Deborah Calla, Media Access Awards, Celebrating the Contributions of People With Disabilities

In this episode of OWC RADiO, host Cirina Catania, talks with Writer/Producer and activist, Deborah Calla. Deborah is CEO and Chair of the Media Access Awards (MAA), which she producers with Allan Rucker. The MAA is one of Hollywood’s major awards events originally created by Norman Lear and Fern Field, honoring people in the entertainment industry who advance the portrayal and employment of people with disabilities. 

In 2018, the MAA entered into a partnership with Easterseals of Southern California, the oldest US organization fighting for the rights and education of people with disabilities.

Deborah is the founder of Calla Productions, an international company working in the US and abroad to produce and develop feature films, television programming, commercial campaigns, web content and social activism.

Deborah and Cirina met years ago when Deborah served as the chair of the Producers Guild of America Diversity Committee (from 2004 to 2018). It was the Producer’s Guild mandate to create programs that would educate, promote and provide opportunities for diverse talent including the very successful Producers Guild of America Diversity Masters Workshop.

She is also the Brazil Chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.  In that capacity, Deborah lectures, creates workshops and presentations on gender equality, and the foundation’s work.

Deborah is the producer/writer of “Chicano Artists” (HBO Latino), “2019 Media Access Awards” (KNEKT TV), “2018 Media Access Awards” (KNEKT TV),  “A Beautiful Life” (Showtime), “You Got Served: Beat the World” (Sony), “Romeo & Juliet Redux” (Freeform),  “Stolen Loves” (Globo series adaptation for the US market),  “Carnival in Rio” (Travel Channel),  “Lost Zweig” (TV Cultura), “Dream House” (Paramount) among others. She is also a published author.

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In This Episode

  • 00:13 – Cirina introduces Deborah Calla, CEO and Chair of the Media Access Awards (MAA), and the founder of Calla Productions, an international company working to produce and develop feature films, television programming, commercial campaigns, web content, and social activism. 
  • 08:06 – Deborah talks about the 2019 Media Access Awards, and shares the winner of the Media Access Awards Visionary Award, the creator of The Good Doctor, David Shore.
  • 16:55 – Deborah tells the story of growing up in Brazil and starting her career in New York.. 
  • 22:31 – When and where to watch the 2020 Media Access Awards.
  • 31:22 – Visit Deborah Calla’s website,, to check out her work. And visit Media Access Awards’s social media accounts and website,, to stay updated.

Jump to Links and Resources


This is Cirina Catania with OWC Radio. I have a dear friend and longtime associate on several guild committees, Deborah Calla, on the line. She’s a writer, producer, and CEO of the very well respected Media Access Awards. Deb, thank you, I know you are swamped right now, but I appreciate you coming on the show. We have a lot to talk to people about.

Yes, we do. Thank you for having me on.

I’m laughing because I’m just really picturing what your days are like right now. Let’s talk about the Media Access Awards and tell people who might not know what they are and when you started them.

Well, actually, the Media Access Awards started In 1979, with Norman Lear and Fern Field, when they realized that people with disabilities had no representation. Now, if we take into consideration the largest minority in the country and obviously in the United States, are made out of people with disabilities having no representation has a huge impact socially, culturally, and financially. So, Norman Lear, who is the father of American television, and a very socially and politically engaged human being realized that there is something that needed to be done for disabilities, so they created the Media Access Awards, which was an awards event that honored writers, producers, director, actors, casting directors to advance the portrayal employment of people with disabilities. That ran to about 2007, people got older, and Norman is now 98, and he’s amazing. 

He’s still active. 

