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Krystal's Big Break
Could my daughter, who has Down syndrome, succeed in her first major role?

Hollywood's doors opening for actors with disabilities
LA Times, April 7, 2008
Nick Daley, who has Prader-Willi Syndrome, guest starred on 'Saving Grace.' Blair Williamson, who has Down syndrome, got a nose job on 'Nip/Tuck.' They're among those with developmental disabilities who want to be stars — and are getting a shot at acting.

Disabled performers hone their craft at Inglewood studio:
Performing Arts Studio West is a unique training and career management center.

The Lanterman Act changed life for people with developmental disabilities:
It's a cultural shift: Since the '70s, people with autism, cerebral palsy and the like now have access to centers that help them learn skills
and, if possible, get and hold jobs.

ABC Family Channel “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”

Feature Film “Mr Blue Sky”
The first love story about a woman with Down syndrome and a man with out a disability. Ventura, CA…

Michael Johnson, Painter

Jimmy English cast in video for Taco Bell Corp.



Krystal's Big Break

Could my daughter, who has Down syndrome, succeed in her first major role?

By Madeleine Greey
Reader's Digest, July, 2008, p. 50
Photographed by Edward Gajdel

Landing a movie part is the stuff of dreams. It’s a heady, narcissistic affair accompanied by chauffeured cars, private trailers and teams of hair, makeup and wardrobe professionals fussing and fixing. The lights go on, cameras start rolling and all the action is focused on you, you…you! Movie-star treatment spoils some people rotten, but it can also be the most uplifting, rewarding and self-esteembuilding experience of a lifetime—or so it was for my 19-year-old daughter, Krystal, who has Down syndrome.

It wasn’t just dreams that helped Krystal land the role of Phoebe in the TV-movie version of the bestseller The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. The years of Saturday theatre classes and the countless hours spent in lively animation, talking to the full-length mirror in her bedroom, certainly helped. And her four-foot-seven, 72-pound frame didn’t hurt. When we got an email last October from the Down Syndrome Association of Toronto, announcing the audition, it was clear Lifetime Network was looking for two different girls to play Phoebe—one as a 13-year-old, the other as a young woman. But when Krystal walked into the Toronto audition, ready to read for the young-woman role, director Mick Jackson eyed her tiny frame and asked her to read both parts. “We knew she was the one,” executive producer Howard Braunstein revealed to me on the set one day in Halifax. “We’d searched across North America. When Krystal walked in, we knew we’d found our actor.”

Mothers live for words like that; little did I know, there’d be other bonuses. Shortly after Krystal landed the role, the script arrived by FedEx. What happened next was a thrill I’ll never forget: She ripped open the package and read all 95 pages in two days. Teachers tell me Krystal has the reading ability of a Grade 4 student. She’d never enjoyed reading and had never finished a story longer than a few pages—until this one arrived.

I felt an odd mix of pride and trepidation when, partway through her reading, she asked, “Why did the father not want a baby with Down syndrome?” I told her people in those days just didn’t understand how great a kid with Down syndrome was. That seemed to appease her until, pages later, her hands clenched and her face flushed with anger: “Why did he call Phoebe a mongoloid and say she has half a brain? That’s wrong!”

“Yes, it’s wrong,” I said. “And it’s going to be your job acting in this movie to show everyone what a big mistake he made.”

But could she do it? Learning all her lines was going to be a challenge, so we all pitched in. Her dad coached her for scenes, cracking her up with his silly imitations of the other characters and exuding that natural calm he possesses, soothing her when stress levels climbed. And as little brothers are wont to do, 14-year-old Nick offered tips and critiques from the sidelines. But he also patiently explained some words she didn’t know and was quick to praise. As long as she understood the scene and read through it a few times, her memory kicked in—like a lock.

This surprised us—and others, too. “Not only did she know her lines,” recalls actor Hugh Thompson, “but she knew mine and Emily Watson’s, too!”

