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AMI announces the opening of the Disability Screen Office

From a media release:

AMI, in partnership with the Canada Media Fund (CMF) and Telefilm Canada, is excited to announce the launch of the Disability Screen Office (DSO).

With our commitment to establish and support a voice for Canadians with disabilities, AMI is currently facilitating the creation of this industry office with funding from the CMF and Telefilm Canada.

The DSO will provide services that:

• increase accurate and meaningful disability representation on and off-screen throughout the Canadian media landscape

• expose and eliminate accessibility barriers to create a more inclusive and accessible industry for all

• support and amplify the creative voices of Canadians with disabilities nationally and internationally

Background
For the past year, AMI has been leading roundtable discussions with diverse groups of individuals in the disability community that are working in or with the screen industry. The groups include creators, writers, directors, producers, performers and representatives from academia. The objective of these roundtables was to obtain unfiltered feedback on the accessibility of the media industry to the disability community, and to identify barriers and brainstorm solutions with a view of developing programs to increase industry accessibility.

To do this, all roads lead to the formation of a new organization, now known as the DSO.

“It became apparent that there is currently no single program, incentive or regulation that can cause the screen industry to be fully inclusive for people with disabilities,” says Andrew Morris, Manager, Independent Production, AMI-tv. “The only way to create meaningful real opportunities for people with disabilities in the media industry is to address the systemic barriers relating to education, industry regulations, insufficient and/or inaccurate representation, public beliefs and attitudes, and full accessibility throughout the media industry.”

“As part of CMF’s growth and inclusion strategy, we’ve introduced new measures to support creators with disabilities,” says Tamara Dawit, Vice-President, Inclusion and Growth, CMF. “Helping establish the Disability Screen Office to support and amplify the creative voices of Canadians with disabilities, both here in Canada and beyond our borders, is part of that strategy. We’re delighted to partner with AMI and Telefilm to achieve this important goal.”

“The creation of the Disability Screen Office will be a significant advancement for meaningful representation, advocacy, and change for creators on both sides of the camera,” said Christa Dickenson, Executive Director and CEO at Telefilm Canada. “The DSO will further contribute to breaking down barriers and shaping a more accessible and equitable screen-based industry within Canada.”

Next steps
• With funding from CMF, AMI has begun the development phase of a national, bilingual research endeavor that will culminate in the creation of the Best Practices Guide for Disability Engagement in the Canadian Film and Television Industry. This document will be the foundation of the DSO.

• Meanwhile, Telefilm Canada has provided startup funding to enable the DSO to recruit a board of directors and open the office within the year.

• Both Telefilm and CMF have also contributed funding for innovative programs to help make writers’ rooms in Canada accessible to screenwriters in the disability community, to be announced this summer.

About Accessible Media Inc.
AMI is a not-for-profit media company that entertains, informs and empowers Canadians who are blind or partially sighted. Operating three broadcast services, AMI-tv and AMI-audio in English and AMI-télé in French, AMI’s vision is to establish and support a voice for Canadians with disabilities, representing their interests, concerns and values through accessible media, reflection and portrayal. To learn more visit AMI.ca and AMItele.ca.

About the Canada Media Fund
The Canada Media Fund (CMF) fosters, develops, finances and promotes the production of Canadian content and applications for all audiovisual media platforms. The CMF guides Canadian content towards a competitive global environment by fostering industry innovation, rewarding success, enabling a diversity of voice and promoting access to content through public and private sector partnerships. The CMF receives financial contributions from the Government of Canada and Canada’s cable, satellite and IPTV distributors. Please visit cmf-fmc.ca.

About Telefilm Canada
As a Partner of Choice, Telefilm Canada is a Crown corporation dedicated to the success of Canada’s audiovisual industry, fostering access and excellence by delivering programs that support cultural resonance and audience engagement. With a lens of equity, inclusivity and sustainability, Telefilm bolsters dynamic companies and a range of creative talent at home and around the world. Telefilm also makes recommendations regarding the certification of audiovisual coproduction treaties to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, and administers the programs of the Canada Media Fund. Launched in 2012, the Talent Fund raises private donations which principally support emerging talent. Visit telefilm.ca and follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/Telefilm_Canada and on Facebook at  facebook.com/telefilmcanada.