He is very much active. He just had the Netflix series that just ended, and he’s doing shows with Shonda Rhimes. He’s very, very active. So in 2007, it was the end of the Media Access Awards, and what happened at the time, I was the chair of the Diversity Committee of the Producers Guild of America, which was a position that I held for 14 years until 2018. And with my colleagues that were the chairs or the directors of diversities of the other unions and guilds, we had done one event on March 8, which was International Women’s Day, and it was called the Afghan Women’s Writing Stories. It was an amazing thing because it was the first time that the DGA, the Writers Guild, and The Producers Guild, SAG-AFTRA we all came together and said, “Let’s put an event together.” So we have these poems and short stories of women in Afghanistan, and this is 2010, we decided to have a staged reading of those stories. And we had these major actors reading these stories, and we had a set, and we did it at the Museum of Tolerance, and it was unbelievable. It was such a moving and impactful event that we all sat around after and said, “What’s next?” Someone said, “You know, there is this event for people with disabilities, why don’t we do something like that again?” and that was the comeback of the Media Access Awards, which was meant to be a one-off in 2010. And I remember sitting there with 75 people from all the guilds. And watching the impact of what we were doing and the people there, and I was hooked. So 11 years later, I’m still here doing the Media Access Awards. Now, last year, we had a huge event for 500 people, and it was a dinner with major stars, and Jimmy Kimmel has hosted, and we stream on Facebook and Instagram, and it’s live, and it’s like, huge screens with digital images, everything moving and music and, and it’s a huge production. That was ten years of labor of love. We have really truly impacted the way people think of disabilities in media. We have inspired other writers, producers, directors, casting directors to be more involved. I mean, we’ve heard from Peter Farrelly and Shonda Rhimes and many other people how important and how impactful and how they change their ways of thinking of casting. And we’ve grown from just an awards event to also create a best practices guide to key rules interviewing employing writers with disabilities, which the Writers Guild used the 2019 edition for their showrunners program. We also have partnered up with The Black List and Easterseals, and have created the best-unproduced pilots and scripts that have disabilities as a major point, not focused on disabilities but having characters with disabilities and by getting ready this year to make our second list. And we’ve also launched an interview series, and we have one interview a week on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and in our site with a person with disabilities. The last one we did was Ryan O’Connell, the creator of the Netflix series Special, which was nominated for an Emmy last year. So we’ve become very, very active in terms of really pushing forward our mission of inclusion of disabilities in media.

You have always had such a big heart, Deb. You do your work with such caring, respect, and love for other people, and you’re a great producer. So this is all coming into play with this. I love this. So Deborah, give us some examples of the kinds of shows and the kinds of people who were honored last year during the 2019 Media Access Awards.

Well, one that I’m really excited about was the Media Access Awards Visionary Award that was given to David Shore, the creator of The Good Doctor. The main character who has autism is not played by an actor with autism, which we really ask producers and writers to be authentic with casting. But in the case of The Good Doctor, most of the time is actually the number one show in the world. And it brings someone with autism to everyone’s homes all over the world without the stigma of autism. So if you don’t know a person who is autistic, and also there are very various levels of autism, it just made it more comfortable for people that don’t have any contact with autism. To understand that people with autism have great capacity, great possibilities and we just need to be open to relating to people in the way that they are, that we can’t put everyone in the same box because we are all different. Not just physically different, we are psychologically different; we are emotionally different; we all have different backgrounds, different histories, things that make us tick in a different way. So, I love that we gave that award to The Good Doctor, to David Shore because he brought that home. And actually 2018, we gave it to Simon Cowell. I know that most people think of him as this tough person, but stop a minute and watch America’s Got Talent. You have people that come from all walks of life, races, backgrounds.

People with autism have a great capacity for great possibilities. We just need to be more open to relating to them the way that they are. Click To Tweet

Yeah, come to think of it, you really do.

Everyone is treated the same, and everyone is given an opportunity. In 2018, the winner of Britain’s Got Talent was a person with disabilities. In 2016, the runner up was a person with a disability. There are so many people with his abilities that have won the show. In 2019, a person with a disability also won America’s Got Talent. So he’s really turning entertainment on its head, and it was really amazing for us to give him an award in 2018 for being a visionary. And what he said was that it was the greatest honor of his life. It was really moving. Last year, we gave, for example, a SAG-AFTRA Award to Nyle DiMarco, who is a model. He’s gorgeous, he’s deaf, and he won America’s Next Top Model 2015. He’s an actor and he really embraces who he is. It’s really awesome to see his activism and see how he sees himself. I hate to use the word “inspiring” because people with disabilities are not meant to inspire anybody, but I’m going to use it here. It’s inspiring to see someone who really owns up to who they are, and that’s why I’m going to use the word “inspiring” related to Nyle DiMa/rco. And last year too, we awarded the Producers Guild of America George Sunga Award, to the producers of The Peanut Butter Falcon, which was a small film that had the main character with down syndrome. And it was a fantastic film. 