Naturally, Krystal was a little nervous her first day on the set, her giddy excitement palpable the moment she met co-actors Watson and Thompson in the hair-and-makeup trailer. “Hey, wow! You are Emily Watson!” she gushed to the Academy Award nominee. And to Thompson, she chirped, “You are my stepfather in the movie, and I will see you and Emily in bed and say, ‘How come you two are so lazy today?’ And you,” she said, pointing her finger at him, “you’ll be Al and you’ll say, ‘Shall we tell her?’” Being cool is simply not in Krystal’s operating manual and bluntness is her natural default.

Thompson laughed and shot back, “I hate it when other actors know my lines better than I do!” then made a goofy face that had Krystal instantly doubled over in laughter. A few minutes later, Watson sagely suggested they run through their lines a few times before the three of them went on set.

A bystander to this exchange, all my negative stereotypes of self-centred movie stars were shattered. Krystal was not only put at ease in her first hour with these pros but was made to feel welcome, important and valued.

Next challenge: the director. When Krystal auditioned, I had concerns about Mick Jackson and whether or not he would “get” her; he used several lofty words that just aren’t in her vocabulary. His demeanour was serious and stiff. After I discussed my concerns with Krystal’s agent, she asked the production company if they would supply a coach, someone who could run interference between the director and Krystal, smoothing any miscommunication and, hopefully, harvesting Krystal’s best performance.

In the end, I was asked to be my daughter’s coach—a dubious arrangement for any mother of a teen daughter. All my concerns fell by the wayside the moment Krystal first stepped onto the set to work under Jackson’s tutel age. We’d been chauffeured the three-minute drive from the film base camp (where the production trailers are parked) to the set (a nice house in a quaint residential district of Halifax).

We crossed the threshold of the screenplay’s so-called “Pittsburgh House” and were bombarded by an army of mostly male 20-somethings dressed in black and sporting headsets. They were busily working in the narrow house; cables and wires were everywhere, and huge, hot lights glared from above. Krystal was whisked into the fray by an AD (assistant director), and I was shoved into the “green room,” where I stood temporarily transfixed, staring at a canvas chair with the name “Phoebe” written across the back in large black letters. Outside the door I heard someone yell, “Rolling!” I felt like a caged animal, desperate to see Krystal’s first moment before the camera, yet too intimidated to open the door and walk smack into a film-in-the-making. A member of the hair and-makeup department walked in, reached into her black bag, pulled out a hand-held TV that picked up a direct channel to the set’s camera and motioned me over.

I looked at the screen and gasped. Before me was perhaps the most iconic moviemaking scene I could have imagined: a man holding open then snapping shut a clapperboard inscribed with a film title—in this case, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. The next instant, my daughter was running down the hallway in her wacky, kind of lopsided way, her face set with determination and framed by wigged pigtails bobbing in the air.

“Cut!” called Jackson, followed by, “Nice job, Krystal. Now do it again!” And she did, perhaps four or five times, before moving on to scene after scene, working right through to midnight. Cut off from the action, all I needed to hear was “good work, Krystal” coming from Jackson to know that interference from
this stage mother was not required. In fact, Krystal was holding her own, obediently listening to instructions from this tall, grey-bearded man with the soft voice, then adding her own riff by reaching her short little arms up, placing her hands squarely on his shoulders, looking him in the eyes and
placating him with, “I got it, Mick!”

In fact, I started to wonder who was directing whom by Krystal’s third day on the set. It was 10 p.m. and she and her screen parents were working well into overtime. She was standing in the “kitchen,” drying dishes and delivering what was one of her most demanding speaking parts. I was watching the monitor alongside Jackson when he turned to me and said, “She’s not coming through clearly. I’m having trouble understanding what she’s saying.”

“I know,” I agreed. “She’s really tired. I can’t do a thing to help her speak any better.” Jackson huddled with Watson, who suggested some line changes: Watson could deliver some of Phoebe’s message, and all Krystal had to do was mutter “humph” and “yeah, right.”

