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Community-Based Research: IDA’s Ranell Shubert on Launching the Nonfiction Media Makers with Disabilities Survey

By Catalina Combs

A banner-style event flyer announcing the "Nonfiction Access Initiative." On the right side of the image, curved, circular objects are intertwined with each other in dark blue, light green, and grey colors. Below the heading, white and light green text over a blue background proclaims, "JOIN THE MOVEMENT for direct support for media makers with disabilities!"

During Ranell Shubert’s first eight-year span on staff at IDA, she has had the opportunity to work across many departments, giving her a unique perspective of the Association as a whole. From IDA Awards coordinator and coordinating education programs to overseeing the awards competition and education department, Ranell was also an integral part of the organizing team with Getting Real from its beginnings in 2014 and was the lead programmer for GR 2018. Ranell has since returned to IDA as the Nonfiction Access Initiative (NAI) Funds Program manager.

IDA developed NAI to serve our mission of supporting a thriving and inclusive documentary culture. NAI uses the inclusive definition of disability developed by IDA’s leading advising partner, FWD-Doc: “This is about identity, not rules to keep people in or out. This means physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, chronic health conditions, mental health, blindness, low vision, D/deaf, and/or neurodiverse; we welcome visible disabilities, invisible disabilities, and everything in between. Do you identify as disabled? If the answer is yes, then that is all that matters.”

We sat down with Ranell to hear about her experience with disability, NAI’s process of surveying media makers with disabilities, and the hopes for the Nonfiction Media Makers with Disabilities Survey now that it’s complete and ready for responses from the community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. We have provided an audio version of the interview below for access.

Click to Listen to the Audio Interview  

DOCUMENTARY: What is your connection to the disability community?

RANELL SHUBERT: Like many folks who identify as an ally, I actually like the term co-conspirator better; my first introduction to disability was through a family member. My mother had an acquired disability that she received later in life from a car accident, and she was quadriplegic. Her employer, at the time, didn't make accommodations for her to continue at her job, nor did she see it was a possibility for herself. Before her accident, she used to travel across the U.S. to do speaking engagements at conferences and large meetings in the auto industry. But those spaces and opportunities were no longer accessible to her. Her job made no effort to make those spaces accessible. I know that she loved that work deeply. I could tell that the loss of that job dramatically impacted who she thought she was, how she saw herself, and her value in the world.

My background with my mother was a big motivator for me, along with when we were called out by Jim LeBrecht in 2016 about the lack of visibility and acknowledgment of the disability community at Getting Real '16. These experiences led me to pursue my work as the lead programmer for Getting Real '18, working with Jim to organize the first convening of disabled filmmakers in Los Angeles and to push the organization IDA to be more accessible to creatives with disabilities as a whole. For the longest time, I only identified as a caregiver, which was my role with my mother. At that time, I never really recognized my challenges and how I interacted in the world. It was when I stepped away from working at IDA for a couple of years and began working with the folks at the 1IN4 Coalition. I was the only person on the team that didn't identify with having a disability at that time. That judgment-free environment helped me connect with what kind of support allows me to show up fully as myself. The truth was, I had been, and have, experiencing dyslexia my entire life. I felt like I needed to hide that in order to be taken seriously professionally. I did what most folks who feel uncomfortable asking for accommodations do, and I compensated.

Going back, when I was working in that supportive environment, it was 1IN4 that made me realize that I also deserve to have the opportunity not just to get by but also to thrive. I started asking for accommodations instead of just exhausting myself by compensating, which is why I've asked to do the blog post in this format. So, thanks for providing accommodation.

D: What is NAI? And why is it important?

RS: NAI, or the Nonfiction Access Initiative, is a regrant fund for nonfiction media makers from the disability community, made possible by the Ford Foundation. In addition, it is a movement aimed at narrative change through building power and community and increasing opportunities for nonfiction media makers who identify as disabled.

Its primary focus is to get funds to makers in the most valuable way possible. We want to connect these makers with industry and provide career development programming. Along with that, we hope to set a standard of support that then gets emulated by the field. In the future, as a legacy organization, we also want to support other disability-focused organizations in strengthening their infrastructures.

Why does NAI exist? Well, documentary has benefited from the stories about disability over the years. The nonfiction industry has only recently focused on supporting the makers with disabilities and acknowledging the lack of disability participation in media maker career development programs and funds. But, the support is very limited. It often doesn't take into account accessibility, the specific mechanisms for providing the best way to support, or the complexity for some folks in the disability community on how they can accept financial support that also doesn't negatively impact their livelihood. When we talk about access and accessibility, it's a very broad term. Disability is not a monolith, and everyone's experience with disability and access is very different. It's really important to have funds and support programs that can address opportunities for support in a more individual way.