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Exploring disability representation through the eyes of six performers with disabilities, AMI’s Breaking Character debuts April 27 on AMI-tv

From a media release:

AMI, in partnership with Winterhouse Films Inc. (Wild Archaeology, Three Lives of Kate), is pleased to announce the debut of Breaking Character, Wednesday, April 27, at 8 p.m. Eastern on AMI-tv.

In the past decade, less than three percent of films featured a character with a disability. And, often, these rarest of roles have been taken by neuro-typical and able-bodied actors. But the industry is at a tipping point as it feels the push for a more inclusive representation. Major broadcasters have committed to auditioning actors with disabilities. Advertisers are creating campaigns that reflect disabilities in a relatable manner while promoting their products. Those leading the fight aren’t just the ones in front of the camera but the people representing them.

Breaking Character is a candid 10-part documentary series capturing the journey these mold-breaking performers make as they navigate the fast-paced and sometimes cutthroat entertainment industry in Hollywood North. Each episode delves into the performers’ daily lives and takes us behind the scenes as they go through the audition process, hone their craft, eagerly await news of whether they got the gig, and adapt to the pressures of life in the business.

Meet the performers

Alexia Vassos — Stage and Screen Actor, Little Person
Alexia was the first Little Person to graduate from her university’s theatre and drama program. After leaving the safe haven of academia, she’s embarking on a journey to find her place in the industry—whether on stage, screen or in an audio booth. Alexia is open to many avenues, but one thing’s for certain: she will not be tokenized.

Dan Barra-Berger — Comedian, Legally Blind
Dan, a stand-up comic who is partially sighted, made the long list of CBC’s Next Up competition series. Now he just needs to become a regular on the comedy club circuit. Though humour is at the core of everything he does, so is storytelling. With the support of his partner, Michelle, Dan is on a path to combining those talents to make people laugh, subvert their expectations and advocate for a more accessible world.

Caeden Lawrence — TV/Film Actor, Hard of Hearing
A bartender by day, Caeden has scored multiple bit parts in both film and TV. But after being diagnosed with genetic progressive hearing loss, he’s navigating new barriers in the industry. Caeden worries that the powers-that-be see him as a “liability” on set, and wonders if he would he be better off finding security in the restaurant industry.

Tai Young — Performer/Personality, Wheelchair User
At 17, Tai is already a seasoned performer having appeared in numerous musical theatre productions, commercials and TV shows. As a wheelchair user, he’s passionate about disability representation in the media and has been part of national advocacy campaigns. Tai counts photography, makeup, fashion, tennis and skiing among his many interests. As for what happens after he graduates, Tai refuses to be pinned down.

Catherine Joell McKinnon — Actor/Filmmaker/ASL Coach, Deaf
An established actress who is Deaf, Catherine was raised on the east coast and has lived in Toronto since the ‘90s. One of the highlights of her career was playing—in the same year—Alexander Graham Bell’s wife on-screen in Murdoch Mysteries and his mother on stage in Silence. Besides acting, Catherine has made a name for herself as a Master Dialect Coach and Deaf consultant for major productions. Though juggling being in front and behind the camera has its challenges, Catherine is determined to make it work.

Rachel Romu — Model/Musician/Activist, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome
A Thunder Bay, Ontario, native, Rachel is a model, musician and activist with a connective tissue disorder and a history of multiple surgeries for spinal tumours. After having to re-invent themselves post-surgery and diagnosis, they are hellbent on becoming a disability mogul one record and runway at a time.

Season one of Breaking Character features Integrated Described Video (IDV) making it accessible to individuals who are blind or partially sighted. Breaking Character was filmed under strict local COVID-19 protocols.

Breaking Character debuts Wednesday, April 27, at 8 p.m. Eastern on AMI-tv. Episodes can be streamed on demand on AMI.ca and the AMI-tv App for Apple and Android.