“Can she make this change?” Jackson asked me. We both knew she could, but would our little starlet be willing to lose some of her valued lines? “Will you tell her?” asked Jackson, looking uncharacteristically vulnerable.

“Are you kidding?” I replied.

While my daughter has chutzpah, she knows when she’s beaten. As Jackson gently delivered the news, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Whatever.”

That was easy compared to her most challenging scene in the movie, which required very little talking but lots of sexual innuendo. “Awkward” was the word Krystal spat out when anyone asked her how she felt about a passionate kiss with her onscreen boyfriend, Robert. It turns out Robert was not just
another actor, but Krystal’s childhood friend Dylan Harman. Krystal was nervous but game to act out the scene—an attitude I found remarkable, considering she’d never kissed a boy.

It was all so surreal. There sat my wig-adorned daughter, decked out in a 1970s mod skirt and go-go boots, groping and necking with her friend Dylan as a crew of a dozen stood there, watch ing her first kiss, her coming of age—a moment that seemed sacredly private to me but was being captured on celluloid nonetheless.

“They look so subdued,” complained Jackson after the first take. “Can you put more life into it?” he asked the pair.

They learned quickly, each time coming out of the embrace looking hot and disoriented as Watson’s character chided, “Phoebe, Robert, that’s enough!”

The lines that followed came naturally for Krystal. Like most girls her age, she dreams of getting married, and often struggles to assert her independence from parental grip. “It’s not fair!” she shouted at the end of the onscreen argument, stomping her feet and repeating a complaint that has echoed through our household.

Life, we all know, isn’t fair. Kids with Down syndrome struggle against the odds to learn to read and write, make friends, understand how to use money and talk clearly enough that people won’t ask for repetitions again and again. Almost daily they fight nearcrippling frustration, sensing how different they are and wondering how being “normal” can fall into others’ laps.

My husband and I wish a world of opportunity for Krystal, but we recognize her limitations. We hope she’ll find something that will captivate her enough to work hard at. For Krystal, that’s acting. Not the most reliable career, but worth shooting for as long as the phone rings with news of auditions.

If anyone had said when my daughter was born that she’d star in a made-for-TV movie, I would’ve laughed the words away. Doctors said she might not learn to walk, let alone get out of diapers or feed herself. But I’ve learned that doctors don’t always know best, that people with Down syndrome generally are able to do more than anyone imagined, and that dreams are worth dreaming.

As I accompanied Krystal in a limousine on her way home from her momentous movie making experience, I looked at the tiny dynamo sitting beside me, plugged into her iPod and writing a screenplay aptly titled The Memory Keeper’s Daughter 2, and thought the same thought I had when she was born: Let her show me.

Hollywood's doors opening for actors with disabilities

Nick Daley, who has Prader-Willi Syndrome, guest starred on 'Saving Grace.' Blair Williamson, who has Down syndrome, got a nose job on 'Nip/Tuck.' They're among those with developmental disabilities who want to be stars — and are getting a shot at acting.

Published April 7, 2008 in the Los Angeles Times Health Section - Page F1

By Susan Brink, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

NICK DALEY, 28, has Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by short stature, low muscle tone and mild retardation. He's also been in 17 films and 11 television shows, including a guest-starring role in last season's TNT series "Saving Grace."

"If I were a star, I would be on all over the world," he says. "I would be mobbed by fans. People would see my name and get my autograph."

Blair Williamson, 28, is an actor with Down syndrome. He has been in clothing commercials for Macy's, was once murdered in a "CSI" episode and had a nose job on a "Nip/Tuck" episode.

"I love being an actor," he says. "It makes me feel good inside me."

Daley and Williamson are among a growing number of people with developmental disabilities -- including Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, mild retardation and seizure disorders -- who want to be in the movies, or on TV. They want to make records, or be in commercials. They want what a lot of people in this town want: to be stars.

And some of them are getting close.

