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MAR-APR 2018



Infinite Flow An Inclusive Dance Company


AmeriDisability March/April 2018


In This Issue Inclusion - Entertainment

Publisher & Editor - Florida Sheila Mahan Mailing Address AmeriDisability Services P.O. Box 620728, Oviedo, FL 32762 Contact Phone: 1-888-405-3860 Fax: 1-888-308-8024 Contributors Tiffiny Carlson, Nancy DeVault, Ellen Callahan, Emily McDeed


Changing Perceptions with Infinite Flow - An Inclusive Dance Company


How One Mom Rewrote the Movie-Going Experience with Sensory Friendly Films


‘Breaking Bad’ Star, RJ Mitte, is Breaking Disability Barriers


Singer Terri Gibbs Always Had a Clear Vision for Music Despite Blindness


Tune into the Benefits of Music Therapy

Advertising & Subscriptions

In the Spotlight

Ad Material Submission Deadline April 5th for the May/June Issue

Cover photo courtesy of: Infinite Flow - An Inclusive Dance Company


New ‘Deaf Chat Group’ Speaks to Benefits of Social Learning


Meet Ollie: A Real-Life Superhero Who Inspired a Pioneering Comic


Love Match! Dating Websites for People of all Abilities


The Blessings of Ministries Serving People with Disabilities


EZ Access Porch Lifts: Wheelchair Accessibility for the Home

BECOME A CONTRIBUTOR AmeriDisability magazine welcomes article submissions and story ideas. Promote an upcoming event, share your story or suggest industry news topics. Contact us at

Around Town 42

Local, state and national events, conferences, expos and more


Industry News 50

Did Shakespeare Lie?


ReelAbilities Film Festival Presents Inclusive Films and Conversations


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Resources 5






Changing Perceptions with Infinite Flow - An Inclusive Dance Company

By Tiffiny Carlson “We are more than a dance company. We are a social movement for inclusion,” says Marisa Hamamoto, founder of Infinite Flow - An Inclusive Dance Company. Based in Los Angeles, California, this one-of-a-kind dance company is on a mission. They want to change the way the world perceives dance, showing dancers of all 8

abilities how to dance together. Founded in 2015, it is the first dance company in the country to focus on wheelchair ballroom dance. Infinite Flow would never have come to be if it wasn’t for Hamamoto experiencing a spinal cord injury herself.

AmeriDisability March/April 2018

Looking at her today, one might not believe she was paralyzed from the neck down, but in 2006 she was seriously paralyzed, caused by a spinal cord infarction (a rare spinal cord disease). Hamamoto had to re-learn how to walk, and dance. Amazingly, after two months she was back walking.


At the time of her injury, Hamamoto was studying dance in Japan at Keio University. Once she was back home from the hospital, she returned to school but faced rejection from some of her teachers. Fortunately, a few years after her injury Hamamoto found a new genre that inspired just like ballet once did – ballroom dance. “It brought a new vibration of joy and inspiration into my life of isolation and fear. Thanks to ballroom dancing, I healed from my trauma emotionally and made partner-dancing my career.” she says. After embracing ballroom dance, she discovered wheelchair ballroom dance online, and noticed the sport wasn’t getting the attention it deserved in the US. It was then Hamamoto had a light bulb moment – she wanted to help introduce dance to people of all abilities knowing first-hand what is was like to be told no. And that is how Infinite Flow was born. Since it’s inception, Infinite Flow has exploded. They offer multiple programs to people of all abilities. And just like any professional dance company, joining is by invitation/audition only. Dancers with and without disabilities are welcome. One of their dancers is Piotr Iwanicki, 33, a paraplegic originally from Warsaw, Poland, who now lives in LA.


"Marisa saw some of my videos on YouTube (I am a 12 year World Champion in Ballroom Wheelchair Dance Sport).” “I've been dancing with Infinite Flow since July 2017 as a guest dancer and coach." “I've learned that I should not close myself in the tiny little wheelchair World, but should be open to any form of dance and anyone who wants to dance." Infinite Flow currently offers an amazing variety of dance opportunities. One of their most well-known programs is their #DanceforInclusion Flashmobs, where they invite people of all abilities to perform in a scheduled location. They also have a community adult and kids programs that’s open to people of all abilities, as well as teacher training, student internships and private instruction. Hamamoto is grateful. Infinite Flow helped her develop a new voice as an artist, and so much more. “Running Infinite Flow has given me purpose in life,” she says. “And it’s given me an opportunity to give purpose to others.” For more information, visit:

AmeriDisability March/April 2018



How One Mom Rewrote the Movie-Going Experience with Sensory Friendly Films

By Nancy DeVault In 2007, Marianne Martinson took her daughter Meaghan, who has autism spectrum disorder, to see Hairspray. As the matinee rolled, the then seven-year-old began to flap her hands, dance, twirl and jump. She was happy! But fellow movie-goers were not. Their mommy-daughter date came to an abrupt halt when the duo was asked to leave the theatre. “I thought, ‘how unfair,’” Marianne said in an ABC News interview. “It just made me think, ‘There’s got to be some way she can go to a movie.’” The next day, Marianne reached out to another film establishment, AMC Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, and an innovative initiative arose. AMC and the Autism Society teamed up to launch “Sensory Friendly Films,” a monthly program for individuals on the autism spectrum and/or with other special needs. Auditorium adaptions were made to present a more comfortable atmosphere. “For these film screenings, we turn the lights up and turn the sound down. Guests can get up, dance, walk, shout or sing. Additionally, families are able to bring in their own gluten-free and/or casein-free snacks,” shared Rebekah Ellingson, Communications Manager for AMC. 10

Three hundred people showed up for the first Sensory Friendly Films event… a clear indication of the need! “That really was one of the first [sensory-friendly] programs,” says Rose Jochum, Director of Internal Initiatives for the Autism Society. “It got the ball started and led the way to many other autism-friendly programs, like shopping days at malls, restaurant experiences, Royal Caribbean cruises and even Broadway performances.” [Rose is referring to the Autism Theatre Initiative in which, in 2011, Disney’s musical The Lion King became the first ever autism-friendly Broadway show. Others were later adapted, including Mary Poppins, Spider-Man, Wicked, Matilda, Phantom of the Opera and Aladdin.] In evaluating modifications, Rose simply explains, “They look for places that might create a sensory overload and try to mitigate that.” And those simple adaptions are huge for many. “It’s a godsend for our families to be able to go and know they won’t be judged,” says Melissa Rosenberg, Executive Director for the Howard County Autism Society, the chapter that Marianne first aligned with.