D: How does the advisory committee come into play?

RS: Along with our primary partner, which is FWD-Doc, they're a significant partner around everything we do for an NAI; we have assembled an advisory committee that is guiding the research and development process, along with our survey co-designers, Research Action Design, or Rad Cat. The advisory committee is made up of disability-led organizations from different sectors of the media from around the world. Also included in that are several practitioners or media makers with disabilities themselves. While building the survey, which we'll discuss briefly, we also brought people together. As part of the research process, we built a community amongst our advisory committee, and we made time for them to share resources and hacks for navigating the industry while being able to gather and think with others who share similar values and experiences.

D: What research process are these people and teams doing to get the most and accomplish the most?

RS: Many programs only use data collection and internal demographic work to serve their programs. We have a different approach. We're doing a community-based research process. It scans the landscape and gathers what other folks have already been doing to determine what further research is needed.

Our process is also based on radical transparency. All data in the research will be available in an open-source format for others around the world to use for their disability work. Our first research phase will be conducted through the disabled nonfiction media maker survey that focuses on nonfiction media makers with disabilities. We plan to continue doing additional research that will focus on industry and allies in the future.

D: Why a survey? What do you hope to accomplish with a survey?

RS: Thank you for that question. Before we begin building a process for giving out the funds, as part of NAI, to media makers in our community, we are embarking on this research process in collaboration with Rad Cat and our advisory committee. The survey aims to better understand the needs of the nonfiction media making community—where they're working, the best modes of support, and when the funds would benefit them most in their process as creators. Part of the survey is to better understand the challenges of what folks are navigating in the nonfiction space and how we can support breaking down those barriers with education and conversation. The survey is being created to better address the needs of the disabled filmmaking community. With our advisory committee, we created questions about the creative process, funding, accessibility, and disability justice. Once we've collected it all, this data will inform our granting process and the nonfiction media field to increase understanding and influence change. As I said earlier, it's an open-source data project that we hope everyone from the nonfiction media making community can benefit from. Not much data is currently available. The disability community is often left out of other major industry studies examining diversity and inclusion in the film industry despite being one of the most intersectional identities. It's the only identity everyone has the prospect of becoming a part of one day.

We do recognize that survey taking in the disability community has a complex relationship, particularly from a medical perspective which often has extracted personal information from the community in a very prescriptive and impersonal way that is mainly designed to benefit the survey creator. But again, we're taking a different approach to this survey. We've taken the time to understand what is the best way to ask these important questions from the community itself. We're asking them to guide us on what they see as important. We are deeply interested in how these questions make you feel and collecting quite a bit of personal narratives from the survey.

Quantitative data can be very powerful, but often it's not the whole picture, especially when it comes to the individual experience of disability. We asked our advisory committee members to be selfish about the questions they wanted to see and what would benefit them personally or their organizational work. We also hope that survey takers will provide personal testimony about their experiences with navigating this industry as a media maker with a disability, that we can share publicly to increase understanding and have a real human experience to support the data we received in the survey. Many people are behind the development of the survey with a multitude of identities and intersections of identities that have helped inform each question and why it's being asked. Collaboration and community have been a highly integral part of this process.

D: What’s next?

RS: We're trying to organize as many community survey-taking opportunities or activations as possible until the survey closes at the end of July. We recognize that some of the questions in the survey may bring up some untapped emotions and feelings that we hope being in the community will help to process as they come up. It's also a way for us to get to know more makers with disabilities and to show that there are supportive people behind these questions who sincerely appreciate what people have to share. We will be doing a member meeting with FWD-Doc on May 1 and presenting at the ReelAbilities Film Festival on May 2. We'll have surveys there for people to take if they'd like to take them in person. Or you can take it online as well.

We are also looking for additional partners to help us spread the word about the survey. Of course, we’re always looking for more folks to spread the word. Still, we're also happy to collaborate with any other groups or organizations that would like to host a survey activation for their community of media makers with disabilities. We are excited to partner with any festivals, conferences, etc., that would like to host us in sharing the survey results in the fall. We will use the survey information to design our own NAI Fund, which we will launch at Getting Real in 2024, and hosting sessions there to connect media makers with disabilities from the community with the industry. We haven't quite determined what that's going to be just yet. But that's part of what we want from the survey.

The survey will be a guiding light to how we design many of these programs and our fund. So, get in there! Please tell us what you want. Tell us what you need.

Catalina Combs is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator at IDA and a freelance journalist and film critic. The majority of her work can be found on the online publication She is a member of critics' associations, including the Critics Choice Association, African American Film Critics Association, the Online Association of Female Film Critics, and the Hollywood Critics Association, as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic.