EXECUTIVE SUITE DOOR OPENS
INCLUDING PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES BEHIND THE CAMERA AND IN CORPORATE RANKS PAYS DIVIDENDS
By Alexa Harrison
As more companies turn their attention to disability inclusion, ICM Partners human resources chief Cindy Ballard suggests they ask themselves these questions:
- What is your engagement strategy?
- What is your recruitment strategy?
- How are you talking to [the PWD] audience?
- Whatever types of opportunities you have at an organization, how are you describing them? How are you communicating them?
- Are you representing a “world view” in how you engage with your audience, both internally and externally?
“Everyone is talking about diversity and inclusion, but in Hollywood, disability is almost always overlooked,” says Mark Whitley, president and CEO of Easterseals Southern California.
That’s been true in Hollywood’s executive ranks as well as in production — even though people with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the U.S., some 61 million strong. Now, though, more and more entertainment industry executives are implementing strategies for recruiting, hiring and accommodating PWD.
That begins with breaking down psychological barriers. “When a lot of people think of disability, they think ‘unable,’ and the truth is so far from that,” says Kaitlyn Yang, founder of visual effects firm Alpha Studios, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and uses a wheelchair.
“For us, our day-to-day is just an endless cycle of problem solving,” she says. “I would like to prove to them that, hey, I am just like everyone else. I do some things very well and other things not so well just like every other person. For me, it is more about showing them what is possible.” In fact, Yang runs her company and is a VFX supervisor, both demanding roles.
The idea that “disabled” people are in fact quite “able” is personal for ICM Partners’ chief human resources officer Cindy Ballard — partly because her own nephew, who works as a software developer at 20th Century Fox, has used a wheelchair since an accident two years ago.
Ballard says inclusion begins when companies make diversity “part of its DNA.”
“I think that takes effort and that takes resources, and for someone who has been in my field now for almost 30 years, HR is seen as a very tactical, very basic function, and that’s really at the disadvantage of organizations,” she said.
For example, studio lots often have infrastructure that was never conceived for accessibility. The Paramount lot, for example, is a century old.
“The fact that I can get around to where I need to be is a testament to the attention that’s been paid to that,” says Tom Hershey, Paramount Pictures-Viacom’s director of strategic sourcing. Hershey is a little person and uses a combination of crutches and a mobility scooter to get around.
“I’m not really that big on needing different things,” says Hershey, “but I am challenged to think of something that hasn’t been thought of already,” he says. “I think that that’s a real credit to the times that we live in and to this organization.”
NBCUniversal, too, has seen the advantage of a diverse workplace. It has had a freestanding diversity department at the corporate level for a dozen years. That office is headed today by chief diversity officer Craig Robinson.
Robinson says NBCU’s longstanding diversity efforts give it a head start. “Our leadership has always understood that diversity and inclusion is good business.” Today, he says, NBCU is getting better at including PWD. “Partnerships with organizations like Easterseals help drive awareness and increase opportunities for us to meet more candidates. Meeting candidates from different groups is critical to ensuring more diversity in our workforce and talent, both in front of and behind the camera.”
Easterseals’ Whitley is hopeful, but acknowledges the road ahead is long. “Movies and TV [are] doing more to accurately represent people with disabilities, but there is so much more to be done. In my 29 years with Easterseals Southern California, it’s exciting to see and be a part of that change; and now, to witness and help encourage more change in Hollywood.”
SEAL OF APPROVAL: TIFFANY SMITH-ANOA’I
CBS DIVERSITY EXECUTIVE IS SUPPORTING ACCESSIBILITY AND RAISING THE PROFILE OF THE DISABILITY COMMUNITY
Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i spent years urging higher-ups at CBS Entertainment to create an entertainment diversity department. In 2009 she was rewarded for her efforts, as they not only approved her request but asked her to help build the department.
Now, as executive VP, entertainment diversity, inclusion & communications, Smith-Anoa’i works with CBS staff to help directors, writers, producers and casting directors reflect the real world by including a variety of people in CBS shows, including those with disabilities.
She acknowledges that progress for actors and creatives with disabilities lags far behind other minority performers. “We have to look broader,” she says. “Disability goes by the wayside far too often, and I’m happy this is becoming more a part of the inclusion conversation.”
Every year her department brings in the casting directors from all of the CBS shows across the company’s network, some 72 in the most recent confab. “Our guest speaker was Danny Woodburn,” she says. “He busted those biases [like] ‘Oh, [shooting] is going to take longer,’ or ‘It’s going to be more expensive’ or whatever.
“This isn’t a situation where people have a tremendous amount of malice,” says Smith-Anoa’i. “I think it’s much more a tremendous amount of ignorance.”
Woodburn also told the gathering that many auditions happen on upper floors of buildings with no elevator — making them inaccessible to many PWD.
“My department has made sure that if your building is old, and we need [accessible] audition space, we will find it,” says Smith-Anoa’i. “And we’ll make sure that the casting directors come there.”
Smith-Anoa’i has put in her own time for the cause, serving as a mentor for the winner of the Best Awareness Campaign in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge the past two years. She is especially proud the Ruderman Foundation recognized CBS for leading the industry in casting performers with disabilities.
“I want that to not just be something I’m proud of,” she says, “but I want it to become the norm.”
— Beth Finke
SEAL OF APPROVAL: FRED MAAHS JR.
COMCAST/NBCU VICE PRESIDENT HAS LONG BEEN A LEADER IN ADVOCATING FOR AND DEPLOYING ACCESSIBILITY TECHNOLOGY
FRED MAAHS JR.
Fred Maahs Jr. was 18 years old when he was paralyzed in a diving accident. “Just like that,” he says. “I became a statistic.”
After seven months at a rehabilitation facility, he was ready to start his freshman year when he received a letter from his college telling him not to come. The campus wasn’t wheelchair-accessible.
“It was 1980,” he explains. “The Americans with Disabilities Act hadn’t been passed yet. I’d go out and not see one other person with a disability, not in town, not at colleges, not even at the movies.”
His own accessibility issues inspired Maahs to advocate for others with disabilities, so when Widener University in Delaware invited him to attend, and to advise the school on making its Wilmington campus accessible, he enrolled, and became Widener’s first wheelchair-using graduate.
Besides his regular work as senior director, strategic partnerships, for Comcast, he continues to advocate for PWD as VP of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation and Easterseals’ 1st vice chairman of the board. He also previously served as chairperson of the National Board of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Overall, Comcast NBCUniversal has provided nearly $35 million in support to help Easterseals advance assistive technology solutions. “A lot of companies do great work supporting organizations philanthropically, but in the disability space, they can do a lot more. It’d be utopia if other companies supported non-profits in broader ways for people with disabilities, too,” Maahs says.
Seven years ago Maahs helped create a Comcast NBCUniversal Assistive Technology grant that has empowered an estimated 50,000 Americans with disabilities.
Making Comcast NBCUniversal products and services accessible to all users — including people with disabilities — benefits the company financially, but Maahs says the company sees it as a social justice issue as well.
“No matter your race, gender, orientation, ability, income, really, whatever your zip code is, everyone should have access to the Internet and to opportunity,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”
— Beth Finke