AmeriDisability March/April 2018

“Families are no longer limited to events hosted [solely] by our organization. They can enjoy sensory-friendly movies, concerts, galleries and more in the community.” AMC’s “Silence is Golden” policy is not enforced during these screenings. “Being able to relax and enjoy quality family time without worrying if someone will complain or be disturbed by noise or movement is a wonderful experience,” Rebekah explained. And that’s the ultimate goal because, she says, “So often, we hear from families impacted by autism and other disabilities that they feel excluded from participating in ‘normal’ activities. Our Sensory Friendly Films allow these families to enjoy the movie-going experience in a safe and accepting environment.” Orlando area mom Dawn Shadden, for example, loves taking her 5-year-old twins, who have autism, and their older brother to screenings at AMC Disney Springs. They have a family tradition of seeing every Disney film in the theatre together. “As with most children with autism, our boys are extremely picky eaters,” she explains. Being able to provide her children with their own (temperaturecontrolled) snacks in their preferred containers and cups is a win.

(mature audiences) of every month. AMC expanded its program with an adult-friendly counterpart for a broader range of content with no restriction on film rating. With the incredible success of AMC’s effort, other movie companies followed suit with similar efforts at Regal Cinemas, Cobb Theatres and select independent theatres nationwide. Tim McGriff, Director of Marketing for Cobb Theatres, explains that sensory showings allow kids to be kids. “The audience is encouraged to be themselves and interact with the movie, while having fun without the worry of disturbing others,” he says. When AmeriDisability Services reached out to Marianne for this article, she was incredibly humble regarding her trailblazing impact. “I still don’t really believe that it happened! It’s a wonderful feeling,” she said. And while Marianne’s efforts were inspired by her daughter, she says the screenings are intended for anyone who needs something tailored a little bit differently. “It’s very inclusive. I just want people to know that it’s friendly and a good place to be yourself.” The film industry may present recognition awards to Marianne and AMC, but we certainly offer a roaring standing ovation for their efforts. Bravo!

AMC shows Sensory Friendly Films nationwide (at about 180 theatres) on the second and fourth Saturday (familyfriendly) and, as of October 2015, Tuesday evenings


‘BRAILLE’iant! AmeriDisability March/April 2018



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Purple Cat Hearing Aid Charms

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AmeriDisability March/April 2018

‘Breaking Bad’ Star, RJ Mitte, is Breaking Disability Barriers By Ellen Callahan Like many, I binge-watched Breaking Bad on Netflix. A plotline inclusive of drugs and violence, AMC’s criticallyacclaimed and award-winning drama was a departure from my usual entertainment. However, the writing was intriguing and the acting was impeccable, including that of RJ Mitte who portrayed Walter White, Jr., the son of a chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer that turns to manufacturing methamphetamine to heighten his family’s financial future. Yes, he’s proud of that project and his other acting gigs, yet RJ, who has cerebral palsy, says he’s most fulfilled by another role: advocate for people with disabilities. In 2006, then teenager RJ (full name Roy Frank Mitte III) relocated to Hollywood. His younger sister was pursuing acting and, so, to meet kids his own age in his new city, RJ signed up for acting classes too. His break came much faster than most actors! In less than a year’s time, he landed the role of Walter Jr., a teenager with “dark hair, big eyebrows and cerebral palsy.”

including its equality hurdles. As a spokesman for I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts and Media of Performers With Disabilities), a campaign associated with the Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Actors’ Equity Association, RJ strives to improve industry access, inclusion and portrayal accuracy for all. In fact, he wants actors with disabilities to book auditions for non-disabled roles. And why not? On the flip side, people without disabilities perform disabled roles. “People are hungry for realism. People are hungry to see characters like them,” RJ declared in a Vice video. He admitted to AmeriDisability Services that an industry change has begun but the reasoning may not be what he’s worked for. “I do see a shift for inclusiveness, but I also see a shift because it’s lucrative,” he offered. That’s why RJ is compelled to remain vocal for necessary change. “Advocacy is really what I’ve been doing for the last couple of years since Breaking Bad,” RJ shared. “I’ve actually been doing advocacy since before I was an actor.” That’s something he credits to his parents.

Working Actor Working for Employment Equality “About 20 percent of people have disabilities, but only about 1 percent of speaking parts in television portray disability,” RJ shared in a Pittsburg Post-Gazette interview, adding that, “When a person with disability is featured, it’s usually a stereotype − the angry person, the victim or the helpless person who becomes a hero.” Yet, that’s not how he felt about himself (or others with disabilities), nor how he wanted to depict characters on screen. At three years old, RJ was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a motor disability that affects a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. Walter Jr.’s condition was more severe than his own, so RJ “regressed.” “The crutches really sold playing the disability because that’s what people fixated on,” RJ explained to AmeriDisability Services. Years prior, RJ was a severe “toe walker” but, with extensive therapy and leg casting, he stopped using crutches. Still, his disability remained influential. “I allow my CP to help me create characters. The joy, the pain, the knowledge ─ I use that,” he told Evening Standard. He quickly learned a lot about the acting business,

Aside from advocating within his own business field, RJ supports work equality overall. He’s lobbied congress and served as a spokesperson for disability rights, women’s rights and fair wage. In the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of AmeriDisability Services, RJ was featured in the What Can You Do? advertisement, a message from The Campaign for Disability Employment to promote positive employment outcomes for people with disabilities. “People look at disabilities as liabilities. The issue is showing people that this is not true. It is so important to show that everyone has talent, and being able to use those talents properly,” RJ explains. Major Focus on Minors RJ enjoys working with children, such as youth actors with disabilities and various youth initiatives. For example, “I co-founded #CutTheBull with Shriners Hospital and helped to create the content,” RJ said. Onein-four students in the United States reports being bullied and those numbers can be two to three times higher for kids with disabilities, according to the National Center for Education. The #CutTheBull campaign empowers people to (1) Respect: Let us look beyond our differences and overcome our fears to #SeeTheAbility in everyone; (2)

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Reach Out: Talk to, include and get to know someone who is being treated differently; (3) Respond: If you see someone being put-down or teased, do not participate. Instead, show support for the person and tell an adult. “It’s about being aware, knowing your surroundings, knowing the people around you and, when needed, cutting the bull out,” describes RJ, who drew from personal experience. He believes that the matter is not isolated to youth. “We have bullying in so many facets of our life, but we can cut it out…stop it,” he affirms. RJ supports numerous causes and nonprofits, and involvement with United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), an organization that educates, advocates and provides support services for people with a spectrum of disabilities, was a natural match. Since 2011, RJ has worked with both the national association and local affiliates as a mission-based ambassador. “He is a role model for other people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities and a reminder that they can lead a life without limits,” says Dr. Ilene Wilkins, President/CEO for UCP of Central Florida, the Orlandobased nonprofit school and therapy center empowering children with and without disabilities to achieve their potential. RJ returns to UCP of Central Florida on April 7, 2018 to co-host the annual Evening at the Palace Gala alongside actresses Cheryl Hines and Rachael Harris. 16

“I really enjoy the UCP family! It’s amazing to see big advocates in the community that come together to make change. And really that’s what we need, beyond the event itself, is the daily effort of making change,” says RJ, which is achieved through UCP of Central Florida’s innovative and inclusive environment. Star’s Bright Future RJ has enjoyed many other career highpoints. He executive produced a documentary, appeared in music videos, modeled for Gap, walked the runway for designer Vivienne Westwood and served as a correspondent for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. He has three films slated for release this year! “I am passionate about acting because I get to portray different characters and bring different roles to life that I feel are important to share with the public,” RJ attests. Plus, he’s auditioning, developing projects and focused on philanthropy. He encourages people to follow their passions because, like him, you never know when your big break will come. He simply proposes, “It’s [about] finding what makes you happy… and sticking with it!”