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A March to remember: AMI announces must-see original and returning programming, including the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympic Games and 2022 Canadian Blind Hockey Tournament

From a media release:

Today, Accessible Media Inc. (AMI) unveiled its schedule for March—with a lineup of exciting new and returning programs available in described video for the blind and partially sighted community in Canada—highlighted by Paralympic coverage from CBC on AMI-tv and AMI-audio and the 2022 Canadian Blind Hockey Tournament on AMI-audio.

2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics 
Friday, March 4 to Sunday, March 13

Beginning with the Opening Ceremony on March 4, AMI will air over 40 hours of Paralympic coverage from CBC on AMI-tv and AMI-audio. All coverage will be accessible to audience members who are blind or partially sighted with live described video.

Dish with Mary: Destination Dining 
Debuts Tuesday, March 8, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on AMI-tv

Join Mary Mammoliti, host of AMI-tv’s Dish with Mary and AMI-audio’s Kitchen Confession podcast, on Tuesday, March 8 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, as she visits St. John’s, Newfoundland, to explore its culture and culinary delights. Then, on Tuesday, March 15, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, Mary makes her way to our Nation’s Capital of Ottawa, Ontario, to discover some truly authentic cuisine. Dish with Mary: Destination Dining is an original AMI production.

Adaptable Animals 
Debuts Wednesday, March 23, at 8 p.m. Eastern on AMI-tv

AMI’s new series, Adaptable Animals, looks at the world of animals with disabilities and the advances in veterinary medicine that provide them with prosthetics, thanks to the specialized work of Janice Olynich. In the debut episode, the clock is ticking as Janice has to cast, create and fit a test brace from scratch, all in the span of a few hours. Meanwhile, a Smooth Fox Terrier’s mysterious issue continues to be a challenge and a post-surgical Goldendoodle finds out if his healing is on track. Adaptable Animals is produced by Mountain Road Productions.

#IGotThis 
Returns Wednesday, March 23, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on AMI-tv

In the third season of #IGotThis, meet remarkable people who have discovered ways to cope with a physical disability or mental health challenges and move forward with their lives. In the Season three return, a fencing coach with limited mobility and his young student, who has cerebral palsy, realize being different doesn’t mean being less. #IGotThis is produced by Honey Cut Studios.

Site Unseen 
Debuts Wednesday, March 16, at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on AMI-tv

Eager to own their first house, AMI This Week Bureau Reporter Beth and her partner, Cody, bought a home sight unseen and were faced with a harsh reality once they stepped inside. Follow along as the two turn an unlivable house into the accessible home of their dreams. Site Unseen is an original AMI documentary.

2022 Canadian National Blind Hockey Tournament
Friday, March 25, and Sunday, March 27

Blind Hockey is back on AMI! AMI-audio will broadcast the 2022 Canadian National Blind Hockey Tournament live from the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. Members of the AMI-audio team, including Mike Ross, Claire Buchanan, Jeff Ryman, Brock Richardson, Cam Jenkins and ParaSport TV’s Nicco Cardarelli will be offering play-by-play and analysis throughout the event. Tune in on Friday, March 25, at 1 p.m. Eastern, for the 2022 Canadian Blind Hockey Tournament Opening Ceremonies and first-ever Women’s Blind Hockey Game. Then, listen on Sunday, March 27, at 11 a.m. Eastern for the Open Division: Bronze Medal Game, followed by the Open Division: Gold Medal Game at 1 p.m. Eastern. 

DarkVision 
Debuts Friday, March 25, at 7 p.m. Eastern on AMI-tv

Dungeons & Dragons is a truly accessible game. Learn more about this real-time role-playing game and the people that play it. DarkVision is produced by Flow Productions.

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Fashion Dis host Ardra Shephard on creating a makeover series that celebrates the disability community

“Fashion and beauty should be for everybody and every body.”

That’s the tagline and premise of Fashion Dis, a new makeover series airing Wednesdays on AMI-tv. Hosted by Toronto-based blogger and multiple sclerosis advocate Ardra Shephard, the ground-breaking show solves style challenges faced by disabled people—who have often been ignored by the fashion and beauty industries—and helps them achieve the look they’ve always wanted. 

