Local advocate hopes to see more representation of developmental disabilities in Hollywood

While some were snubbed at the 2020 Academy Awards *cough* female directors *cough*cough*, there were many "firsts" that occurred during the ceremony that deserve to be celebrated. The first non-English film to win Best Picture. The first woman to win Best Original Score. The first woman to conduct the orchestra. And the first person with Down syndrome to present an award.

Today, I got the chance to talk with Jenny Brown, CEO of Dutton Farm, an organization which provides adults with developmental disabilities support through programs and career opportunities. As someone who has dedicated her life to helping those born with Down syndrome –first her sister, Becca Smither, and then countless others – Jenny told me how crucial it is to have positive representation in Hollywood and everywhere else.

"Watching Zack Gottsagen make history as the first person with Down syndrome ever to present at the Oscars was a special moment to witness," said Jenny. "It is very encouraging to watch film-making become more intentionally inclusive and commit to the right for persons with disabilities to represent themselves rather than hiring a neruo-typical actor to take on roles to portray someone with a disability."

Zack starred alongside Shia LaBeouf in my favorite movie of 2019, "The Peanut Butter Falcon." The film centered around the journey of a young man with Down syndrome who escapes his care facility to pursue his dream of wrestling. Like the character he portrays, Zack too had a dream; his dream was to be an actor.  This dream came true after Zack met filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz at a camp for people with and without disabilities. He told them he wanted to be an actor, and they responded honestly by telling him that his chances were slim. Zack's response: "Write and direct and then I could be the star." And, so that's what the filmmaking duo did — spent the next five years writing a role specifically for Zack.

But, unfortunately, Zack's success is rare. Nearly 20 percent of people in the United States have a disability, yet only 1.6 percent of movie characters have a disability, according to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. And the percentage is even lower when it comes to these characters actually being played by someone with a disability. So, while it's huge that Zack became an actor and presented at the Oscars, Jenny says this is proof we still have a long way to go.

"It is apparent ... how far behind adults with disabilities (are) in the push for diversity and inclusion across all industries when this is the first time ever in history that a person with Down syndrome has taken the stage at the Oscars. Zack and Shia did a fantastic job together, and they showed us all just how easy and simple it is to include each other and embrace each others differences in true friendship and community," she said.

"My hope is to see a day where this special moment like we witnessed yesterday will become more normalized in our society, and we will see representation of people with developmental disabilities in Hollywood and the media on a regular basis."

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