AmeriDisability March/April 2018 AmeriDisability March/April 2018



Singer Terri Gibbs Always Had a Clear Vision for Music Despite Blindness

By Nancy DeVault Singer Terri Gibbs says she’s lived a real-life Cinderella story. “One year you’re on the couch [in a mobile home] watching the Country Music Awards and, the next year, you’re on the stage receiving an award,” Gibbs tells AmeriDisability Services. Teresa (Terri) Fay Gibbs was born three months premature in 1954. “I was quite small (2 lbs., 11 ounces) and, so, they had to put me in an incubator. At that point in time, they did not know to cover the eyes and my retinas were damaged,” she explains. At six months of age, Gibbs was diagnosed with retrolental fibroplasia and declared blind. Her disability, however, did not hinder her aspirations. She says, “I came from a musical family – several generations – and I wanted to be a country music singer since I was a little girl.” “My grandmother played piano and, one day at the age of 18

three, my grandmother’s sister sat with me at the piano and played a short melody with my finger. After she walked away, I played it back again on my own,” Gibbs shares. She has what’s known as “perfect pitch,” a rare auditory ability to flawlessly identify and re-create a musical note. With this gift, Gibbs learned to play the piano by ear rather than taking lessons. In her early twenties, Gibbs was earning a living by singing at local bars in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia. Then, after her demo tape was discovered by music executives, in 1980, she recorded and released “Somebody's Knockin’.” The single rose on the record charts and earned her the 1981 Academy of Country Music Top Female Vocalist award, the Country Music Association Horizon (now New Artist) Award and a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song. She also

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toured with country superstars George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and appeared on shows such as Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. A surprise to many, Gibbs made the decision to shift from country music to Christian contemporary. “The Lord has his own timing for things,” she explains. While she always went to church, Gibbs says she truly received Christ in 1980 after losing her grandmother sharing that, “I wanted to make sure that I was going to see her again.” “At my [country] concerts, I would sing “Amazing Grace” because it was one of my favorite hymns,” says Gibbs. She believes a series of events, including fans telling her that “God wants you to sing for him,” empowered her to switch genres. “I released my first Christian album in 1987 and have done six albums to date,” she says, one of which earned her second Grammy nomination. “I feel like I am doing what God desired me to do. He gave me the talent to sing. It’s very fulfilling,” she says. Gibbs married city councilman David Daughtry in 1988 and the couple welcomed their son, David. Her family accompanied her on tours for a while until Gibbs decided to make motherhood her primary job. “David had just started kindergarten and was enjoying school. I asked him one day, ‘What is the favorite part of your day?’ I thought he would say recess or something like that but he said, ‘When I come home in the afternoon and you are there.’ I knew that was God’s way of telling me that’s where I was supposed to be [rather than on the road],” Gibbs recalls. Today, she’s overjoyed that David shares her love of music. “If someone would have told me when I was in my twenties that one day I would have a son who loves music as much as I do and be singing with me on stage, I would have never believed it,” she admits. Yet mother and son are now music collaborators! Like many “seniors,” Gibbs once resisted technology but admits that opting for a smartphone a few years ago increased her access to music. Plus, fans who use social media can learn of upcoming appearances via her Facebook page. And, while she describes herself as an avid reader (since learning braille at age five), she’s also discovered a love for books on tape. Gibbs famously proclaimed, “I’m not a blind singer. I’m a singer who happens to be blind.” That mentality ─ to not let her disability define her ─ has been key to her happiness and success. “It took me a long time to see that [the] disability is not who I am. God created me to be whole…I am whole and that’s how He sees me,” Gibbs says, and she hopes others with disabilities share this mindset. In 2012, the Artists Music Guild honored Gibbs with a Lifetime Achievement Award. So, what’s next? Gibbs says, “I am just going to continue to sing as long as God allows me. It’s who I am and what I do!”

Financial Wellness Links for Persons with Disabilities, Family Members and Service Providers

Financial Wellness is defined as having the financial security and financial freedom of choice, in the present and in the future. A wide variety of websites provide information and tools to help improve the financial wellness of individuals. National Disability Institute has put together our top financial wellness links. Earned Income Tax Credit and Free Tax Preparation MyFreeTaxes MyFreeTaxes provides free federal and state tax preparation and filing assistance for qualified individuals or families with a combined income of $66,000 or less in 2017. Free Tax Preparation by Volunteers The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program offers free tax help to people who make $54,000 or less and need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. IRScertified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation with electronic filing to qualified individuals. This website provides a search feature to identify VITA programs by zip code. Financial Education Better Money Habits provides free, easy-to-understand videos and practical tips and tools to help build better money habits. This website was developed by Bank of America in partnership with Khan Academy. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s mission is to make markets for consumer financial products and services work for Americans — whether applying for a mortgage, choosing among credit cards or using any number of other consumer financial products. This website provides information, resources and tools to ensure consumers can make sound financial decisions and submit a complaint should an issue arise. Employment American Dream Employment Network The American Dream Employment Network (ADEN), an SSA approved administrative EN, is a consortium of service providers and employers working together to create a path for individuals with disabilities, who are currently receiving Social Security disability benefits, and want to return to, or begin working for the first time. Improving individual financial wellness is a service offered by ADEN.

Source: Real Economic Impact. For more information, visit: AmeriDisability March/April 2018



Tune into the Benefits of Music Therapy By Nancy DeVault

David Akins enjoys music therapy at Florida Hospital. 20

AmeriDisability March/April 2018

“I have a passion for music,” declares 52-year-old April Mobley of Cocoa Beach. So when her nurse, Katherine, mentioned the concept of music therapy, Mobley, who especially loves acoustic guitar, was amped up! “Everything in my life revolves around music,” she says. Mobley is receiving treatment for both leukemia and diabetes at Florida Hospital Orlando. Due to complications with diabetes, she recently lost a toe and is struggling with her emotions about her health. But music therapy cheers her up. “I’m happy when she [the therapist] is here. When she plays the guitar, I forget about all my problems.” Mobley’s positive response to music therapy is shared by other patients. “One of the things that I love about music therapy is that we’re able to individualize it to the person. So, the benefits – anecdotally and according to research – are quite wide-ranging. It can really encompass the whole person because there are physical benefits, and physiological, neurological, social and spiritual,” says Rich Abante Moats, a board certified music therapist who serves as the Music Therapy Program Manager at Florida Hospital. In 2017 alone, Florida Hospital led 8,000 music therapy sessions ─ a collaborative sum of independent and group meetings. Music therapy, as defined by the American Music Therapy Association, “is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional.” The concept has struck a chord within the field of medicine and is benefitting patients with diverse conditions, such as anxiety, autism, asthma, chronic pain, dementia, depression, end of life care, irregular sleep patterns, mobility issues, Parkinson’s disease, stroke and traumatic brain injury.