Each transformation is guided by the show’s innovative team of glam experts and culminates in an empowering, high-fashion photoshoot that lets the participants strut their stuff. 

“The idea to include a photoshoot element was so important to me because I wanted the images to live beyond the show,” says Shephard, who came up with the idea for the series based on the fashion frustrations she faced after being diagnosed with MS. “I wanted the participants to be able to share them on social media, knowing how important that representation is.”

Last week’s premiere featured Melissa, a short-statured woman who was tired of being called “cute” and wanted to embrace her sexy side. Her makeover included a change from blonde to fiery red hair, a form-fitting black dress, and dramatic high heels—something she’d previously been unable to find in her size. This week, viewers will meet Claire, a para-athlete who feels trapped in her baggy clothing and longs for a look that reflects who she really is. 

We spoke with Ardra Shephard about creating Fashion Dis and why she feels the series is so important for the disabled community. 

Where did the concept for Fashion Dis come from?
Ardra Shephard: The concept came completely from my own experience. I was not born with a disability. I developed multiple sclerosis in my early 20s, and multiple sclerosis is a progressive illness, so I acquired varying degrees of disability over the years. For many years, my symptoms were invisible, but when they started to become noticeable in my 30s, I started to need a cane and then a walker, which we now call a rollator. I was really traumatized by that, partly because of what was happening to my body but also what really surprised me was the assault I felt on my sense of self and my identity, how I felt like these devices made me stand out in a bad way, made me look less attractive. I scoured the Internet for images of people that looked cool using mobilities, I looked for mobility aids that looked cool, and it took a long, long time to find those. So I was hiding my mobilities in photos, and I really felt diminished by these things that are actually tools that help us get through our day. A lot of these things are stigmatized so much. Phrases like ‘end up in a wheelchair’ are very common in the MS community. No one talks about being afraid to lose the ability to walk, we phrase it as ‘I don’t want to end up in a wheelchair.’ So we stigmatize the very thing that actually helps us live and keep moving. 

It was really just going through that struggle and then finally just realizing that I couldn’t let that narrative continue to play in my head. I felt like if there aren’t images of people who look like me—who are young and care about style and fashion and about living life—then I’m gonna put them out there. So I hired a photographer who had shot for Vogue, I hired a stylist, and I hired a makeup artist, and I did a photoshoot and I included my mobilities in them, and then I posted them on social media—and this was probably two years before [actor and fellow MS advocate] Selma Blair’s red carpet cane reveal—and [the photos] really resonated. Then I was commissioned to write an article for xoJane, which is now InStyle, to talk about this very thing. So I recruited two girlfriends that also have MS and did the same thing for them: I paid for them to have their makeup done, I styled them and did a photo shoot. And the feelings they got from sharing those pictures were so powerful that I felt like things needed to change. 

In 2017, when I was first started going down this road, there were zero— I’m talking zero—images of stylish, disabled people available on the Internet, and in such a short time, there are now tens of thousands. I, of course, don’t take credit for everything that’s happening in this movement, but I’m very proud to be a leader in that space and to be a part of it. Because what I was looking for [back then] is still not available in mainstream media, but it’s certainly on social media. 

I love that each episode centres around a photoshoot and creating empowering images of each participant instead of delving into their backstory or dwelling on their disability. It’s fun and uplifting.  
AS: Every detail of this show was very intentional. We have seen disability stories in media before, but they are almost always with a sad soundtrack and a hospital-themed origin story. And in my own experience, strangers regularly feel entitled to ask me, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or ‘What happened to you?’ That’s not an acceptable icebreaker, and when it happens to you all the time, you can start to feel like disability is the only identity that you’re entitled to. Somehow we think that if somebody is visibly disabled that they owe us an explanation, and yet for somebody who doesn’t have an apparent disability, we would never think to ask a random stranger such personal questions. It’s kind of staggering to me. It’s really nobody’s business what anybody’s health situation is. All we needed to know was, what’s the fashion obstacle and how can we address that? [One of our producers] put it perfectly when she said, ‘If I’m struggling to find clothes because I’m overweight, you don’t need to know why I gained weight to know that I have a struggle finding clothes that fit.’

