Going Hollywood: Inclusion, Diversity and Workability #RespectTheAbility

Cast of Born This Way

Keri Bowers discusses suggestions for increasing employment for disability-related work force

By Keri Bowers

Yesterday, 10 miles from Hollywood, nestled in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Sherman Oaks, California, an old idea in disabilities and the workforce was polished and refined by a group of stakeholders at a RespectAbility-sponsored Summit on Inclusion and Diversity in Hollywood.

Flanked by the cast and crew of A&E’s hit series “Born This Way”, this event had all the hallmarks of a great Hollywood filming experience with a twist; the guest list of shakers and movers for this event was criss-cross, applesauce amazing.

Keri Bowers, The Art of Autism, Yudi Bennett, Exceptional Minds, Elaine Hall, the Miracle Project
Yudi Bennett, Exceptional Minds, Keri Bowers, The Art of Autism, Elaine Hall, the Miracle Project in front of the short bus; Rosies Foundation ice cream truck.

I can only share a partial list of agencies and people I know (or met) who were in attendance, but I can say, this RSVP-only event included important community stakeholders ~ those doing serious, challenging work in the day-to-day creation of jobs and workability, access, inclusion and education in disabilities. The Art of Autism is glad to have been included in this summit.

Invited guest, Congressman Brad Sherman, Democratic representative for California’s 30th congress district, was the main speaker. He was also invited to actively listen to the content of the forum. People/agencies gathered at the event, included disabled advocates (many who work in the film industry), and representatives from organizations such as Best Buddies, New Horizons, Path Point, Exceptional Minds, The Miracle Project, Rosie’s Foundation, and Bunim/Murray Productions, producers of “Born This Way” who were a part of this call for creating action steps in workability.

I missed the first session, but attended the afternoon workforce development discussion. The session was focused around 4 central questions posed to attendees, who were situated at small round tables intended for small discussions and solution brainstorming. The questions posed were:

1. What can the workforce system and providers (in the Los Angeles area) do to better serve people with disabilities who want to gain jobs and/or start their own companies?

2. How can we help employers who want to hire people with disabilities be successful?

3. The State of California is currently undergoing a serious effort to end sub-minimum wage jobs and transition people with disabilities out of segregated work settings. What role is there for self-advocates to play to create success?

4. What other ideas should we be working on to expand employment for people with disabilities here?

As I expected, many of the answers were nothing new; more of the well-intended platitudes we’ve all heard… “We need to educate employers.” “People need to be hired for their abilities, not their disabilities.” And while I agree with these values, and they make great bumper stickers, they are not in-and-of-themselves, action steps. I’m an action-oriented person, so I list here bullets (my takeaways), that I think are doable-creatable-action steps that could actually make a HUGE difference at local, national and global levels.

· Creation of a .com platform, similar to monster.com, for national job openings/opportunities for the disabled workforce.

· Expand incentives to employers; i.e., taxes, etc. (which have apparently shrunk in recent years), and specifically that tax incentives not be just for companies of a certain (larger) size as currently regulated, but for companies of all (read small) sizes.

· Actively promote information about the national ABLE bank account program which now allow individuals to set up bank accounts above (and beyond) the former $2,000 cap in savings. Not enough people know there are now greater options to start a business or work and be paid above the old, out-dated, former cap that once held disabled people hostage to antiquated saving ceilings. https://www.able-now.com/

· Encourage and incentivize HR / employer’s to share their success stories to larger audiences (social media?) about successes in hires that proved to be beneficial, successful, inspirational, and contributory to their company / business gains and goals. In other words, go Hollywood P.R. in promoting success. While some might call this inspirational porn, others might just call it inspiration for jobs well-done ~ with a bit of metaphoric sexy.

· Within our own community ~ those who support disabilities ~ (California Regional Centers, for example), why not create paid internships to train people to become paid staff / supporters of others with disabilities. Think peer-to-peer, but in this idea, we who support disabilities actually train the disabled to get paid to work with other disabled people! This is my personal contribution to yesterday. Imagine if just 2% or even 10% of current Regional Center clients got trained and paid to work with others, WOWZA. Note: my adult son’s support staff is an autie, and is close to my son’s age. Their work and friendship relationship forged over the past year has inspired me to see a greater possibility in this concept. James has helped Taylor infinitely and in ways I or other neuro-paid-staff never could.

· Continue to invest in early education, sensitivity and inclusion in schools. This is not just for disabled kiddos, but is equally vital for so-called typical peers who will grow up one day to be workers and captains of industry.

Late in the afternoon, a man, Louis Herrera, who shared a bit of his story inspired me most. 3 years ago, he was hired by Southern California Gas. He had figured out a way to sell himself back then to a dubious HR person, telling them why they needed him, and he got hired. He beamed as he shared how he is now a liaison between So. Cal Gas’ business and customer support to engage their disabled consumers / customers. What a great and important gig, r i g h t ?


Though there is yet a long way to go in access and opportunities, disabilities has indeed arrived in Hollywood. As a documentary filmmaker myself, I watched with smiles as the crew of “Born This Way” became the center-piece of this event; and why not? If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Attempting to appear spontaneous for the cameras, RespectAbility co-founder and President, Jennifer Laslow Mizrahi set-up questions for the very approachable and lovely cast members of Born The Way, two of whom shared their own new and current work situations. Several cast members have become paid speakers, making micro enterprise-inspired businesses happen. It was kinda cool to watch and see the lights, camera, sound and boom-infused cast in action, whom I liken to a small Kardashion-esque status in disabilities ad reality TV. Fun and yeah, definitely Hollywood:>)

Being in this environment reminded me to also be a stand for my own efforts in film. 75% of the technical jobs on our last film project, “Normal People Scare Me Too” were supported by autistic people. Sometimes my work outside of, and with The Art of Autism is also badassery in Hollywood.

Check out The Art of Autism’s recent All-Autistic live panel; where we were able for the first time ever, to pay our panel members a small stipend to participate. The Art of Autism is growing up and growing out into new possibilities.

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