April Mobley enjoys music therapy at Florida Hospital.

Joyful Music Therapy

After evaluating the strengths and needs of an individual, music therapists guide therapeutic treatments that may include playing instruments, song writing, singing and moving to and/or listening to music. Music therapists must earn a music therapy degree, complete a minimum of 1200 hours of clinical training and pass a certification exam. Moats says those unfamiliar with the specialty question how music therapy differs from someone just turning on the radio. “A music therapist has the ability to assess and to change how music is presented according to the person’s ability. It is always success-oriented,” she says. “A radio can’t change the tempo. We can make adjustments so the brain won’t be overstimulated.” For example, when working with stroke patients, Moats aims to improve communication, mobility and cognitive function. “I may use singing to emulate a phase the patient is working on. We train the patient to sing a phrase and work on rhythms,” she describes. This approach of layering words on top of melody and rhythm was also embraced by Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. She

David Akins enjoys music therapy at Florida Hospital.

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Joyful Music Therapy take to the court with Orlando Magic. experienced aphasia ─ the inability to speak ─ following a brain injury from a gunshot. Additionally, to foster muscle control with stroke or brain injury patients, Moats says, “If we’re doing shoulder flexion, a patient may use a mallet with drums and we have a metronome that keeps us in time.” Erin Keenan, a music therapist who researched Parkinson’s disease at the University of Miami, says music can help with side effects associated with the disease, such as shuffling gait, tremors, muscle rigidity and speech change. During an interview with The Miami Hurricane, she shared, “Music gives the central nervous system so much information. There is so much going on in the brain, and rhythm helps organize everything.” Marty Miller agrees. Her husband, David Akins, is losing his voice as a result of his fifteen-year battle with Parkinson’s. Miller says music therapy has helped him to speak louder. “As a caregiver, you have to try it with your loved ones so you can encourage them when they feel like stopping. It’s up to us to keep them moving,” she attests, adding, “We get in the car and we start to practice, so we go ‘la, la, la’ when no one can hear us sing.” Akins also appreciates the support of his fellow patients. “Besides the positive impact it has had on my health, I do it because it allows me to socialize with other people. The other participants are my family ─ an extended family that’s always there for me when I need them. I’m friends with each and every one of them,” he says. Moats and her small team of seven help patients battling cancer to work on emotional goals and coping mechanisms as well. “We may focus on verbal discourse and talk about feelings and their journey; then, write about those feelings and transform them into a song.” And Moats also witnesses progress within the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She’s not exactly looking to mold mini Beethovens, per se, but rather implement scientific 22

findings. Researchers at the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found that infants who had respiratory distress or sepsis tended to do better while listening to sounds mimicking a heartbeat, fluid in the womb or lullabies. Music therapy is actually implemented in many settings beyond hospitals. Joyful Music Therapy in Orlando, for example, offers individual and group music therapy, adaptive lessons and other sessions. The company focuses on individuals with autism, early intervention, memory care, geriatrics and hospice. “We provide therapeutic music instruction to many children and adults with special needs. As music therapists, we are trained to focus on the strengths of the individual so our music lessons are far from traditional. However, our students perform in biannual recitals,” says Tamela Ponder, a board certified music therapist and Executive Director/Founder of Joyful Music Therapy. Jennifer Sikora credits Joyful Music Therapy with empowering her son, Sean, who has Down syndrome, to not only increase his knowledge of music but also gain confidence and improve communication and expression skills. “Integrating music with movement and a routine helped him to become more confident, the sharing of musical instruments helped him to learn to take turns and communicate with his peers and the various listening games helped him to learn to be an active listener,” Sikora explained. Sikora and other parents have lobbied in support of the Florida Music Therapy Government Relations Task Force to create a music therapy registry (SB 562/HB 729). Furthermore, while it’s not technically a music therapy service, fine arts community groups (like Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra) now host sensory-friendly concerts to welcome audience members of all abilities to experience musical performances in a comfortable environment.

AmeriDisability March/April 2018

AmeriDisability March/April 2018


In the Spotlight

New ‘Deaf Chat Group’ Speaks to Benefits of Social Learning By Nancy DeVault

Sign language is based on the philosophy that vision is the most useful tool a deaf and/or hearing impaired person has to communicate and receive information, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. American Sign Language (ASL), believed to have originated over 200 years ago, is a complete, complex language that employs hand signs, as well as facial expressions and body postures. And, as with language in general, sign language often varies per foreign country. British Sign Language (BSL), for example, is not the same as ASL. The World Federation of the Deaf says there are about 70 million deaf people worldwide who use a form of sign language as their first language. Ryan Vander Weide, a Winter Garden, Florida resident, would like to increase the 24

number of people who use ASL. His whole household is fluent in sign language, including his wife, Jenna, and their three daughters. “I think it’s one of the most unique languages in the world,” he says. Why? Because many assume ASL is a hands-only dialect, but Ryan explains that the other language components – facial expression and body postures – are truly imperative. Emotion allows a sign to take on multiple meanings. Although he was born hearing impaired in both ears, Ryan wasn’t diagnosed until age four. He then learned ASL in a kindergarten class geared toward deaf and/or hard of hearing students. He did, however, transition into a mainstream classroom and used hearing aids. It wasn’t until his collegiate years at the University of North Florida that he began using sign language interpreters

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because, he says, “some of the professors were concerned that I wasn’t getting all of the information in the classes.” The result? His grades improved, his feelings of missing out on information ceased and, perhaps most importantly, his appreciation of ASL being a powerful tool skyrocketed. Ryan’s passion became his profession. Today, he works as a Deaf/Hard of Hearing Itinerant Teacher for the Orange County Public School System. He travels to elementary, middle and high schools to work with students who are hearing impaired. “It requires working on auditory skills and/or skills to help them understand their hearing loss so they can appropriately advocate for their accommodations for themselves.” That drive to empower individuals with ASL recently inspired Ryan to form the Deaf Chat in Winter Garden group. The purpose is to connect people who want to increase their ASL skills and interact with the deaf community through a social setting. The casual, two-hour meet-ups are free and held monthly at Axum Coffee in downtown Winter Garden; and, while all levels are welcomed, Ryan encourages attendees to be ‘voice-off.’ The upbeat chatter is about anything and everything and, if attendees don’t understand something, they can ask the signer to repeat the sign slower or finger spell. The first Deaf Chat meeting was held in October (2017) and the group’s Facebook page already has reached 100 members! Ryan admits that he is surprised by the high interest level but can see how the group is filling a gap. “I see lots of people taking [ASL] classes and notice that, when classes are finished, [they think] ‘what now?’” he describes. Ryan believes that social environments are especially effective for learning. “In classes, you get the foundations but, to make it worthwhile, it has to be used continuously with other people who are fluent in sign language.” Attendees’ skill level has varied but the collective goal is to increase awareness and improve users’ vocabulary and proficiency. “I want people to know that this event is friendly [in] purpose. I don't want people to be intimidated because of the voice-off rule because, once you use the language, you will see how impactful it can be. You will notice a big difference in your skill when you use it often.” The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders maintains an online directory of organizations that provide information about hearing and language. If you’re interested in learning ASL, the National Association of the Deaf also suggests exploring resources through local/state colleges and universities, community centers and speech/hearing centers.

