A Recent History of the Academy’s Accessibility and Disability Inclusion Efforts

The 2021 Oscars was the first time a front-facing ramp was an integrated element of the Academy Awards’ custom-built stage. Academy member Jim LeBrecht, who uses a wheelchair, initiated the effort and executed it alongside his Crip Camp co-director Nicole Newnham and executive producer Howard Gertler after an Oscar nomination for the Obama-produced Netflix doc seemed on the horizon.

The ramp, present for years at disability-focused ceremonies like the Media Access Awards, marked a visible shift for mainstream Hollywood’s focus in the diversity, equity and inclusion space. And it would spark similar efforts — sometimes piecemeal or sweeping, other times fumbled — at other major industry events such as the Emmys and Grammys.

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Since then, the Oscars have expanded their accessibility efforts. The 2024 show, which takes place this Sunday, will include confidential accessibility requests for all nominees and guests; captioning services (live captions through in-house monitors, captions for video packages and closed captioning for the telecast); audio description services and in-theater assisted listening devices; accessible seating and parking; and a suite of American Sign Language interpretation services for the carpet, press room, livestreams on YouTube and Facebook (sponsored by Disney brand partner Bank of America), Dolby Theater, Governors Ball and various press events.

Disability inclusion is increasingly part of the Academy’s entire infrastructure, supported as part of its Aperture 2025 initiative and the establishment of the Office of Representation, Inclusion and Equity. (It was overseen by executive vp of impact and inclusion Jeanell English before her resignation last year.) Meeting notices and special event invites now feature a confidential accessibility request service “so we’re not playing the ‘we didn’t know’ card,” chief membership, impact and industry officer Meredith Shea tells The Hollywood Reporter. All public events include ASL interpretation, while the Academy’s member-only screening room requires closed captioning on all titles and is slowly rolling out audio descriptions.

This progress has been achieved by working with entities like LeBrecht, consultant Andraéa LaVant and the Academy’s disability and accessibility affinity group (led by marketing and public relations branch member Joshua Jason) as well as other Academy members during Zoom gatherings where they can provide feedback. “It’s important for us to see what’s happening in the industry, but also what’s not happening in the industry, to ensure that we are supporting our members across all initiatives,” Shea explains. “We know that by doing this as industry leaders, someone else can go, ‘Look at how easy it is. It’s embedded in who they are, and if they’re doing it, we should model off of them.’”

Unlike when the Academy launched its A2020 drive, which prioritized doubling the presence of women, underrepresented ethnic/racial groups and international members in response to the #OscarsSoWhite criticism, or when the Television Academy published its initial transparency report, committing to DEI has come to mean acknowledging the importance of disability representation and accessibility as well. And not just at one-off events, under legal pressure or simply adhering to ADA minimums 30 years after the civil rights law went into effect, as Ramy star Steve Way once highlighted during an ATV Fest panel.

It’s a shift that’s been years in the making, with the Oscars one of the first major broadcasts to feature ASL and offer audio description “because of our president Faye Kanin in the ’80s, who wanted to ensure that the Oscars were accessible for all,” Shea says. The Academy was also involved during the construction of Ovation Hollywood and the Dolby Theater “to ensure that there was easy access for all attendees,” she adds.

For members of Hollywood’s disabled film community, those efforts were a start but never went far enough. On the heels of April Reign’s hashtag sparking an emergency meeting at the Film Academy in 2016, Seinfeld actor Danny Woodburn took Hollywood’s then-burgeoning DEI commitments to task, writing in a Huffington Post op-ed about how “people with disabilities are systematically excluded from the topic of diversity and inclusion.”

“We certainly have not been invited to any Hollywood brunch with the elite to discuss our inclusion –– actual, fully represented inclusion,” he continued. “We aren’t even at the table for discussion.”

That column was seen by the Ruderman Family Foundation, who reached out to Woodburn, a performer with dwarfism who has served as a member and leader of the Screen Actors Guild’s Performers With Disabilities Committee. He began connecting the Boston-based organization –– a disability rights philanthropy that had not yet operated in the entertainment space –– with as many Hollywood contacts as he could, Woodburn told Forbes.

“We are a foundation historically that has worked on disability rights. We sort of backed into the entertainment world by accident,” foundation president Jay Ruderman tells THR. “We became very critical in terms of our advocacy about the inauthentic portrayal of disability in film and TV, very critical of different films in the press. That’s when we transitioned and said, ‘OK, let’s start working with the industry.'”

What followed was a task force meeting with the AMPTP; an ongoing industry pledge to audition actors with disabilities for each new production, signed by studios like CBS and Sony; the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion and the Ruderman Seal of Approval; a studio roundtable on disability; and a revealing white paper addressing employment and onscreen representation disparities in Hollywood.

“I’m not going to say that we were the only ones elevating the issue. There are many, many people that were elevating the issue. But some of my colleagues in the industry were more reluctant to be outspoken because they didn’t want to jeopardize their careers,” says Ruderman. “We’re not of the industry. I’m sitting in Boston, so it’s easier for us to be critical. It’s easier to work with the media to really call people on the carpet.”

