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USC Disability Panel Emphasizes Initiative, Tenacity in Face of Bias in Hollywood

When director Jenni Gold, who has used a wheelchair since the age of seven, met her first professor at a Florida film school, he asked if she wanted to be a director. She said she did. He asked, “Do you know the odds of female directors working in this business? Add to that, use a wheelchair.” Gold said: “Screw you, I’m going to do it anyway.” He told her she was in and that he was just testing her.

Gold, who’s now CEO of Gold Pictures, joined other esteemed members of the disability community at USC’s Ray Stark Family Theater Tuesday to discuss Hollywood Jobs: Turning Disability Into Assets, a panel moderated by Variety’s Tim Gray.

Kaitlyn Yang, a USC animation program alumna who now works in post-production and founded Alpha Studios, said she assembled the panel to combat employers making disabled individuals feel invisible in the workplace in light of the Time’s Up Movement.

“Following the light of the Time’s Up Movement, I have been waiting for someone to bring up disability and inclusion, especially for behind the camera,” Yang said. “Not until recently did I realize I have to bring it up myself, and I wanted to do it here (at USC) because in many ways my career started here.”

David Renaud, a story editor on Sony TV’s “The Good Doctor” with a medical degree who became a wheelchair user after a car accident in 1994, underscored Gold’s point that they had to create opportunities for themselves in the industry by making their own films to jumpstart their careers.

Renaud noted that when he goes for a meeting, he likes to surprise them with the fact that he has a wheelchair because they are “immediately intrigued,” he said. “Fortunately and unfortunately, people haven’t heard our stories. But no one gives you a job just because you have an interesting story. They give you the job because you’re talented.”

Stephen Letnes, a legally blind film composer and founder of the group Able Artist, agreed that people with disabilities are the greatest problem-solvers a director or producer could possibly have. “A friend of mine who is completely blind and a Harvard grad works as a patent lawyer for Google, and he said that we live in a 24-hour laboratory for problem-solving. What director wouldn’t want that on set?”

Through her work as “matchmaker” to advocate for disability, diversity, and public policy at her marketing-PR company EIN SOF Communications, Tari Hartman Squire believes it’s vital to illuminate the image of people with disabilities as consumers, especially to advertisers.

“The disability market is huge, larger than the coveted teen market, which is $220 billion,” Squire said. “Companies don’t think of people with disabilities as a market segment.”

But through the Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 initiative in particular, her goals include increasing employment of people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera; improving portrayals where people with disabilities write, produce, direct, and perform the stories; and enhancing access to entertainment.

“You have to make sure there is authentic engagement with the community — that you’re doing it with them, not for them,” Squire said.

In his experiences on CBS’s “Pure Genius” and the current “Good Doctor,” Renaud said directors, showrunners, and writers were all ready to be part of this conversation, to get people in the room, to give them a chance to go on tape and audition.

“Right now, there are two shows on TV about Autism Spectrum Disorder, two Sony shows (“The Good Doctor” and “Atypical”). They’re realizing that this is a business ultimately and that they aren’t doing charitable work,” Renaud said. “They’re realizing that there’s an audience, and that it’s profitable.”

Deborah Calla, who is chair of the Media Access Awards in addition to her work as a writer, producer, and activist, has seen firsthand the results of awareness translating into action.

“I’ve been doing this for ten years, and we’ve given awards to major Hollywood producers, writers, and actors. I know it’s really important because I’ve had Noah Hawley, who writes ‘Fargo,’ say: ‘I will now have a character with disabilities in everything I write.’ And he did have a character with disabilities in the second season after he got his award in the first season,” Calla said.

Nothing beats showing up and proving that you’ve “got the goods,” as Gold said.

For Yang, that means “doing everything I can in the limited sense I had it” when she got started as an office PA at an animation studio. Since she didn’t have a car, she would pre-order groceries at the nearby Whole Foods so the workplace kitchen would be stocked, the phones would be covered, and she would be ready for more opportunities when they arose. “They were like: ‘OK. Someone’s going on maternity, can you animate?’ That’s how I got my first TV credit.’ “

The event, sponsored by USC Cinematic Arts and SCA Events, was followed by a reception giving audience members a chance to chat with the panelists.

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