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In the Spotlight

Meet Ollie: A RealLife Superhero Who Inspired a Pioneering Comic By Nancy DeVault Chip Reece is a social worker in Wichita, Kansas. At the office, he focuses on aiding senior citizens reentering the workforce. In his spare time at home, he reads comic books. Several years ago, Chip’s pastime unexpectedly morphed into a second job. Why? Well, he recognized a gap in the comic industry. There weren’t any comics featuring superheroes with disabilities. Since he didn’t exactly have creative writing experience, he relied on his firsthand knowledge of a remarkable character. Chip and his wife welcomed their son, Ollie, in June 2010. Parenthood is tricky for most but, in addition to typical newbie parent/baby adjustments, the Reece’s were also navigating the world of medicine for the first time. You see, Ollie bravely underwent three major heart surgeries and an array of other serious procedures, including a tracheotomy, gastrostomy tube and more. Ollie also has Down syndrome; and, while his ‘extra chromosome’ was discovered in utero, no one could have known the extra special and groundbreaking impact he would make. As Ollie’s health improved over time, Chip was able to rediscover comics… a joy he hoped to share with his son. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find any graphic novels inclusive of individuals with disabilities. “I just couldn’t believe that, out of all the comics in the world, there wasn’t anything that specifically represented my son. At the time, I thought ‘if Ollie came of age and had interest in comics, I wanted him to feel included,’” Chip explained. “With everything he had been through, I most identified him as being a superhero! He had been through more in his first year of life than many of us would in our lifetime.” The problem: A major character gap in comics. The solution? Well, a social worker became a comic book writer!


Ollie Reece Chip originally drafted a short 10-page tale, titled Metaphase, about a superhero with disabilities. He expected to share it with Ollie, family and friends. Then, following a casual social media chat with Peter Simeti, founder/publisher of Alterna Comics, Metaphase expanded into a full-length book with illustrations by Kelly Williams, a skilled comic artist. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, in 2015, Metaphase was published! The plot: A boy with Down syndrome (named Ollie, of course) wants superpowers just like his dad. But, because of his congenital heart defects, his concerned father worries about him getting in harm’s way. And there’s a twist… The Meta-Makers company promises to give powers to anyone who wants them and Ollie just can’t resist. But will he become the hero he longs to be, or will

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his ambitions put his beloved father in danger? Unlike other comics which are typically pure fiction for entertainment, this first-of-its-kind graphic novel is based on reality – the good, the bad and the ugly. Perhaps, in a way, it’s Chip’s method of processing his family’s struggles and triumphs. The message has certainly resonated with a wide audience – comic, disability literature and more. And Ollie, now a 7-year-old secondgrader, is also a fan! “Ollie is non-verbal and primarily uses sign to communicate. This last year was the first time he signaled that he understood the book was about him,” Chip shared. The book has helped Ollie connect with people. “I understand it can be hard for kids Ollie’s age to know how to interact with someone who is non-verbal, and this gives

them an excuse to say hello,” says Chip. In fact, classmates are absolutely relating to Ollie with a newfound understanding of who he is – far beyond his disabilities – and sometimes refer to him as the “superhero kid.” Metaphase can be ordered online via Amazon or Midtown Comics. And it looks like Chip isn’t ready to say farewell to his writing career. A sequel is underway! As for what’s a h e a d f o r O l l i e ’s c o m i c p l o t l i n e , C h i p t o l d AmeriDisability Services magazine, “I hope to focus more on school and his peers and will be exploring his powers more. You can bet he’ll be running into the villain from the first book again as well!” Another Kickstarter campaign is likely to launch to fund the project with a goal to publish in 2019. In the meantime, follow Chip at

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AmeriDisability March/April 2018




Jason Schneider

Jason Schneider is a filmmaker with over a decade in the business. He got his start working with two-time Academy Award winning director Barbara Kopple, helping edit several of her projects in the mid to late 2000's. Since then, he's gone on to edit documentaries for ESPN, PBS, and several NY Emmy nominated television series, having been nominated four times himself for editing. DRIVEN is his directorial debut. According to Jason, “DRIVEN started as an idea to make a documentary about following your dreams


“What I was relieved to find when I came to the U.S., most people are not interested whether you’re an amputee or not, what they are interested in is what you are capable of doing.”

despite limitations. That anything is possible when you put your mind to it. That amputees don’t see the world through, or buy into, a disabled label. Being an amputee myself, and a documentary editor for over a decade, I was in a unique position to tell that story. I set out to make a raw, unflinching, personal documentary about what it’s like to live and love, with a limb difference. The journey would turn my life upside down. But I emerged a better man, more comfortable with who I am, and how the world may or may not perceive me. More importantly, how I perceive myself. The story is told via verite and archival footage, interviews with the people who know me best, and profiles from a diverse group of amputees, each living and loving in their own unique way. This has been a passion project of mine for seven years, and I’m proud to finally begin sharing it with the world.”

“There’s always going to be someone who says, you’re an amputee, you can’t do that…I climb for myself and nobody else.”


“How are they supposed to be receptive and know that we’re not limited… when we hide it, and cover it up, and don’t want to mention it?”

“She’s not perfect, just like I’m not perfect. More of a bond to the car.”


Nicky “It’s nice to know that some people around me are just like me.”








