“There is no diversity, equity & inclusion without disability” a phrase now illuminated across multiple city billboards. ABILITY Magazine’s George Kaplan sits down with the masterminds behind the bright and bold ad campaign and co-founders of the Inevitable Foundation, Richie Siegel and Marisa Torelli-Pedevska. During their conversation, they discuss why the Inevitable Foundation specifically supports disabled screenwriters, the cost of accommodations and how the billboards came to be.
George Kaplan: What inspired the Inevitable Foundation?
Marisa Torelli-Pedevska: There was a very clear problem to try and solve in the industry, the gaps in disabled writers. There weren’t many people trying to solve it. But what inspired it I think was a mix of professional stuff, personal stuff. I have invisible physical disabilities that come from lifelong chronic illnesses, but I didn’t really identify with my disabilities until a little bit later in life. I think disability was a natural part of both of our stories. Also, I’m a writer, just finished up at USC in screenwriting on my MFA. So writing was a very natural place for us to start as well.
Richie Siegel: Just briefly for me, I don’t identify as disabled, but I have a younger sister who has epilepsy and multiple developmental disabilities, so that was my connection to this. I studied filmmaking and then ran away from it. Marisa and I know each other because Marisa worked at a camp for years for teens and adults with disabilities, and my sister was a camper of hers there. That’s how we got connected. So it’s a combination of the disability world and the entertainment world coming together and us realizing how big the representation gap was in terms of disabled people making up 20% of the population but only 1% of the workforce in the industry. It’s about .7% of all writers within the entertainment industry, film and television specifically. We felt like if you really wanted to solve this problem, you had to focus on the writers.
Kaplan: Can you tell us more about what the Inevitable Foundation does and how you support writers?
Torelli-Pedevska: It costs a lot of money to be disabled. It’s hard enough to be a writer, but to be a disabled writer you do need money to both survive and pay for disability-related things in your life and also make money in your career. So we started with the funding piece, thinking about how we can give sizeable grants that are significant enough to keep someone going for a long period of time so that they could just focus on their writing and not have to work another full-time job or other part-time jobs.
The first thing we started with was the grant. It was $25,000 at first and is now a $40,000 grant. And then as we kept building the foundation, we built in a lot more mentorship and workshops and things that are more programmatic and not just the funding.
Siegel: We identified writers, specifically these mid-career writers were very much what we need to focus on. We built a fellowship program to solve their needs. It’s a combination of support on the business side, on the writing side and obviously on the funding side and the mentorship side. We said that we wanted to be concentrated in terms of how many people we’re investing in. The theory was basically, if we can get a few people to break in at the top, that will open up a lot of other opportunities for everyone else who comes from this population. We name about four or so fellows a year, but we’re providing incredibly deep levels of support as part of that. The fellowship is the key program. We’ve run that for over a year and a quarter at this point, continually growing. We also created a “Disability is Diversity” campaign, which we launched about a month ago to push for the inclusion of disability in the DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] conversation, because we often found it was getting left out of that conversation. That has now turned into an international billboard out-of-home media campaign with over I think $2 million in donated media in about 15 different cities.
We also run a concierge service that helps different industry producers and other players find great disabled writers to meet with and hire. But the fellowship is where we spend about 80% of our time.
Kaplan: Could you tell me more about why you target screenwriters?
Torelli-Pedevska: Definitely. We were realizing early on, and I think about this a lot as a writer myself, everything starts with a story. We noticed that there were other efforts when it came to casting more disabled people in roles, in advocacy for disabled people in Hollywood, but a big piece that was missing was, where are the stories coming from? What roles are going to be cast if there aren’t really good roles written? But even beyond the roles, we were thinking about who’s telling these stories. Where are they coming from? Where are the disabled people who get to write their own stories and write stories regardless of whether disability is a part of it? We felt like if we can empower the community, empower disabled writers, that naturally there would be more representation down the line because people tend to write about parts of themselves and parts of their life, but the goal was to empower the community and not so much the disability story piece. Our writers write about whatever they want, whether or not disability is a part of that.