Their aspirations are a small part of a sea change in thinking about adults with disabilities since 1973, when California passed landmark legislation known as the Lanterman Act (updated in 1977). It granted services (and funding for them) to people with disabilities to let them live as independent a life as possible.

Since that time, people with disabilities slowly and persistently have paved a new way for themselves, allowing society to grow accustomed to seeing them bagging groceries, running flower stands, serving coffee or stocking shelves. "Our constituents want to work, to be active members of society, to earn money," says Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, vice president of Easter Seals Southern California.

And over the decades since the Lanterman Act was passed, people with developmental disabilities are not only coming out of hiding, they're also showing up on the big and small screens as casting directors discover the obvious: People with disabilities who have acting talent can actually play people with disabilities.

According to statistics from the Media Access Office, the state's liaison between performers with disabilities and the media, in 2001, the office submitted 1,087 performers' résumés, which resulted in 64 entertainment jobs. In 2002, the office submitted 961 résumés, resulting in 166 hires. Since then, says Gloria Castañeda, the office's program director, staff limitations have prevented updated statistics.

It's still a rough road for the 10% of Screen Actors Guild members who have a disability. But for talent agents such as Carmel Wynne, who places actors with developmental disabilities, this client pool is becoming an easier sell.

"Why shouldn't more people be able to turn on the TV and see people who look like them?" says Media Access Office volunteer Gail Williamson of North Hills, Blair Williamson's mother.

Keeping it real

Probably the easiest casting call is when the role is for a character with a unique physiognomy. "It's a slam dunk with Down syndrome," says Wynne, director of talent at Performing Arts Studio West, a state-funded acting, music, dance and production studio for people with developmental disabilities in Inglewood (see related story). She's referring to the classic facial features associated with the syndrome. "More nontraditional disabilities are harder," she says.

Although the viewing public has come to accept story lines about people with disabilities, typically, non-disabled actors get the roles, as in "My Left Foot," "As Good As It Gets," and "Rain Man." The 1989 television series "Life Goes On" was a breakthrough -- a prime-time drama about a family with two children, one of whom had Down syndrome. In that show, Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome, played Corky Thatcher, the child with Down syndrome.

John Frank Levey, now senior vice president of casting for John Wells Productions, worked with Burke -- his first experience with an actor with a disability. "Chris Burke came into the network test, a dehumanizing experience for any actor," Levey says. "Rather than being disarmed, he disarmed everybody and went around the room giving hugs."

Over the years, Levey has cast actors who are deaf, blind, HIV-positive and developmentally disabled, with an eye on keeping it real. "Authenticity is an important part of good film and television," he says.

Levey cast Nick Weiland, 29, who has Down syndrome and is a Performing Arts Studio West client, in the role of Peter Fonda's son in an "ER" episode last season. Levey was impressed with the actor. "Nicholas was a delight on the set," he says. "He was prepared, open and flexible. He was an actor."

Just last week, another actor who trained at Performing Arts Studio West, Luke Zimmerman, 29, scored a coup -- four episodes in an as-yet-untitled ABC Family network project created by Brenda Hampton, creator and executive producer for the TV drama "7th Heaven." The new project auditioned non-disabled actors for the role of a disabled older brother in a drama about a family of teenagers but ended up casting Zimmerman, who has Down syndrome, for the recurring role soon after he read, according to John Paizis, founder and director of the acting studio.

For Nick Daley, acting has been a dream since he was a kid. He watched hundreds of TV shows and movies, imagining himself in countless roles. "When I was 10 or 11, I would imitate the people," he says. His goal was to become a professional actor, and his training at the studio, along with industry connections cultivated by Wynne, helped him snag his TV and movie roles.

"Nick was incredibly professional," says Liz Dean, casting director for the "Saving Grace" episode in which Daley worked with Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter, the series' lead. "A lot of times actors will come in -- these are actors without disabilities -- who haven't memorized their lines, haven't made strong choices about the characters.

"Nick came with very strong choices about how the character was feeling at each moment. When I brought him in to read in front of the producers, he was even stronger. Rarely do you see someone get better for the producers. He's an actor who is well trained."

