RespectAbility, the non-profit that seeks to combat stigmas for people with disabilities through advocacy, has announced the participants for the 5th edition of its Lab for Entertainment Professionals with Disabilities.
The individuals who are participating in this year’s Los Angeles cohort include Iqsa Aqilah, Catherine Argyrople, Robert Burns, Michael Busza, Matthew Charles, Rick Cisario, Stephan Collins-Stepney, Jules Dameron, Katey Darling, Lorena Gordon, Annie Hayes, Jayla Hodge, Christopher James, Chrissy Marshall, Radha Mehta, Danielle Monique, Toby Parker Rees, Amelia Swedeen, Maggie Whittum and Nicole Zimmerer.
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The 2023 cohort includes people ranging in age from the 20s through the 50s, with physical, cognitive, sensory, mental health, other disabilities, and multiple disabilities.
This year’s lab has been adapted to be in support of the WGA strike, including bringing in more writers and independent industry speakers to talk about the current climate.
“Since 2019, we have been building a community of disabled entertainment professionals and creating an ecosystem of disabled creatives supporting each other to ensure that we as a disability community find success,” said Lab Founder Lauren Appelbaum, senior vice president of communications and entertainment & news media at RespectAbility. Appelbaum founded the Lab in 2019 with RespectAbility board vice chair Delbert Whetter.
“As an alumna of the Lab’s 2020 cohort myself, it’s an honor to continue building our community of disabled creatives who already are changing the industry with their work and their projects,” said Lesley Hennen, who is managing the day-to-day programming of the Lab. “Especially now, during a time that feels like an important turning point in the Entertainment industry, it’s important to have that support network of like-minded creatives who are all working toward a common goal of creating a more accessible and inclusive industry.”
Lab alumni now count 122 and work across the industry, including in writer’s rooms, and have had films featured at festivals such as SXSW and participated in additional career track programs including with Film Independent and Sundance Institute. More than 15 Lab alumni have returned as presenters and mentors for this year’s cohort, including Kiah Amara (production accessibility coordinator, Apple TV+’s Best Foot Forward), Asha Chai-Chang (writer/director, All by Design and A.V.G), Ashley Eakin (director, Disney’s Growing Up and Apple TV+’s Best Foot Forward), Harold Foxx (associate producer, Being Michelle), Cashmere Jasmine (director, Oreo), Shea Mirzai (co-chair of the WGA’s Disabled Writers Committee), Sheridan O’Donnell (director, Little Brother), Diana Romero (writers’ assistant, Freeform’s Good Trouble); Amanda Upson (producer, A Long March); and Alaa Zabara (director, Selahy).
Lab alumna Cashmere Jasmine said, “Since the Lab in 2021, I have been in festivals, directed a short film for the second season of Launchpad on Disney+, and I’ve had had my feature workshopped with Sundance. As my career accelerated at a rapid pace, I now have the support of a cohort excited to help my growth by providing priceless advice or just kind words.”
RespectAbility hosted virtual labs during the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued the effort, along with an in-person lab, as a digital format may be better suited for some fellows. The fellows in the virtual cohort will be announced at a later date.
“One purpose for this program is to continue building the talent pipeline of professionals with disabilities looking to work behind the scenes,” Appelbaum added. “We do not want anyone to have an excuse that they could not find a disabled writer, animator, director, or any other position.”
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