Authentic Representation of Disability and Autism on TV
October 04, 2022
By: Sherri Alms
RespectAbility, a disability-led nonprofit that advances policies and practices that empower people with disabilities, recently launched a new Content Lab in partnership with Netflix, which provided the funding. This is the fourth Content Lab organized by RespectAbility and the first to provide training and mentoring for writers, animators, and creative executives with disabilities who want to work in the children’s entertainment industry, noted an article on the Kidscreen website.
RespectAbility selected 15 participants from an applicant pool to participate in the five-week program, which begins October 17. The month-long lab will include both virtual and in-person sessions in New York City. A key feature of the Lab is the opportunity to receive feedback on projects they are working on, such as scripts or animation, for example, during an industry showcase at the end of the Lab.
During the Lab, the group will attend sessions on topics such as the hiring process at production companies, the interview process, when and how to disclose your disability, and individual resume reviews. They will also participate in workshops with other participants for peer review and feedback on their projects. In addition, the Lab includes networking, mentoring, career support, and job opportunities that will extend beyond the initial five-week program. Executives from 9 Story Media Group and Silvergate Media, companies that have shows on Netflix, will lead the training and learning sessions and host networking opportunities.
The Lab is a critical initiative for the entertainment industry, noted Lauren Appelbaum, RespectAbility’s senior vice president of communications. Finding creatives who can contribute their lived experiences to the production of tv shows and movies isn’t easy, she said in the Kidscreen article. “With one in five individuals living with a disability, it is vitally important that disabled children see themselves represented on screen, and for non-disabled children to see disabled peers being fully involved in community life,” Appelbaum explained.
In a USA Today article written in April, Ava Rigelhaupt, an autism consultant for RespectAbility, said that the entertainment industry is “trying to have diversity/disability representation, autism representation, etc., more embedded in the characters. You just learn as you’re entertained. It’s not just someone coming in just to teach something, just to show the audience a different perspective for one time.”
Netflix is funding the Children’s Content Lab through its Fund for Creative Equity, which aims to expand employment opportunities for underrepresented groups in entertainment.
Bruno, an autistic brake car character, joined the “Thomas & Friends” show on September 12. In a recent press release introducing the new character, Mattel Television described Bruno as a “joyful, pun-making brake car.” Bruno is the only car in the train that can roll in reverse. This ability gives him a critical role at the end of the train, ensuring that the train’s cargo stays steady. He also has lots of friends, says Mattel, “who love and respect him for who he is, just as he loves them back.”
Mattel worked with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and Easterseals Southern California, as well as autistic writers and spokespeople to develop Bruno, according to the press release. Chuck Smith, a 10-year-old autistic actor, will provide Bruno’s voice. Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at ASAN, noted in the press release that “Bruno ring(s) true as an autistic character. I hope that Bruno will provide viewers with meaningful examples of inclusion in everyday life.” She also said that autistic people were involved in all aspects of creating Bruno, from consultants to writers.
Bruno will venture out of the world of “Thomas & Friends” to appear on a YouTube series and as a guest on the “Thomas & Friends Storytime” podcast as well in other Mattel productions. Mattel noted that he is even going to sing on a music album.
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.