion continues to grow. Ensuring that the next Wright, Romeo, and Ellis see themselves in front of and behind a camera. And that they have access to the direct route to those careers.
Jonita Davis is an Indiana writer who works regularly on social and cultural topics. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Fix, People’s World and more. You can read her work at www.jonitadavis.com.