Siegel: Just to add on to Marisa’s point, there’s a lot of focus on the on-screen part, and for us, we found it was really important to focus on the workforce part and the people, not just the projects, not just the stories. A lot of our work is about betting on the people, and as Marisa said, they’ll write about whatever they want. But it was a combination of, there was no organization dedicated to focusing on disabled writers specifically and then not just focusing on the output of theirs, but on the holistic needs of the person. So, of course that has a writing component and a business component, but for example, something we’ve been spending a lot of it on is even look at healthcare and care. How does someone holistically support themselves or get the holistic support that they need so they can be creative? Obviously if you’re just focused on surviving, you can’t really be creative. I think at the end of the day, our work is dedicated to the person and more so than their output, if that makes sense.
Kaplan: There are a lot of barriers to the entertainment industry for disabled people. How do you feel it could be better addressed?
Torelli-Pedevska: The first thing that pops into my mind is networking. A big piece of this industry is who know you, the relationships you have, who you meet, what networks you have. A lot of disabled people don’t have as big of a network in the industry, and part of that is, they aren’t getting a lot of the entry-level jobs where you might meet people. Those are harder to get for a lot of disabled people. The networking events where people meet each other aren’t necessarily accessible. There’s are a lot of different blocks just to get in networks.
Siegel: We have a weekly writers’ room that meets every week as part of the fellowship, helping our fellows push their writing to the point where it really stands out is another big focus of ours, another big barrier. It’s not always easy to get really good feedback on your work and have that consistently and have people who stick with you throughout the duration of developing a project. That consistency is really important.
It’s not a cookie cutter program. It’s incredibly flexible. A lot of what we pride ourselves on is that the program evolves as the needs of our fellows evolves. For example, we could be helping someone get a manager in the beginning and then helping them develop a project in the middle and then helping them get a second or third job at the end. That ability to be flexible has been really key because change is happening too quickly, which can become a barrier unto itself if you don’t adapt with it.
George Kaplan: What do you look for in a writer?
Torelli-Pedevska: We have a five-step process that’s pretty thorough. We have a whole selection committee that’s involved in this process who are tasked with picking the fellows. It’s not Richie and myself, it’s a whole committee of incredible disabled storytellers. Of course, looking at the writing. Can they tell a story? Do they have stories to tell? And then looking at the person holistically. What are their experiences? Have they written on a show before? Where are they in their career? Are they at a place where maybe they have enough infrastructure and experience where we can help them get to the next level? That’s, like Richie said, part of why we work with people who are mid-career and have some footing already in the industry.
Kaplan: You talked earlier about the billboard campaign. In fact, my dad actually sent me a picture of the billboard, not even knowing that I was going to be talking with you two.
Siegel: That’s awesome.
Torelli-Pedevska: That’s awesome!
Kaplan: And I was just like, “Oh, wow! I’m actually about to have a conversation with them!”
Siegel: Do you know where it was?
Siegel: Oh, that’s sweet. They’re on the street kiosks. That’s awesome. Those just went up, like, two weeks ago. That’s great.
Kaplan: You have an expansive reach. Can you tell us more about this campaign?
Siegel: Definitely. We’ve had a lot of conversations with different diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners and professionals throughout the last year and a half-plus of our work. We get often a variety of responses. On the innocuous end, you would hear a lot of, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought about disability, but we really need to work on it.” And on the more insulting end, you would get, “Oh, we’re really busy with race and gender, we don’t have time for disability.” Which is a very funny statement, of course, because disabled people have all of those things. Marisa and I were thinking about how we could try to be an educational resource and have that become the focus of every meeting, but that wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to do and how we felt was the best use of our time. We wanted to do something a little bit bigger.
We had the idea to create a billboard campaign to put out this message that disability is diversity, there is no DEI without disability, not better or worse than any of the other identities, just on a totally equal intersectional playing field. We said, “If we’re going to do this, we want to create an all-disabled creative team and go work with that team.” We thought we might find something out there, but we didn’t, so we spent about three months assembling that team. I think in total it was about 10 different people across multiple countries, time zones, disciplines, etc. We spent about three months designing the campaign in the early part of this year, and we launched officially in May. It started in LA and New York and has grown into a number of other cites, as you alluded to.
We spent a ton of time emailing everyone who owns a billboard that we could find and asking them for donated space and have been really humbled by how far and wide it has gone. But we’ve been really pleasantly surprised about how many people in the entertainment industry in power are seeing them, which was our target focus was.
