Resurrecting Media Access Awards: A Conversation with Deborah Calla

Tobias Forrest, Joe Mantegna, Debra Calla and Allen Rucker
Tobias Forrest, Joe Mantegna, Debra Calla, Guest and Allen Rucker

Exploring the Journey and Future of Inclusion in Entertainment

In 2011, the Media Access Awards made a triumphant return after a three-year hiatus. Deborah Calla, Chair of the Diversity Committee of the Producers Guild of America at the time and writer, producer Allen Rucker, played pivotal roles in reviving this once prestigious black tie event that recognizes successful disability inclusion in media.

In a recent interview with ABILITY Magazine, (a former winner of a Media Access Award), Calla shared insights into the background and growth of Media Access, and the challenges faced by the entertainment industry, including the impact of AI and the ongoing writers’ strike. Join us as we delve into Calla’s experience and her vision for a more inclusive future with the ongoing impact of Media Access Awards.

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Origins and Growth

Calla explained that the idea to revive the Media Access Awards stemmed from a conversation among the chairs of the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, SAG-AFTRA and the Producers Guild at a 2010 event celebrating international female writers.

Allen Rucker, Deb Calla and Jane Lynch
Allen Rucker, Deb Calla and Jane Lynch

“The status of the Media Access Awards, which was an organization started by Fern Field and Norman Lear in the late ’70s, came up during our conversation. After losing funding, the event had gone dark. For three years nothing had happened with it, and it seemed like people had just moved on,” Deborah Calla recalled.

 That conversation sparked interest in Media Access Awards again, and a decision was made to resurrect the event.

“On the day of that first event back, I realized that these awards were something extremely important, and I just knew I needed to devote my time to it,” Calla explained,

During a conversation with writer, producer and disability advocate Allen Rucker, the two recognized their shared commitment to the mission of Media Access Awards. They agreed to work together to ensure ongoing growth and success for the important event.

Under their leadership, the event returned as an annual event for the past 13+ years. A subsequent partnership with Easterseals provided the support necessary for growth of the platform.

“Easter Seals saw Media Access Awards as a way to expand into media representation, and we saw partnering up with Easterseals as a good way to have greater support for the ambitions we had for the event. So, it was a win-win,” Calla said.

Now in its sixth year, the collaboration between Media Access Awards and Easterseals has helped the event grow each year, increasing awareness and promoting inclusive representation in media.

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Pandemic Pivot

As with so many things, the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges, forcing Media Access to shift from live events to streaming them online. For thosee past three years, the Extra TV platform served as the streaming platform for the Media Access Awards.

Debra Calla, David Shore, Allen Rucker and guests during a Media Access Awards event
Debra Calla, Ben Lewin, Allen Rucker, David Shore, and guest during a Media Access Awards event

“We went from doing a huge live event at a hotel ballroom to streaming it online. It was definitely a change,” Calla said.

But Calla expressed appreciation for all those who worked hard to continue the mission of Media Access during a very difficult time.

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Debra Calla and Allen Rucker with the backdrop of Media Access Awards logo
Debra Calla and Allen Rucker

The Writers’ Strike and the Impact of AI:

Discussing the ongoing writers’ strike, Calla acknowledged the cascading impact of the work stoppages, affecting not only writers but also actors, directors, and other industry professionals. Despite the challenges, she remains optimistic that such actions are necessary to safeguard the future of the industry.

“We are seeing a huge change in the usage of AI in entertainment, and that needs to be addressed. A work stoppage is the only way that you can seriously bring people to the table,” Calla said.

Calla expressed both curiosity and concern about AI. While she acknowledged AI’s impressive capabilities in content creation, she added, “AI was fed data, and data comes from human work. It’s good stuff, but it’s based on original ideas of others’ hard labor, human experience, and that comes from human beings, not from AI.”

Calla believes it is crucial to address the usage of AI in the industry and protect the rights of those who contribute their creative labor.

Looking Ahead

The future looks bright for Media Access Awards. Its next event is slated for this Fall. There are discussions underway to potentially expand the Media Access reach even further with a new broadcast and streaming partner. Calla explained that those negotiations are ongoing and will likely impact the exact date for the next Media Access Awards event.

The leadership of Deborah Calla and Allen Rucker leadership at Media Access has had an impact on promoting disability inclusion and creating a more representative landscape in media. Despite the current challenges faced by the industry, Calla’s optimism and determination are evident as she enthusiastically talked about the history and future for Media Access Awards.

Allen Rucker and Debra Calla with their Lights! Camera! Access! awards
Allen Rucker and Debra Calla with their Lights! Camera! Access! awards — photo by Chet Cooper

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