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Disabled Artisans Seek Equality in Behind-the-Camera Jobs

Amid talk about Hollywood diversity, one group gets consistently overlooked: people with disabilities, who comprise 19% of the U.S. population (57 million). They’re seeking more representation behind the camera, and the biggest hurdle is convincing Hollywood they can do the work — even though they are already finding success in various artisan jobs.

Kaitlyn Yang is a visual effects supervisor with more than 40 credits, including “Robot Chicken,” “Gangster Squad” and “Falling Skies.” She says representation of people with disabilities behind the camera is just as important as it is in front of the camera, because post-production is such a big part of Hollywood. “People often think, ‘Maybe the job is too hard for someone with a disability,’ ” she says, then adds: “No, it’s perfect!”

Yang was born with spinal muscular atrophy. After film school at USC, she began doing VFX work and opened a post-production company, Alpha Studios, in 2013.

Strangers usually focus on her wheelchair. “For them it’s a big deal; they think it’s a life limitation,” Yang says. “For me, it’s actually a tiny part of who I am. For someone who hasn’t had the exposure, we’re still in the stigma stage, and they don’t realize we can do the job.”

Daryn Okada, a successful DP (“Mean Girls,” “Baby Mama,” “Scandal”) and former president of the American Society of Cinematographers, says movie and TV audiences don’t see the artisans, so the thing that matters is the results. “In this day and age, you would think a handicap would not affect a decision in hiring, but I see it happen,” Okada says. When he encounters anyone who’s physically challenged behind the scenes, he is honest but encouraging: “I let them know that getting into the business is always tough, but you have to keep at it. People just need a chance.”

Nobody is asking for quotas or special consideration. People with disabilities just want to be considered for the job.

Stephen Letnes, a blind film composer, says, “Disability doesn’t mean inability. There are examples of people with challenges who are making a living — and they’re doing it in the hardest industry in the world.”

Letnes has chalked up 80 credits in the last five years, including shorts and student films. On a recent project, he didn’t tell the filmmakers about his blindness until the score had been completed. Once Letnes is hired, his eyesight is not a factor. “Thank goodness for assistive technology,” he says. “The iPad changed my life.”

“People think, ‘Maybe the job is too hard for someone with a disability.’ No, it’s perfect!”
Visual effects supervisor Kaitlyn Yang

“My eyeballs are four inches from the screen. Assistive technology makes the image onscreen as big as I want and sometimes I’m able to see only parts of the image at one time.” He says his biggest challenge is the same one facing every composer: “There is never enough time.”

He believes that in some ways, disabilities can offer advantages. “Directors want creative ideas, and people with disabilities are thinking outside the box all the time,” he says, “so we are a constant resource of alternative thinking.”

Okada has seen the issue from two perspectives. He worked for years as a DP, but after a helicopter accident left pieces of vertebra in his spinal cord, he spent eight years walking with a cane.

He knew he could handle any assignment  — “I never felt any limitations” — but he noticed a change in attitude. “People looked at me differently. The minute I’d walk in [to a job interview] with a cane, it was always ‘This is going to be a really hard shoot,’” and he rarely was hired.

Okada credits director Steve Miner for trusting him. They started together on the 1990 series “Elvis” and the 1991 film “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” and Okada has worked steadily since.

The DP is easily mobile now: “I don’t talk about it, and a lot of people are surprised to hear my story — the crew find it hard to keep up with me!”

The word “disability” covers a wide range of conditions, from autism to deafness and beyond. Producer Deborah Calla, chair of the PGA’s Diversity Committee, says it’s all about finding the right person to do the right job — the same as with able-bodied applicants. She rattles off the names of several people with disabilities who are employed in the industry. She hires them whenever possible. When she oversees the annual Media Access Awards, her crew is mostly people with disabilities.

“It’s about not judging people with your own misconceptions. People with disabilities should be considered like everyone else.”

“It’s a matter of getting to know people and understanding their talents,” Calla says. “You have to understand the strengths and shortcomings of anyone you hire. That’s just good management.” And she’s always gotten great results when hiring a person with disabilities for the right job.

Aside from composing, Letnes is learning about film finance. He is associate producer on the planned “Blues Man,” starring James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell. “Let’s hire people with disabilities or veterans who are looking for work,” he says.

Okada sums it up: “Anyone who has learned to overcome any handicap, their minds are even more focused at getting a task done. I’m fine now, but even at the hardest, I never felt my situation was a limiting factor.”

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