The ultimate goal for a casting director, Dean says, is finding the best actor for the role without regard to the performer's personal circumstances. Actors with disabilities have certain advantages in playing characters with similar disabilities. They don't have to worry about how to portray the actual physical or mental challenges. "They live it every day. So they can just act the role," she says. "It's always better to start with the actual disability. Otherwise, there's something that rings false."

In "Saving Grace" Daley played a mentally challenged young man with epilepsy who's suspected of murder. "I wasn't myself," he says. "I was a different person. It feels like you're on a different planet."

Paizis saw Daley's transformation into the character. "He was playing someone who was more low functioning than he actually is, someone more simplistic," Paizis says. On the set, he watched as Daley took a few minutes to concentrate. "He just put his head down. Paused. When he came up, he was a different guy," he says. "I had goose bumps."

Paizis finds it troubling when "normal" actors play a character with a developmental disability. "It's difficult for me to watch," he says. "Almost always, they take on childlike aspects. In reality, these guys [with intellectual disabilities] work very, very hard to maintain an adult persona."

People with a variety of disabilities continue to break new ground, sometimes in ways that startle as they illuminate. Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress who won an Academy Award in 1987 for her role in "Children of a Lesser God," is a contestant on this season's "Dancing With the Stars," waltzing and fox trotting to a silent, internal beat. But clearly there are limits to appropriate casting, and many performers with certain disabilities will likely play characters who have those disabilities. "It would be very hard to have the idea that Hamlet should be somebody with Down's," Levey says. "But within the realities of the disability, the authenticity moves the crew, moves the other actors and creates a great vibe for the audience."

It's tough for anyone to break into show business, as shown by a 2003 report by the Screen Actors Guild. About 1,200 of the guild's 120,000 members have a disability of any sort, mental or physical. About one-third of those actors with disabilities reported working in a theatrical or television production that year. That's worse than the 73% of white, non-disabled actors who found work, but better than the 23% of non-disabled actors of color.

Even if the clients at Performing Arts Studio West and other studios don't get their big break, the hard work can have other, very practical benefits, says Gail Williamson, who founded the website Down Syndrome in Arts and Media. Her son gets acting training at Born to Act Players, a Valley Glen theater company for performers with or without disabilities. She says he gained self-confidence and improved his speech through his acting career, which began with a Proctor & Gamble commercial when he was 10.

Self-confidence is a plus in any job market. "People with disabilities learn some amazing life skills through drama," Williamson says. "They learn body awareness. They learn to stay in the moment. They learn to listen so they respond appropriately. They use their speech. And all of these skills translate into any occupation, any social situation. They learn life skills to become employable people."

That's the goal. People who learn to listen, to show up on time and to speak up for themselves are more successful in jobs and in society, says Mike Danneker, executive director of the Westside Regional Center, part of the state system that funds programs for adults with autism, cerebral palsy and mental retardation. "Our push is to get people trained so they can take the next step to the real world, rather than keeping them in a workshop for 40 years," he says.

That might mean a program that concentrates on social skills or language skills. Or a more sheltered program in which people create jewelry or art to sell. Or it might mean a studio where people hone skills in acting, music and dance.

A few years ago, jobs for people with mental disabilities were largely limited to the fields of food or janitorial services. "Now they're in banks, hospitals, law firms," Danneker says. "We [social services professionals] used to be part of the problem. We thought they couldn't do much because they were, you know, 'retarded.' When we raised the bar, and changed our mentality, they took off. We're not going to have brain surgeons come out of our system. But our folks, even with very low IQs, can do a lot of stuff, if given half a chance."

And given a full chance, dreams soar. "Hopefully," Daley says, "I'll win an Academy Award some day."

Disabled performers hone their craft at Inglewood studio

Performing Arts Studio West is a unique training and career management center.