Love Match! Dating Websites for People of all Abilitites By Staff Writer Dating can be challenging! However, in today’s digital world, exploring romantic partners via online dating has become the norm for many. A 2016 Pew Research report found that 15% of U.S. adults have used online dating sites or mobile dating apps to find love; and many have even found their one-and-only perfect match. Could love really be just a click away? Maybe! Match ( launched as the original online dating site and, because of that, it still has one of the largest databases of singles, including people with disabilities. This site doesn’t specialize in matching persons with disabilities so not everyone is a fan. But, if you consider dating to be a numbers game, the odds may be in your favor with a larger dating pool. You can include a disability on your member profile and also set search filters to match with people with disabilities. However, there are many dating sites solely catering to singles with disabilities. Living with schizoaffective disorder, a condition that combines features of both schizophrenia and mood disorders (i.e. bipolar disorder or depression), James Leftwich found it difficult to navigate the dating scene. So, in 2004, the librarian founded No Longer Lonely (, a dating site designed for adults with mental illnesses including schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, personality disorder, post-traumatic disorder, dissociative disorder and eating disorders. “Users find it very reassuring that they don’t need to worry about the stigma of telling a significant other they have a mental illness,” Leftwich told AmeriDisability Services. Now with about 20,000 members, he says, “We’ve had 40+ marriages result from the site!” No Longer Lonely is a supportive community that invites members to “check stigma at the door” and unlock the potential of friendship, love and support. Inspired by his late brother Keith, who lived with Crohn’s disease, Ricky Durham founded Prescription 4 Love ( “It was hard for him to disclose 32

his disease to anyone, but it was really hard for him to tell someone he had a colostomy bag. When do you tell someone that you have a colostomy bag… the first time you meet? The first date? The second? So, I thought if he met someone at a website where everyone had the same condition, there would be nothing to disclose,” Durham explains on the site. It launched in 2006 with 11 conditions and has since expanded to include nearly 40 conditions, such as blindness, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and many others. “I always loved helping people,” says Louise Maxwell, founder of Soulful Encounters (, a disabled dating and community website. She spent a twenty-year career working in medical offices and especially connected to patients with disabilities. Following a car accident and surgical complications, Maxwell became disabled as well. “When I was housebound, I just felt as if I had no purpose; but everyone needs a purpose,” Maxwell says. Her purpose and second career came, unexpectedly, from her son’s love life. “My son was using online dating and I thought that I could create that for the disabled community.” A decade later, the site has evolved from just a dating hub to include social-based support and resources, similar to Facebook. Many members gravitate to the chat room feature. “Soul Encounters is more than just a dating site for the physically or mentally challenged; it is a place where people meet and talk about the day-to-day things in life. We talk about current events, religion, the state of the world and each other’s families − the good and the bad. Members here know that no matter what they say, or how they feel, there will be someone who will have an opinion, encouragement, prayer or just a listening ear,” shared Laurreen in an online testimonial. Additional dating sites to explore: • Able to Love You ( • Dating 4 Disabled ( • Disabled Dating Agency ( • Disabled Matchmaking ( • Disabled Mate ( • Disabled Singles Dating ( • Meet Disabled Singles ( • Special Bridge ( • Whispers for You ( Dating Tips • Be honest! Some people looking for love frown upon online dating over concern that member profiles may not be completely authentic. Whether you’re dating online or otherwise, it’s important to be yourself. Remember, your disability is just one piece of you and does not define who you are. eHarmony states, “The heart works just fine, even if some body parts don’t.”

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So, if a person is not interested in getting to know you – your likes, dislikes, humor, intelligence, faith, etc. – because of your disability, then that individual is not the right person for you anyway. Online daters share a goal of finding someone special, so embrace the experience and enjoy! •

Once you set a date with a match, if possible, choose an accessible meet-up location that you’re familiar with. You don’t want to arrive to a new place and discover obstacles that’ll distract you from your task at hand (the date itself).

Give it time. You may not find a match overnight and that’s OK. If you find a match with an able-bodied person, be patient as he/she learns about how your disability can impact your life and, potentially, your partner’s life. And, if you find a match with an individual with a disability different than your own, be patient with both your new partner and yourself as you navigate new understandings and, if applicable, adjustments.

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In the Spotlight

Joni Eareckson Tada 36

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The Blessings of Ministries Serving People with Disabilities By Nancy DeVault Joni Eareckson Tada admits that she was once a “lukewarm Christian.” Then, she asked God to do something in her life for change. At the age of 17, in 1967, Tada broke her neck in a diving accident and became a quadriplegic. Recovery ─ physical, emotional and spiritual ─ was, of course, a lengthy process but, soon, says Tada, “I finally understood that my accident was actually a drastic answer to my prayer. Either I was going to choose hope and get busy living, or give up and get busy dying.” From that moment on, Tada, now 68, not only committed herself to God but, also, committed to extending the love and message of Jesus Christ to people affected by disability. “I would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Him than on my feet without Him, and that is worth living for,” she explains. She first tapped into her many talents, like painting (holding the brush with her teeth), writing and singing. Then, in 1979, she launched Joni and Friends ( and, for nearly forty years, the multifaceted nonprofit has maintained a vision to “accelerate Christian ministry in the disability community” with a mission to “communicate the Gospel and equip Christ-honoring churches worldwide to evangelize and disciple people affected by disabilities.”

Joni and Friends is most active in 15 states, and offers resources to help churches nationwide launch disability ministries, support groups and workshops. [Interested in localizing efforts? Contact Jennifer Lopez at (818) 707-5446.] Camp-style family retreats are especially popular, says Thomson. “Joni and Friends plans to lead or directly support, in 2018, at least 30 domestic family retreats across the United States and 36 international family retreats,” he says. Want to move the mission – literally? Chair Corps is Joni and Friends volunteer network which collects and delivers mobility equipment domestically; and Wheels for the World does similar outreach internationally. “Wheels for the World facilitates the provision of the gift of mobility and hope of the gospel to those affected by disability worldwide through wheelchair collection, restoration and provision;” Thomson explains; adding, “Wheels for the World has sent out 150,770 wheelchairs for provision since its inception in 1994.” Though she found her life’s calling, life hasn’t always been easy for Tada. For example, love stories are complicated… for all and, perhaps, especially so for those with disabilities. On the first date with her now husband, Ken, an able-bodied teacher, Ken helped to change her urinary bag. Awkward first date? Nah! It was love. The pair married in 1982 but, overtime, Ken struggled with caregiver responsibilities. However, thanks to communication and trust in God, the couple strengthened their marriage and shared their trials, including her battle with breast cancer and his with depression, in a memoir titled Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story. Tada has actually written over 50 books, including her best-selling autobiography, Joni, which was made into a feature film. She understands that people impacted by disability may, sometimes, waver in faith but she offers encouragement. “I think the Bible calls suffering a ministry for good reason. We can’t see the big picture. Even if we were to try to ascertain God’s fairness, it would be like us walking into a room halfway through someone’s argument and being asked for an opinion. We don’t have the facts this side of eternity. If God were to eradicate suffering he would have to eradicate sin. To eradicate sin he would have to eradicate sinners. Jesus could have done that at the cross, ushered in the Kingdom of God and done away with Satan and sin and suffering, but then you and I would never have had the chance to hear the Gospel.”

