Ford and Mellon Foundations Announce 2022 Disability Futures Fellows

Nasreen Alkhateeb, a filmmaker who has documented Kamala Harris on the campaign trail; Antoine Hunter, also known as Purple Fire Crow, a Deaf, Indigenous choreographer whose work has been performed around the world; and Tee Franklin, who is writing new Harley Quinn comics for DC, are among the second class of disability futures fellows, the Ford and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations announced on Wednesday.

The fellowship provides 20 disabled U.S. artists, filmmakers and journalists with unrestricted $50,000 grants administered by the arts funding group United States Artists. They are chosen by peer advisers who are themselves disabled artists. The fellowship supports people at all stages of their careers, and the class includes emerging and established artists.

One grant recipient, Corbett Joan O’Toole, 70, an activist and historian who was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” said, “I’m really shocked.”

“I do a lot of good work, but it’s not necessarily the prominent stuff,” she said. “It’s networking, providing resources for people, filling in the gaps.”

This is the second class of fellows in the program, which was established in 2020 as part of an effort to increase the visibility and elevate the voices of disabled artists. Originally conceived as an 18-month initiative, the foundations announced last year that they would commit an additional $5 million to support the program through 2025.

About one in four adults in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dickie Hearts, a Deaf, gay and BIPOC actor and filmmaker known for his recurring role in Netflix’s San Francisco-set series “Tales of the City,” said he hoped to use the funding to produce a live version of an original concept musical in American Sign Language that he had directed remotely on Zoom during the pandemic.

“I would love to see more deaf people behind the scenes, as well as onscreen,” he said in a video interview this week, which was conducted with the assistance of an ASL interpreter. “I want to see more creative executives, deaf directors,” executive producers and writers.

The grants offer flexible compensation options. The money can be distributed in a lump sum, in payments or even be deferred, depending on what works best for the artist.

Also among the recipients are Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actor who recently portrayed the Lady in Purple in the Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf”; JJJJJerome Ellis, a composer and poet who has a stutter (the reason for the repeated J’s in his name) and produces work about stuttering and Blackness; and Wendy Lu, a journalist and disability rights advocate who was recently hired as an editor by The New York Times.

“I’m working on a book that’s coming out next year, playing concerts again, dancing more — it’s so exciting to be back working live,” said Ellis, 33, who about a year and a half ago moved back to Virginia, where he grew up, from New York.

The inaugural class of fellows included the choreographer Alice Sheppard, the filmmaker Jim LeBrecht and the journalist Alice Wong.

The Ford and Mellon Foundations are planning to invite people in the philanthropy and cultural sectors to learn from fellows and disability arts leaders at a symposium in New York in 2025, and fellows will be invited to a networking retreat in 2024.

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