By Susan Brink, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer susan.brink@latimes.com
Published April 7, 2008, Los Angeles Times. Health Section, Page F1

"Anybody here ever have a dog?" Raymond Parker, an actor, stand-up comic, writer and acting teacher, calls out to his class. The hands of roughly 20 of the 30 students fly up. "Did you ever wonder what your dog was thinking?" he asks.

Let's face it. Who hasn't?

So he tells the three students on stage that they're all playing dogs, two-legged dogs. "Don't close your mind," he says. "Show me what they're thinking."

It's as though a light bulb goes on over the head of student Nick Weiland, and he laughs, and says, "Yeah. I love it," and starts claiming his territory on stage as royalty: Prince, king of the dogs.

From the curb, 438 S. Market St. in Inglewood looks like a warehouse, with barred and heavily curtained windows and dingy glass on the front door that allows only scant light inside. The building is uninviting.

But walk through to the open space inside, and it's a hive of cheerful activity. About 30 people are practicing dance steps in front of a wall of mirror. In the back room, another 30 or so are taking turns at improvisation skits. And in the tiny music studio, a couple of students are listening to chords and dreaming up lyrics.

The place is Performing Arts Studio West, a privately owned and state-funded acting, music, dance and production studio staffed by entertainment-industry professionals. The studio's clients are people with intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, mild retardation and seizure disorders. It's the realized dream of John Paizis and Randy Klinenberg, longtime friends and entertainment professionals.

Over the decades -- especially when between jobs -- the two of them fantasized. "We wanted our own studio," Klinenberg says.

Now they've got it, though not exactly the studio they envisioned. Rather, it's the one that opportunity presented, and they say it's even better than the dream.

Paizis is the founder and director, and Klinenberg is the managing director of the studio, a training and career management center for performers with intellectual disabilities. It's a one-of-a kind shop in the entertainment and disabilities services industries: Where other centers in the county and the state might have music or dance therapy, the Inglewood studio has daily acting, dance and music training. It has a production studio to record the songs clients write and a management team that places people in jobs in the entertainment industry.

Able to accommodate 60 clients, it always has a waiting list.

"It's the only place like it in the country, possibly the world," Paizis says.

Show business was always Klinenberg's career. He was a radio deejay, a sound engineer, a videographer, a rock 'n' roll band manager. Paizis acted in summer stock theater in Connecticut, had rock 'n' roll bands called Kid Twist and World Affairs and once was the voice of a Jim Henson ostrich puppet.

But Paizis often depended on day jobs to pay the rent -- and those bread-and-butter jobs reflected his other love: working with people with disabilities. He was a special-education aide, then an instructor and, finally, an administrator at a day program. His mother had been a special-education teacher; his cousin had a developmental disability. "I know what this population can accomplish," he says. "They respond in such a positive way when you treat them with respect."

So in 1997, when the day program Paizis administered shut down, the old studio dream resurfaced, prodded with some urgency by his recent joblessness. He came up with a proposal for the long-imagined studio, only this one would be for actors, dancers and musicians with developmental disabilities.

Mike Danneker, executive director of the Westside Regional Center, which is responsible for programs for people with cerebral palsy, mental retardation and autism spectrum disorders, loved the idea. "John went from training people and having a day program to getting people jobs in the industry," Danneker says. "Sometimes I just sit here and scratch my head and say, 'My God, how does he do it?' He's not just giving them something to do, singing 'Kumbaya.' We're talking about getting them a job." Sometimes a serious job, such as a role on "ER" or "Saving Grace."

Except Paizis, no one who works at the studio had previously worked with people who are mentally challenged. "When John put this together -- I'll be honest with you -- I was put off by this population," Klinenberg says. He'd never been around people with developmental disabilities, and the little he knew about them largely reflected society's discomfort with those who look and act differently from what's deemed "normal."

Meeting aspiring, disabled performers put an end to that view. "I'm so attracted to people with talent, by seeing something inside their soul, " he says. "These people are talented."

The program began with five clients. They practiced song, dance and improvisation. They occasionally went out to senior citizen centers, where a confined and isolated audience always appreciated anyone who came in.