Was it easy to find participants for the show?
AS: Yes. We put out a casting call and we had an overwhelming response, which was really exciting because I feel like people just got what we were trying to do from the start. And, also, it really showed that there is an appetite for this kind of content and this kind of representation. There were so many people just putting their hands up and saying, ‘Yes, please. I want to see myself here.’ So the real challenge was, with only six episodes, how do we show enough diversity? I mean, there are a million ways to be disabled and there are a million ways to be human, so how do we show as much of that as possible? And when you’re the only one doing something, there’s an added pressure to make sure everybody feels seen and I think we did a good job, but we definitely need more seasons to explore that more. And in the bigger picture, we just need more content like this across the board. 

How did you go about assembling the members of the makeover team? What were you looking for?
AS: We were looking for [experts with] experience with disability, a sensitivity and an understanding, and also a willingness and an open openness to learn. Some of our cast are disabled and some are not, but everybody involved is very open and receptive to learning and doing the best job possible at doing right by the disability community.

One of the reasons the show’s participants face style challenges is the lack of adaptive clothing and beauty options on the mainstream market. How did you go about sourcing some of the clothing items and products used in the show? Was it a struggle or are things starting to improve?
AS: It’s definitely both. Our wardrobe specialist, Izzy Camilleri, is an A-list designer who has been working in the adaptive clothing world for years now and at some sacrifice to her because she was designing for A-list celebrities. I think it’s fair to say—she talks about this in her TED Talk—that some of her business dropped off when she switched to doing adapted fashion, but it’s something she’s very passionate about. She’s the first, I think, in Canada and a real trailblazer. So it was really fantastic for us to have her; she’s such an authority figure in this space. But there are other companies and businesses and designers that are starting to work in this space. Even in the last two years, the options have really exploded. So a lot of it for me was just being in the community and knowing some of the players already and being able to facilitate those connections as we went into the show. And then the rest was doing our homework and finding those businesses that are catering to this community and then doing it in a stylish way. For us, everything had to be functional, but it also had to look good.

The first episode featured Melissa, and, this week, we meet Claire. Who else is going to get a makeover this season?
AS: We also have a writer-broadcaster, and she came to us with a prosthetic leg that has a floral fabric covering that was just so beautiful, and the rest of her look didn’t look as cool as her prosthesis. For us, that was about bringing the rest of her look up to match her prosthetic leg. And Tai was really cool, a 17-year-old kid who’s just a product of this generation that is already embracing diversity and leaning into what’s different. He was so confident and already stylish and interested in fashion and potentially modelling, but he’s got calluses on his hands from wheeling his chair and wanted to find good-looking gloves and also pants that are appropriate for seated body types. The rise needs to be different, and you need a seam in the back that isn’t irritating when you’re sitting all day. And then there’s Marya, a powerchair user who also has dexterity issues. So [we needed to find] tools to help her apply her own makeup, because she loves makeup but doesn’t want her mom to have to do it for her all the time. Giving her a little bit of independence for that is really exciting.

What do you hope viewers will get out of Fashion Dis?
AS: I think there will be two categories of viewers. For the disability community, I want that audience to feel elevated and celebrated and cool and beautiful. I also want them to be aware of the kinds of brands and innovations that are being designed specifically with them in mind. For the rest of the world, I think it’s an opportunity to get to know some people with disabilities. Globally, I think we don’t do well by disabled people. So many of our spaces are so inaccessible and there are so many systemic problems. I mean, nobody wants to make a show that’s calling out all the shitty ways we treat people with a disability, but I think when you get to know people with disabilities and you start to care about them, that’s when you want to do better by them. I think this show is an invitation to get to know some of the cool kids with disabilities and care about them. It’s about normalizing and introducing and thinking about disability in a different way.

Fashion Dis airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on AMI-tv. Episodes can also be streamed on AMI.ca and the AMI-tv app.

Images courtesy of Accessible Media Inc.

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