A lot of our hope is that whether people recognize it or not, their brain is registering the campaign as they see it over and over again, and it’ll continue to lead to some real-world kind of change. I think it has exceeded all of our expectations in going from a one-time thing and now this is an ongoing thing we’ll be doing for the foreseeable future. We’ve been absolutely thrilled with how it’s turned out so far.
Kaplan: Fantastic! Beyond bringing awareness to the issue of disability in Hollywood, there’s also been research conducted via the Cost of Accommodations Report. How did that come about?
Siegel: We’re always having conversations with people, with disabled performers and writers, with people who are in the industry in power, creative executives, producers, people who are on the business side of the projects. Throughout last year, we would hear these two contradictory things when it came to accommodations. Obviously, not every disabled person needs accommodations, but a lot of people do. They’re not necessarily something only for disabled people. They benefit a lot of people. If you think about a ramp, someone pushing a stroller who might not be disabled benefits from a ramp versus lugging it up the stairs. I think there’s a very democratic view of the benefit of accommodations. We would talk to disabled actors and writers about how challenging and grinding it was for them to get the things they needed, which we consider bicycle necessities. These are not luxurious items.
And on the other hand, we’d talk to the “business people,” in quotes, and they would remark about how expensive it sounded and how confusing it was and how they didn’t know how to get them, all these reasons why they couldn’t satisfy these needs. We decided, similar to the campaign, why don’t we do something about this? So we created this Research Report that did two main things. First, it surveyed designs of disabled writers and performers across hundreds of projects to catalog their experiences of, how has it been for you to get accommodations or ask for them or procure them? There were some really devastating, messed-up things. People reported having people say to their face that they’re glad they’re not disabled, having people minimize their needs, some really bad stuff that is really, really discriminatory and just kind of horrible.
We wanted to put to rest the idea that it’s really expensive. We worked with different television accountants to do budget projections and modeling to look at what it costs to put in an ADA trailer, to get ASL interpreters. How do we create models that we can share with the industry to use from a resource perspective so no one can say, “I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know how much it costs, where do I find that?”
Kaplan: I don’t know if you two are aware, but ABILITY Magazine is the founding sponsor of abilityE, short for abilityEntertainment. We connect casting with authentic disabled talent.
Siegel: Yeah, we’d love to learn more about that. I think there’s a symbiotic relationship between the acting part and the writing part. Actors don’t have their roles unless they’re written, and in an lot of ways, given where the industry is, it might not always be obvious that a role not written as disabled can be cast as disabled as well. There’s a lot of overlap between work and the impact to have between different organizations of people focused on different communities, that obviously when you film you need all these people at the table. That’s great to see.
Kaplan: What’s next for the Inevitable Foundation?
Siegel: So much. To give you a little bit of a preview, in earlier fall we’ll launch a new program focused on broadening the number of people we’re able to serve. The fellowship program is very deep levels of support for a smaller group of people. We’ll launch a new program that’s a more efficient level of support for a much broader group of people. There are a lot more people we want to be able to help impact and help push their careers forward. We’ll launch that in the early fall.
We’re working on some things around healthcare and healthcare equity and access that we think are really important and arguably far away from the shininess of Hollywood, but really, really crucial to allowing people to do their creative work and reach their full creative potential. And there are a few other special projects we’re working on that all come from this perspective of, how do we be really attentive to the needs of this population and solve their problems in somewhat unique ways that maybe not a lot of other people would think of? There’s a lot coming that we’re super-excited about, even in the next three to five months.
Torelli-Pedevska: And we have two new amazing fellows!
Siegel: Yes. We welcomed two new fellows in, we’ll do two more in the fall, just the community we’ve been able to build among the writers has been really amazing and I know something that Marisa’s been super-proud of as well as I am, too. It’s a really interesting mix of building a community and also building a path forward for these people creatively and professionally that definitely gets us excited about this work day after day.
When you find a space where there’s been such minimal attention paid to it, every week there’s something new that comes up that is really important and that you really need to solve. For us, a lot of the work is about how to prioritize these things and still make an impact while growing the organization in a healthy way to let us run the marathon that it is.