USC SCHOOL OF CINEMATIC ARTS GRAD PATRICK IVISON (SEATED) IN SHORT "WOODY'S BEANS"
TRAINING FOR AN INCLUSIVE FUTURE
NYU, USC AMONG FILM SCHOOLS PREPARING FILMMAKERS FOR A WORLD WHERE PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES ARE ROUTINE ON SETS
By Emily Ladau
When Patrick Ivison started his junior year as a film production major at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts (SCA), he found himself up against a challenging assignment: He would have to work in a group to make three films, alternating production roles each time.
Because Ivison has a spinal cord injury that limits his physical mobility, he worried about how he would operate a camera or hold a boom pole to complete his work.
To his professors, however, Ivison’s disability was no obstacle, and they directed him to USC’s Disability Services and Programs office. Here, they provided him with an assistant to help him carry out the physical tasks of the assignment while he called all the shots.
This kind of inclusive mindset is what’s needed to open up possibilities in front of and behind the camera, ultimately making media representation of the disability community the norm in film school classrooms across the United States.
The key to achieving this future, says Dr. Christine Acham, assistant dean of diversity and inclusion at SCA, is to begin with a bottom-up approach to disability inclusion, fostering diversity through the admissions process. According to an internal diversity and inclusion climate survey taken by nearly two-thirds of SCA’s student body, 15% of respondents self-identified as having a disability. “These are the future people that you’re hiring and working with,” Dr. Acham points out.
“Our goal is for everybody to interact in a diverse environment so that when they leave, they’ll take inclusive ideas with them to apply to everything from their hiring practices to what they’re putting out on the screen.”
NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts is also preparing its students for a future that’s more inclusive of disability both in front of and behind the camera. Dr. Sheril Antonio, senior associate dean for strategic initiatives at Tisch, highlights the value of an environment that embraces diversity as a way to shift the paradigm toward disability representation in the film industry.
“When students are at a school where they feel like they belong and they’re comfortable,” she says, “they develop the confidence and the skills they need and a sense of being able to go out into the world as they are. The nurturing environment, reassurance, and support at Tisch are the most critical things we provide for our students.”
In addition to championing diversity within their schools, SCA and Tisch are working hard to combat stigmatization and change society’s perceptions of disability.
At SCA, graduate students are required to take a monthly class known as the Diversity and Inclusion Lab, which addresses a wide range of topics connected to social justice and identity, including ableism (discrimination in favor of able-bodied people). The school also recently hosted a panel discussion featuring professionals with disabilities working in all areas of the film industry.
At NYU, students have the opportunity to minor in Disability Studies through a cross-school collaboration that includes course offerings from Tisch. The students also organized a Diversity Art Festival earlier this year, which focused on celebrating diversity in the arts as a pathway to a more accepting, inclusive world.
“When it comes to issues of diversity and accessibility and abilities,” says Dr. Antonio, “our students have a breadth of knowledge and experience to share.”
Indeed, students, graduates, and faculty of SCA and Tisch are shaping the cultural conversation around disability representation in the film industry and the media as a whole. Ivison, who graduated from SCA in 2016 and regularly participates in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge and was a finalist for the 2018 best filmmaker award, calls upon the film industry to embrace the changing tides and recognize the powerful perspectives that people with disabilities can bring to the table. “I have a lifetime of experiences,” he says, “that can really add to the stories we tell.”