Located in Agoura Hills, California, The Joni and Friends International Disability Center is the headquarters of the Joni and Friends organization. The nonprofit expanded with numerous channels, under its Christian Institute on Disability arm, through academic studies, internships, family retreats, public policy and more. “Education and training has a presence within many Joni and Friends Tada also offers inspiration through a television series and International Disability Center departments and area radio program. “We want to get the word out that God has ministries across the organization as we are an not abandoned those with disabilities – he is working ‘evangelical equipping’ ministry – equipping is a key part through them,” she says. “God’s power shows up best of our mission,” says Daniel Thomson, Director of through weakness. We are called to speak up for those Academic Engagement for the Christian Institute on who can’t speak for themselves and defend the rights of Disability. “We collectively do conferences and programs the weak. We do that every day at Joni and Friends.” throughout the world that influence thousands of people and churches.” AmeriDisability March/April 2018 37

EZ Access Porch Lifts: Wheelchair Accessibility for the Home By Emily McDeed Need to make your home more accessible to wheelchair users without remodeling? EZ Access Porch Lifts by Accessible Environments, Inc., may be the solution! The founders Earl and Patricia Weis began the company, that provides residential and commercial products to make buildings more accessible, in 1995 after witnessing a wheelchair bound child washing her hands through the bathroom door from not being able to enter it herself. The Porch Lift model described below is one example of the many products they offer to meet your needs. EZ Access VPL Passport Wheelchair Porch Lift for Home The Passport vertical platform wheelchair lift model featured here is for residential use only. The wheelchair porch lift is currently available in the 52 inch and 72 inch lifting height. Wheelchair Porch Lift for home has a straight thru entry/exit design and also adjacent access, with a turn. This wheelchair porch lift will not pass commercial codes and should not be used in a commercial application. Please check with your local, state, and federal code authorities prior to purchasing any wheelchair lift. Features include: • Lightest Platform Lift - Passport Vertical Platform Lift, known on the market as the lightest residential platform wheelchair porch lift available, weighs in at less than 400 pounds, 300 pounds lighter than comparable steel units. • Plug-N-Play Wiring Technology - The platform tower and gate are both prewired with automotive-style connectors that are waterproof and will not corrode. Our Plug-N-Play wiring technology makes the Passport Vertical Platform Lift user-friendly, low-maintenance and the preferred lift of technicians and installers. • DC-Powered - The Passport Vertical Platform Lift is fully DC powered. On battery power only, the Passport can complete approximately 30 complete cycles, even fully-loaded. • ETL Certification Mark - The ETL Certification Mark is recognized and accepted proof of thirdparty inspection, testing, and certification of our Passport Vertical Platform Wheelchair Porch Lift. Our ETL Certification Mark also assures continued compliance with the applicable regulatory and safety standards throughout North America. A local licensed contractor does the installation and will 38

Installation Video: need to obtain any required permits per the local requirements. Accessible Environments, Inc. is a one-stop shop for assisted living products with technical and engineering staff to answer questions about products, technical specifications and installation needs. They offer a wide variety of products for residential and commercial needs, including accessible showers, ramps, grab bars, flip down toilet safety rails, wall to floor bars, walk in tubs, shower seats, safety transfer rails for all rooms of the home and spa and pool lifts, all American-made. To learn more, visit their website or email them at There is a current offer for free shipping in the lower 48 Contiguous. For Alaska and Hawaii, please call 1-800-643-5906 for freight quotes. Universal design to make homes accessible for ALL people regardless of abilities is the way of today and certainly the way of the future. That would include building homes with wider doorways, or considering a master bedroom on the first floor with a bathroom that is accessible or can be easily made accessible if needed. Awareness of an aging population and the current needs and near future needs should be considered across the board in new home building. With those thoughts in mind, the EZ Access Porch Lift can be a great and affordable option for making your home accessible to all, indoors or outdoors. The lift can be installed on an existing porch or with additional ramp installation for the product itself. Visit Accessible Environments, Inc. to get started or view their other products!

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AmeriDisability March/April 2018

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ANYTIME - ANYWHERE AmeriDisability March/April 2018


Around Town April 4, 2018 Autism HWY Chalk Festival Heritage Plaza Park, Covina, CA

Conferences Expos Trade Shows and More

April 7, 2018 9th Annual Cycling For Autism Courtney Campbell Causeway Trail Tampa, FL

March 4, 2018 Boating & Beach Bash For People With Disabilities Spanish River Park Boca Raton, FL

March 4, 2018 Big Kahuna Paddle Challenge - Florida Disabled Outdoors Association & Sportsability Maclay Gardens, Tallahassee, FL

March 10, 2018 Birmingham Parents Special Needs Expo Pelham Civic Complex, Birmingham, AL

April 7, 2018 3rd Autism Awareness Family Fun day Epic Church, Lakeland, FL

March 24, 2018 Fight For Air Climb - American Lung Association Bank of America Center, Orlando, FL March 25, 2018 An Evening Among Stars Disability Fashion Show Cultural Arts Center, Silver Spring, MD 42

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April 12 - 14, 2018 Sportsability - Florida Disabled Outdoors Association April 12 - Opening Ceremonies & Miracle Sports Miracle Field at Messer Park April 13 - Resource Expo & Indoor Activities Tallahassee Community College April 14 - Outdoor Day Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park Tallahassee, FL

April 20, 2018 Fiesta by the Bay for Autism Glazer Children’s Museum, Tampa, FL

May 12, 2018 Cast for Kids James River, Richmond, VA

May 12, 2018 Disabilities Expo Allen County War Memorial Coliseum, Fort Wayne, IN

June 3, 2018 Step Up for Down Syndrome Springfield Expo Center, Springfield, MO May 12, 2018 Boardwalk Deaf Fest Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Santa Cruz, CA

June 15-17, 2018 The Family Cafe The Hyatt Regency Orlando, Orlando, FL

May 12, 2018 Around the Park for Autism 5k Cascades Falls Park, Jackson, MI

July 9 - 12, 2018 2018 USBLN 21st Annual National Conference & Expo “NextGen Disability Inclusion” Las Vegas, Nevada

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Industry News

Did Shakespeare Lie? By Emily McDeed “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare would have said, but most people don’t have those with disabilities in mind when watching theater. Except for one man: Ike Schambelan. Until his passing in 2016, and because of his passion for Shakespeare, Schambelan directed his own Off-Broadway theater company, Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), to showcase the writing and artistic talents of those with all abilities. TBTB originally started in 1979 as Theater By The Blind, and became well known not only for performing unique interpretations of Shakespeare, but also for plays that featured blindness and disability. As the company grew over the decades, more artists came on the scene with other disabilities, and they changed to their current name in 2008 to more accurately reflect their mission. TBTB produces different types of plays: those that feature disabilities (for example, “Whattaya Blind?!” an exploration of how society looks at blindness) and other plays that feature Schambelan’s interpretations of Shakespeare, where the actors showcase their talent.

