Donna Walton (left), who moderated a panel on intersectionality at a July 30 conference on Capitol Hill hosted by RespectAbility, chats with Leah Nodvin, a legislative aide for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California). (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
Donna Walton (left), who moderated a panel on intersectionality at a July 30 conference on Capitol Hill hosted by RespectAbility, chats with Leah Nodvin, a legislative aide for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California). (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

Although quadriplegic filmmaker Crystal R. Emery’s resume includes productions of more than 20 plays, two film documentaries and her own nonprofit production company, she said there’s still a ways to go for those with physical and mental disabilities to be able to express themselves creatively.

Emery, of New Haven, Connecticut, who worked as a production assistant on the 1991 film “A Rage in Harlem,” said it’s even worse in Hollywood.

“What really frustrates me to no end [is] when I see women with fewer credentials, far less qualifications [and] less experience hired for jobs in the wake of the #MeToo movement that I can do in my sleep,” Emery said to dozens in attendance during a discussion panel in Southwest on Monday, July 30.

RespectAbility, a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit organization, led the daylong conference, titled “From Washington to Hollywood and Beyond: The Future of Americans with Disabilities.”

Although the group doesn’t lobby to local, state and federal lawmakers, it seeks to educate the public about how to advance opportunities and combat stigmas of those with disabilities.

Although the U.S. Census Bureau notes nearly 383,500 more people with disabilities found employment two years ago, compared to 87,200 the previous year, advocates said more work needs to be done.

The talks at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill not only focused on the lack of representation in film and other media, but also education, employment and advocacy in Washington.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) offered some advice on how to make an impact on lawmakers, such as building a coalition with widespread support, learning the oppositions stance on a topic and even courting Republicans because they’re currently the majority in Congress.

Most importantly, he said, remain focused on a subject because lawmakers “have a relatively short attention span and a relatively short memory.”

Easter Seals of Silver Spring helps clients find jobs and employers to become unafraid of those with disabilities through its “Disability Staffing Network.”

For instance, Vera Damanka, who helps with those with disabilities find work, said a business cannot ask private questions about a potential employer’s health history. However, asking “do you need any accommodations?” not only helps a business thrive, but also helps a person succeed.

“There’s simple ways businesses can help those with disabilities — both can thrive together,” said Damanka, who maneuvers with a walker on wheels.

Three blind triplets — Leo, Nick and Steven Cantos — plan to achieve success like their father, Ollie Cantos, a blind attorney with the Department of Education who adopted the boys when they were 11.

Each triplet, who last year received Eagle Scout honors, the highest ranking among Boy Scouts, plans to attend college in the fall. Steven and Leo will attend George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Nick plans to attend Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, Virginia.

“My plan is to be an intellectual property attorney,” Steven said. “I’m going to win.”

During a discussion on intersectionality moderated by Donna Walton of Northeast, Kaity Hagen of Duluth, Minnesota, said she doesn’t ask to display closed captioning on television screens when with friends.

“That’s because I trust them,” said Hagen, 22, a national leadership fellow for RespectAbility who was born deaf and now has cochlear hearing devices implanted behind both ears. “It also depends on who I’m with and where I am.”

Judith Creed, who founded the Judith Creed Horizons for Achieving Independence nonprofit organization in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, advised Hagen and other young adults to always speak up.

“You’ve got to advocate for yourself,” she said. “No one’s going to do it for you.”

The future advocacy for those with disabilities will be a continued push for racial justice for Blacks and the LGBTQ community.

“It is very important from the RespectAbility perspective that America be a place of opportunity for everyone,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility. “We know that right now that is an inspirational goal [but] not yet achieved.”

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