As their numbers grew, they staged their own productions. Word got out that the performers were good. Growing numbers of disabled performers, or people who wanted to learn, wanted in on the program.

Meanwhile, Paizis expanded the staff. "I wanted people who didn't have a lot of prior experience with this population," he says. "I wanted people who had experience with the industry. "

He added as music director Joe Seabe, a songwriter who once had a band called SicVicki. About 50 of his songs can be heard on various television shows and movie soundtracks.

Together, Seabe and the class write songs. He plays a few chords. People call out how it makes them feel. Then they look for a hook, a theme. "They just start throwing down lyrics," he says, the same process any professional songwriting team uses.

Making it all pay off is Carmel Wynne, director of talent. She came to L.A. from North Carolina to become an actress. Now she makes sure the studio's clients have professional head shots and résumés. She monitors casting notices and arranges auditions. She, or other staff members, stick with the clients during auditions and filming. "They come in with their own entourage, " she says.

Increasingly, she finds herself answering incoming calls from people looking for talent.

"This is the happiest place ever," Seabe says. He knows his words might feed a kind of saccharin stereotype about people who are mentally challenged. But he can't help it, he says. It's how he feels.

"Every morning I come through that door, and I get greeted and hugged," he says. "You can't bottle that. It's real. It's all real."

The Lanterman Act changed life for people with developmental disabilities

It's a cultural shift: Since the '70s, people with autism, cerebral palsy and the like now have access to centers that help them learn skills and, if possible, get and hold jobs.

By Susan Brink, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 7, 2008

In the last century, people who are mentally disabled have gone from family attics, to institutions, to day centers, to finally mingling with "normaloids," a term used by Mike Danneker, executive director of the Westside Regional Center, part of the state system that funds programs for adults with autism, cerebral palsy and mental disabilities.

"Professionals in the business used to pat them on the head, plug them into institutions and programs and have them do things no one would otherwise ever do," he says. "We would have them string beads, or put pegs in holes, and then tell them to tear it apart and do it all over again."

Then came the Lanterman Act, passed in California in 1973 and revised in 1977. It gave people with developmental disabilities the same rights and responsibilities guaranteed for everyone, and set up a statewide system of regional centers to advocate for and protect those rights. Among them is the right to live and work in the least restrictive environment possible.

For people with the most severe disabilities, that could still mean life at a state institution. But for most people, that isn't necessary. "The majority of people with retardation have mild retardation," says Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, vice president of Easter Seals Southern California.

A network of 21 regional centers, with seven in L.A. County, is funded by the state and contracts with providers to help clients with housing, transportation and healthcare. The centers also help clients learn skills and, if possible, get and hold jobs. Depending on the client, that might mean communication, social or work skills. Or it could mean work in a sheltered program, making and selling crafts, for example.

Services, for the most part, have gone beyond meaningless bead and peg exercises, says Pompa-Craven. And the cultural shift has gotten many people with mental disabilities out of isolated day programs and into the real world.

In California, nearly 11% of working-age adults, or about 2.3 million people, have a disability, and about 4%, or 847,000 people, have a mental disability, according to a 2006 report by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Demographics and Statistics at Cornell University. About 37% of disabled adults (27% of adults with a mental disability) are employed full or part time, compared with 77% of adults without disabilities, according to the report.

ABC Family Channel “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”

Think “Juno” meets “7th Heaven” by “7th Heaven” creator Brenda Hampton.

Featuring Luke Zimmerman an actor with Down syndrome and student at Performing Arts Studio West in a recurring role as the lead character Grace’s older brother Tom Bowman.

more about Luke...