Amid those calls, Ruderman and the Academy connected. Like the diversity task forces, committees and consulting partnerships taking place at other leading organizations like the TV and Recording Academies, the foundation would become one fixture in helping the film organization “evolve over the years to ensure that they were inclusive of as many people as possible with our programs, and within our membership,” says Shea.

The same year that the Oscars featured its first integrated stage ramp, the foundation granted $1 million towards creating and expanding inclusive, accessible and equitable Academy experiences through its programming, educational initiatives, and long-awaited museum. According to Ruderman, the foundation was involved and invested as it was being built because “we wanted to make sure that accessibility and disability” were part of a place “where a lot of people would come and visit to try to experience the entertainment industry.”

“Museums historically have been challenged as places that are inclusive, accommodating and accessible. We had an opportunity to open a museum with that lens applied, baked in from the get-go,” says Amy Homma, chief audience officer of the Academy Museum. “I encourage our teams to be thinking of accessibility in terms of spontaneity. Maybe you don’t have the time to request a service two weeks in advance or just want to show up. Everyone deserves the right to decide last minute they want to go to the museum.”

To deliver on that, the museum has leaned on various allies, including filmmakers, industry practitioners, an employee resource group and the museum’s Inclusion Advisory Committee to grow accessibility in its visitor experience in the theater and exhibits. Such collaborations have resulted in a monthly accessible screening featuring open captions, lowered sound and dim lighting. “We’ve extracted more seats to make sure that we can accommodate more wheelchairs, more walkers, more people with strollers,” Homma tells THR of changes made since opening.

Within the exhibit space, the visitor experience offers wheelchairs and sensory kits (including fidgets and noise-canceling headphones) for checkout, large-print museum maps, assisted listening devices, ASL tours and program interpretation. In support of its “Calm Mornings” programing, which was launched when the museum opened, “the lights are not quite so contrasted, some of the moving images and media are turned off, or volume is lowered in our galleries” to support attendees who are neurodivergent or have other sensory-related disabilities, says Homma.

Museum educators also offer guided experiences that are both interactive and adaptable to various learning styles. All of this is evaluated and adapted monthly via gallery walkthroughs. “With the museum, we’ve seen more and more elements of accessibility introduced, more opportunities for people with disabilities of different types to enjoy the museum, to participate,” Ruderman says.

The foundation’s funding commitment has helped support various inclusion initiatives, like the Academy’s Gold Rising Program, a talent development initiative that has partnered with companies like The Black List, MonkeyPaw Productions, CAA and Dolby Laboratories. Beyond creating opportunities to address one of the disability organization’s first and ongoing criticisms of Hollywood –– hiring disabled talent –– the internship program also offers mental health resources as participants onboard and again once they’ve graduated through its Academy Gold alumni newsletter.

“You’re dealing with people that are coming to Hollywood, and they’re finding themselves within the industry,” Shea says of the Gold Rising Program. “It’s acknowledging, ‘Hey, this might be a lot if you’re all of a sudden in a room with these really powerful directors and writers.’”

Ruderman was also the main sponsor of the Destigmatizing Mental Health for Emerging and Practicing Filmmakers panel, an effort driven by English that Shea calls a great opportunity to bring “people together to talk about how it’s not all red carpets or your movie gets greenlit. “It’s important to talk about the struggles of creatives and people working in a very demanding environment,” she says. “There’s a lot of long hours on set. You’re away from your family, there’s a lot of pressures that come with the deadlines that go around making films and different productions.”

That hourlong panel, which took place last June and featured mental health experts, studio executives and actors like Brittany Snow, Maurice Benard and Lexi Underwood, saw the Film Academy venturing into a more nuanced corner of the intersection between disability and accessibility. It’s one that English highlighted in an op-ed about her own departure last year, citing among several issues challenges to her mental and physical health due to the “unsustainable” demands of “consensus-building” from multiple, sometimes opposing communities.

As it expands its public facing offerings, the Academy is reflecting on its internal work around disability and accessibility, including the health and access of employees as various offices navigate their ongoing work and continuing the work, such as Oscars accessibility, left in the wake of English’s departure. “It’s vital for the Academy to support and invest in not only our members, but our staff as well,” she says. “This is critical to ensuring that everyone has space to participate fully and has a deep sense of belonging. This has to be done in all pillars of the organization in order to be successful.”

Adds Homma, “We recognize that centering DEAI work, both externally and internally, is complex and nuanced, and we approach it with listening and with humility. We are making a commitment to seeing necessary support and change. This work is iterative and ongoing.”

For Ruderman, the subject is an important part of illustrating the diversity of disability, which can include invisible conditions. “Most people deal with some form of mental health, whether they think of it as mental health or as disability,” says Ruderman. “It’s part of modern life, especially post-COVID, and it’s an issue that’s so important to our society, especially in the entertainment field which is a pressure cooker.”

With the Film Academy, Ruderman has been able to help the industry address that historically exclusionary pressure cooker, focusing its dedication to disability rights in other corners of society on an industry that may be finally ready to move forward after decades of lagging behind.

“When you talk about the height of success in entertainment in film, you’re talking about an Oscar, and a museum that highlights that success in the entertainment industry,” Ruderman says. “That’s what we were trying to connect with. The standard that people are looking at because I think that once you work with that, other organizations sit up and take notice.”

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