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April 14, 2005

Performers With Disabilities and Assistive Technology Take Center Stage at First Ever Symposium, “Creativity and Artists With Disabilities”

Performing artists with disabilities and innovative assistive technology were in the spotlight on Monday April 11, 2005, at Baruch College, for the first-ever symposium on “Creativity and Artists With Disabilities.” Sponsored by Actors’ Equity, AFTRA, SAG, the Non-Traditional Casting Project and Writers Guild of America East, this landmark event brought actors, network executives, writers, directors, casting directors, producers, government officials and others together to focus on ways to improve job opportunities for performing artists and broadcasters with disabilities. This event was produced in partnership with United Cerebral Palsy/NYC Regional TRAID & SHARE, the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and ConecTV, and with the support of ART/NY, ABC, CBS, the League of American Theatres & Producers, the League of Off Broadway Theatres & Producers and the Dramatist Guild.

The emcee and keynote speaker was Daryl "Chill" Mitchell, the popular television, film and rap star who was injured in a motorcycle accident in 2001 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Soon after his rehabilitation, Mr. Mitchell became a regular on the NBC series, Ed. "As a paraplegic, I have first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced daily by people living with paralysis,” he said. “If there's one thing I've learned since my accident, it's that you need to use every resource available to you, to continue with your life." He described the experience of showing Ed’s wardrobe personnel how he gets dressed to illustrate the “learning curve” and positive spirit that he encountered when he returned to the set. Speaking of job opportunities, Daryl implored the industry to “let us into the room,” to give performers with disabilities a chance to audition and tackle the same roles as able-bodied performers do. Mr. Mitchell also serves as a spokesperson for The Christopher & Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center and its recently launched Minority Communities Outreach Campaign.

The official “Welcome” was made by Kitty Lunn, a dancer and choreographer who served as Chair of Equity’s PWD Committee for 12 years, and is currently the Chair of SAG’s PWD Committee. Ms. Lunn retired from Council after founding Infinity Dance Theater, a non-traditional dance company for dancers with disabilities and non-disabled dancers beyond the age traditionally associated with performing.

Matthew Sapolin, Executive Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities, spoke about his advocacy role in city government. He pointed out that in today’s complex society, “assistive technology” is actually a component in everyone’s life, not just the disabled. “Able-bodied or disabled, all of us use tools and technologies as we go about our daily lives.” Mr. Sapolin then read a letter of welcome from NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg: “Tonight, disabled actors will have the chance to showcase their abilities and producers, directors and entertainment executives will be able to add hard-working dedicated members to their projects and discover new talent. Your commitment to ensuring that men and women with disabilities are treated equally and have the same opportunities as their peers within the arts and acting communities is commendable.”

Katherine Oliver, Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, talked about the role her office plays in creating incentives and support for the entertainment industry by offering “one-stop shopping” for producers who are coming to New York.

Ray Bradford, AFTRA’s EEO Director, spoke on behalf of AFTRA and the AFTRA Foundation, the major underwriter of the event, about the invisibility of broadcasters with disabilities in our radio and television newsrooms and demonstrated one current technology, the Dyna-Write, that translates a typewritten message to actual speech, allowing the user to control the gender, tone and speed of the spoken message. He then introduced a video-clip about a hearing disabled broadcaster in Chicago who reports on stories about the disabled as an example of how these broadcasters should not be marginalized in reporting current events.

The spotlight focused on the intimate stage for the evening’s main event: performances/scenes from three plays, using actors with disabilities. Kenneth Lonergan’s confrontational drama, You Can Count On Me, featured Darren Frazier and Anita Hollander; Herb Gardner’s comedic pairing, I’m Not Rappaport, starred Adisa Olubayo Bankole and Mark Hammer; and John Pielmeier’s psycho-spiritual examination, Agnes of God showcased Christine Bruno, Anita Hollander and Pamela Sabaugh. The Director was A. Dean Irby, of The Cosby Show and numerous Off-Broadway credits along with two directing AUDELCO Awards. The ASL interpreters were Pam Maynard, Graham McKenzie, Candace Broecker-Penn, Alek Friedman and Mike Millie, with stage management and technical support by Nancy Kim, Ci Herzog and Tony Romero. Daryl offered a special thanks to Sharon Jensen, Director, Non-Traditional Casting Project, who spearheaded the artistic component of the event, as well as Willie Boston (AEA), Ray Bradford (AFTRA), Ann Burdick (AFTRA), Scott Kardel (Writers Guild of America East), Don Richards (SAG) and Carol Waaser (AEA).

At the conclusion, guests were invited to a “hands-on” display of assistive technology, provided by Marjorie Bissainthe, Director, Regional TRAID & SHARE Centers and United Cerebral Palsy of New York City. Everyone agreed that this highly-successful event has “set the stage” for future activity.

- David Lotz

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