TBTB’s plays saying, “Wow, that was really good! Where was the disability?” That comment is the greatest one Viselli could ever receive, and summarizes the goal of their company: to prove that everyone is a person capable of pursuing anything they want to regardless of their limitations, needs and differences. “Anybody can become disabled at any time,” Viselli says, “and that makes our work common ground…and it allows us to talk to, about, and for everyone.” TBTB also helps prospective thespians grow in their craft by offering classes, play readings, and an Intensive Playwright Workshop which showcases the talents of current and prospective members. They’re offering more workshops in 2018. To learn more about their work and upcoming opportunities, visit or email Viselli at

According to Nicholas Viselli, the current artistic director at TBTB, “disability matters as much as they want it to” for each of the plays. After hiring talent through open auditions, TBTB starts each play by interpreting scripts and building the world of their story on stage. From there, they collaborate with each artist to figure out how to tell the story with their various abilities in mind. If the script has a character turning a cartwheel, for example, and an actress can’t do that, they would work with her by creating an accessible prop or coming up with another alternative adaptation to the scene. In the end, each person involved uses their talent to put on professional, quality theatre. But through all the workshops, and drama, their main goal is to simply change people’s perceptions one step at a time. Viselli says that society has come a long way in accommodating people with disabilities, but the age-old assumption of serving them out of pity is still prevalent largely because people with disabilities aren’t seen that often in theater or portrayed accurately in other mediums. But this isn’t to blame solely on society, either. Viselli realizes that we all have this engrained sense growing up that someone’s life must be more difficult when they don’t have the same capabilities mentally, physically, and emotionally. This assumption is a limitation, and artistic avenues like theater can spark change by showing a different perspective. Many times, people come out of 50

“Oedipus” (2005)

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“Healing” (2016)

“Still More Parts” (2013) AmeriDisability March/April 2018


Industry News

ReelAbilities Film Festival Presents Inclusive Films and Conversations

Courtesy of ReelAbilities Facebook By Nancy DeVault Media influences perceptions and, in a way, shapes reality – consciously and subconsciously. Isaac Zablocki, Director of Film Programs at JCC Manhattan, penned an article for Huffington Post about disability in media and explained, “If we do not see people with disabilities in our entertainment, we will also have trouble envisioning them appropriately in our community. Furthermore, if we do not see appropriate depictions of people with disabilities, the public will only see disabilities as the hero or villain stock types Hollywood often presents or at best, inauthentic portrayals.” But Zablocki is not willing to accept that and, instead, is working toward positive change. Along with co-founder Anita Altman, Zablocki established the ReelAbilities Film Festival, an annual 52

celebration promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different abilities. “It is a festival with a social mission, namely to change public perception and understanding of who are people with disabilities,” Altman described during an Abilities podcast. JCC Manhattan was already accustom to using film programming for educational purposes but, in 2007, the decision to launch a disabilityspecific initiative arose from the increase of disabilityrelated submissions ─ enough for a stand-alone film festival. The ReelAbilities Film Festival first kicked off in New York City with films, conversations and artistic programs. Now a decade later and held in fourteen cities nationwide, it’s the largest film festival in the country dedicated to

AmeriDisability March/April 2018

Courtesy of ReelAbilities Facebook people with disabilities. Festival coordinators receive hundreds of high-quality film submissions each year, either by or about people with disabilities. About 30-40 films make the cut for each festival and are accompanied by a purposeful discussion to further engage and educate the community. Zablocki says he enjoys pictures that are not necessary ‘about’ disability but, rather, ‘inclusive’ of disability. He explained via Huffington Post, “If we want to see more representation of people with disabilities on screen, we need to look beyond having them play disability, but rather being a normal part of society and being cast in everyday roles.” For example, A View from Tall was one of Zablocki’s favorite films screened at the 2017 festival. It featured a smart, unpopular, tall teenager living her most challenging year with complicated circumstances. She finds an unlikely lifeline with her disabled therapist, a character portrayed by actor Michael Patrick Thornton who, in real life, became paralyzed following a spinal stroke caused by disruption in blood supply to his spine. “It was an authentic portrayal, [as] the actor is in a wheelchair and he does a perfect job,” Zablocki told AmeriDisability Services; and while, “the wheelchair adds an element to their relationship in that they’re both outsiders in some ways and build a connection, it’s not about the wheelchair [or how the wheelchair impacts him]. It’s about their relationship.” At the premiere of A View from Tall, actors with disabilities – including RJ Mitte, Danny Woodburn and Maysoon Zayid – participated in a panel about authentic representations. Celebrity involvement can boost the festival’s presence but others are equally as influential. “Their [celebrity] voices are crucial and important but, as a festival, it’s about elevating the voices that are otherwise not heard,” Zablocki asserts. In fact, a star-studded night doesn’t always include Hollywood A-listers. After the screening

of How Sweet the Sound: The Blind Boys of Alabama, the featured gospel quartet took to the mic for an engaging session. And, at the showing of Dancing on Wheels, wheelchair-bound dancers Kitty Lunn and Krishna Christine Washburn treated the audience to a live dance performance. This March, aside from a diverse movie line-up, the ReelAbilities Film Festival in New York will honor academy-award winner Marlee Matlin. The actress and activist, who is hearing impaired, has proclaimed, “I have always resisted putting limitations on myself, both professionally and personally.” Matlin, says Zablocki, “is probably the most achieved actor with a disability.” Held at multiple accessible locations within each host city, all films include audio descriptions and conversations translated in American Sign Language. ReelAbilities is working to launch film streaming on its website (, especially since many films, unfortunately, are not distributed beyond festivals. “We now have a ten-year catalog of films that we want to bring further access by getting into people’s homes,” Zablocki explains. For now, ReelAbilities offers an online film directory and viewers can seek these films out on Vimeo, YouTube, Amazon and iTunes. Interested in the ReelAbilities Film Festival? You can submit a film (deadline November 1st), attend a festival (Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Cincinnati, OH; Columbus, OH; Northern VA; Houston, TX; Minneapolis–St. Paul, MN; New Jersey, NJ; New York, NY; Pittsburg, PA; Portland, OR; Richmond, VA; Salt Lake City, UT; Toronto, Canada) or locally host a film and/or festival.

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Backstage Auditions, casting calls, talent seeking, advice & tips.

Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development (NIAD) By helping more than 60 artists with disabilities create and sell art each week, NIAD promotes meaningful independent living. Artwork can be purchased online.

Inclusion In The Arts Promotes and advocates for full inclusion of artists of color and performers with disabilities at all levels of production in theatre, film, television, and related media.

SAG-AFTRA Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Committed to organizing all work under their jurisdictions, negotiating wages, working conditions, health and pension benefits and more.


American DanceWheels Foundation Promotes wheelchair dancing through lessons, educational seminars and performances in dance studios, and rehabilitation facilities across the country. Offers teacher certification courses online and in-person.

ReelAbilities The largest festival in the U.S. dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with differenct disabilities.

Theater Breaking Through Barriers The only off-broadway theater, and one of the few professional theaters in the country, dedicated to advancing actors and writers with disabilities and changing the image of people with disabilities from dependence to independence.

AmeriDisability March/April 2018

AmeriDisability Magazine  

March/April 2018

AmeriDisability Magazine  

March/April 2018