Sweet film. 

Yeah. And the main character was not there to make the other people feel good about themselves. It was a Huckleberry Finn type of film where he had a dream, and he was not going to stop at anything. 

I loved that movie. I just loved that movie. It’s really good.

It changed the lives of many people, and he ended up being on stage at the Oscars. It was the first time ever that there was a person with down syndrome on an Oscars stage. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m told that that happened because he got SAG. The person with down syndrome, the actor, his mom told me that the Oscars felt like he could present an award because he had presented at the Media Access Awards. So these are the things that we do.

We as a society need to face all the race, gender, and most importantly, social prejudices. If we want a better future, we need to change them.

Aw, doesn’t it just warm your heart? With everything going on in the world right now, I think this is very important. You’re such a visionary. Many years ago, in the Diversity Committee, I’m remembering some of those meetings and the people who came through the workshops that you were conducting with all of us on the committee and the people we were helping every year. It’s a wonderful memory.

It really is.

And some of those people have gone on to do some great things too, The Producers Guild Diversity Committee.

Oh my god. I mean, the creator of SWAT, he went to the workshop, the showrunner for the Queen of the South was in the program. I mean, there are so many people that have gone through the program that have become big names on television and film. So we were ahead of the curve, we knew what needed to be done, and we set ourselves out to do it, and we have accomplished quite a lot. I think the industry is catching up with what we started to do back in 2004. That was before Me Too, and Black Lives Matter and everything else.

Yeah, I remember playing some of the videos that Kat Landsberg and I were producing for the celebration of diversity and watching because people weren’t allowed to see them until the night of the awards. And I remember watching, and I’m not gonna embarrass him by saying their name but one of the world’s most famous actors sitting at the table watching that movie that we had done in honor of his life’s work, and he had tears running down his cheeks. It was pretty nice. I mean, just tears of joy. He just loved it. And I think it gets to the fact that if you just acknowledge who people are inside as people, that you can empower so many people around you to be the best of who they are. And you’ve done that your whole career, you need to get a Media Access Award.

Well, when I get ready to retire, or if I die. 

If we just acknowledge people for who they are on the inside, we can empower more people to be the best of who they are. Click To Tweet

Oh my gosh, you’ve had quite a journey. You started out in Brazil, and you were your native of Brazil, can you tell us about how that all happened? And how did you even end up in this business?

My family originally came from Russia and Poland. We are Jewish, and sort of have to leave to stay alive, so we ended up in Brazil. And it was amazing. It was amazing, growing up in Brazil. It was a Brazil that doesn’t exist anymore, unfortunately, because now with corruption and crime. But it was a really great childhood. And I had just gotten you to university, and I had this thought, “Oh, I am going to go to the United States for a couple of months.” I was a dancer, and I thought I’m going to take some classes, it would be really great. But what happened was here I am an 18-year-old, from Brazil, from a Jewish family where my mom was asking me what time are you coming back? If I was five minutes late, she’d be calling the police station. And I was in New York all by myself on my own, and I was like, I like this.


Yes, it’s freedom. I started working in odd jobs, and I got a scholarship at ABT, and then I started doing performance art in different clubs. And I just went on staying and staying and staying and ended up getting married and getting my green card, and so now I can really work. And I fell in love with this country, and I fell in love with the opportunity, I fell in love with how the Constitution gives us the right to anything. If we can make that happen, that’s a different thing. But in theory, this is a beautiful country with all the possibilities in the world, and we are now, sort of all that is wrong is coming up, and we have to face all the race prejudices, gender prejudice, and, most importantly, social prejudice and change that. So that’s something that I think also growing up in a country where basically there was no middle class, with this dark difference between poor and rich and the haves and have nots and the opportunities were so clear to me that I’ve always carried that. My family started from nothing and made something, but I think the fact that I was white and I was a middle class one of the few, and thus I felt like I have the right to and others didn’t. It was always very clear to me, and I carried that within me when I moved here, and when I had the opportunity to really put that to service, I did.

Well, you’re just nonstop. Are you still the Brazil Chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media


I hate to use the word "inspiring" because people with disabilities are not meant to inspire anybody. Let’s let them live their normal lives. Click To Tweet

Oh, just another thing like you don’t have enough to do. In the middle of all this, you’re also producing films. Tell us about some of the movies that you have produced.