Secret Life of an American Teenager

Feature Film “Mr Blue Sky”

The first love story about a woman with Down syndrome and a man with out a disability. Ventura, CA… The feature film “Mr. Blue Sky” completed filming in beautiful Ventura, California in August 2006. The film is a labor of love by writer and executive producer Tom Lee. Lee has woven an unconventional love story of an exceptional young woman born with Down syndrome Andra, played skillfully by actress Ashley Wolfe who does indeed have Down syndrome. Ashley’s credits include “Third Watch” and the television film “Jewel” starring Farrah Fawcett. Andra’s love interest Greg Adams, a man who does not have a disability, is played by Chaney Kley who has many guest starring credits to his name including “CSI,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the feature “Legally Blonde.” Andra’s mother Pam is played by Ashley’s real mom, actress Nancy Wolfe who not only plays mom to Ashley as Andra as an adult, but also Lauren Potter who plays young Andra. Greg’s dad, John Adams is played by Richard Karn, best known as the current host of “Family Feud” and as Al, Tim the Tool Man Taylor’s side kick, on the long running show “Home Improvement.”

This film like any good film has its cute factor. Youngster Katelyn Reed age 3 who also has Down syndrome plays Corey Green and is so cute you can hardly stand it. She not only had every crew member wrapped around her finger, but she also bonded with on screen sister Haley Ramm who plays Jessica Green. Haley, a wonderful actress and all around sweet girl has a long list of credits including playing Kelly Beardsley on the recent remake of the film “Yours, Mine and Ours’ starring Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo.

The cast and crew became a family and worked like clockwork under the competent direction of Sarah Gurfield. Her set was professional, happy and accepting of all. The last week of filming brought in many background performers for a scene in an auditorium. Four adults with DS were a part of that group, Briana Barlow, Kevin Ewing, Susie Schallert and Blair Williamson. All the background performers were made to feel as important as they really are.

more about Mr. Blue Sky...

Briana Barlow, Ashley Wolfe, Katelyn Reed, Haley Ramm, Sarah Gurfield, Susie Schallert, Blair Williamson and Kevin Ewing on the set of
“Mr. Blue Sky"

Gail Williamson joins Katelyn for a little stick hockey between scenes on “Mr. Blue Sky.”



Michael Johnson, Painter

Michael Johnson began his interest in art when he was 10 years old. In a peer mentoring program Michael’s young mentor taught him to draw basic shapes on a computer. At home he had a workbench with an endless role of butcher paper where he drew with markers independently. Michael also was fascinated with his mother’s work with stained glass and she provided him with small, smooth pieces of glass that he played with on a light table, often piling them on top of each other to see what colors they would create. It seems now that Michael was teaching himself color theory.

Today, Michael is an accomplished artist who has his own business. He paints almost every day. He is often commissioned to do portraits of individuals and animals from photographs. He also has the ability

to capture the face of Down syndrome, something many professional artists are not able to do as well as Michael. Perhaps having Down syndrome and seeing it from the inside out, gives Michael and extra edge above other artists.

Please visit Michael’s website to see his work and learn more about him.

Some of Michael's paintings...

Jimmy English cast in video for Taco Bell Corp.

12 year old Jimmy English recently was cast in an in-house production for Taco Bell Corp. The film was a re-enactment of a story of a young man with Down syndrome who wanted to play baseball with boys in the park. His dad approached the boys and they agreed to let him play. As it turned out he came up to bat at a time that could win or lose the game. The pitcher purposely lobed the ball over the plate and he got a hit. Then the team, knowing they would lose the game, proceeded to throw the ball above each others’ heads to allow the boy to make the winning run. It was a very special day of victory for the young man that Jimmy portrayed.

In real life, Jimmy loves baseball and plays. He was so good that he had to act like it was more difficult for him. When he first got to set and warmed up he was hitting like a pro and the parents of the little league team he was playing with were cheering him on. It was a little difficult for him to tone it down when he was getting such a great response from the crowd.

Taco Bell Corp. was so pleased with Jimmy performance that they made him a bound book of all the still photos of the day with a special greeting from the President of the company.

Now, Taco Bell has a lovely film and an entire little league team and parents as well as crew members know a little more about the abilities of someone with Down syndrome. Way to go Jimmy!