Well, I’m now working on a script I wrote with someone else a couple of years back, and I just did a rewrite called [Miss Z], I wrote it with Jorge and Gary. And the time is right, and it’s an all-female cast, all Latinas. Two years ago, the time was totally wrong, now the time is right. So we have attached the director, I have partnered up with another Latino producer, and we are just taking it out to the different networks, broadcasters, and streamers. And it’s a great story, it’s about a Mexican American who grows up ashamed of her heritage, so she creates this whole backstory about being from Spain, which is a lot fancy, and she gets caught. And it’s really about her journey, embracing who she is. I’m really into these stories of second chances and sort of embracing who you are, honoring your roots, your culture, where you come from. So, I’m working on that. The Media Access this year because of the pandemic, and we will not have a Golden Globe style of event, we’re going to have an entirely virtual awards event, some pre-taped some live. So it’s really become a TV production, I’m working on that as well, raising money and so many other things at the same time, and the Black List. I keep myself pretty busy. And I have a pilot that I’m also shopping, lots of things. 

Get up off your chairs and go do something wonderful today.

Well, I really admire your ability to get things done. This year, as you say, it’s gonna be basically a television show. When are the Media Access Awards? Tell people when they can expect to look for them. 

It will be on November 18 at 6 pm Pacific Standard Time, and we are talking to different platforms, but for sure, we’ll have broadcast on Instagram, our Facebook page, Media Access Awards, our website It will be November 18 starting at 6 pm Pacific Standard Time,

I can’t imagine one of the networks wouldn’t want to run this. 

I know. 

I know. Come on, guys get up off your chairs, like I say at the end of every broadcast, I tell everybody, “Get up off your chairs and go do something wonderful today.” We need to holler at all the networks. I mean, you wrote a Chicano Artists for HBO Latino, we have to give this some thought this is gonna be awesome, I’m really looking forward to it. I think what you’re doing is very important on many levels. It’s important because it’s a wonderful production, first of all, it’s important because inclusion is important and makes people realize that we are basically all the same. We have cultural differences, some differences from where we came from, and how we live our lives; perhaps, it’s like what I say people’s hearts are all the same color.

Absolutely. And how much can we grow with human beings when we are able to step outside our experience for a moment and see other people’s experiences? How much do we enrich our own lives? This is not a charity thing; it’s about really enriching our human experience. In terms of disabilities, the buying power of this community is huge. So it’s really about bringing a lot of products together with new storytelling, of untapped markets, of really impacting our society. There are so many checkmarks, it’s unbelievable. 

Yeah. How big of a crew do you have to help you with this? Do you need volunteers? I want to put the call out if you’re looking for people to help.

Well, as we get closer, we do need to help. Every year, we end up with about 20 volunteers and production crew, producers and directors and etc., about 10. So we’re usually about 30 people working on this. So I’m just now starting to put together the crew for November. And yes, we’ll be looking for volunteers, and I have to say that everyone who has worked at a Media Access Awards asks to come back and says it’s one of the most special experiences they’ve had. So, it’s really, really amazing. This year, there’s going to be a lot of big surprises. I’m very excited about it.

That’s awesome. Where do people go to keep in touch with what’s happening with you and with the awards?

Facebook, our site, you can write to the site, it’s always the best way because I’m always on.

You have a relationship with Easterseals, but are you also looking for sponsors?

Yes. Easterseals is our major partner sponsor, and we love them. We love them because of our relationship, but mostly because of the work they do. They’ve been around for over 100 years now, and the stuff they do is amazing. So my direct connection is with Easterseals of Southern California. And they do the Media Access Awards with us, but they also do the 48-hour Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, which is actually now in July. And they do just so many things, and they’re really an amazing organization. But yes, we are always looking for sponsors. This year, because we are going to be on a television show, we’ll thank you on-screen, and we’ll have a digital program. There are so many ways to promote your company, so many ways that a company can support inclusion and support disabilities.

The world has cultural differences. Some differences are from where we come from and how we live our lives. But in the end, our hearts are all the same color.

And there’s nothing wrong with a company contributing simply because it feels good with no expectations. That’s really what makes the world work when people pitch in together like that. This is awesome, Deborah. So if you think back over the last, 15 years or so, do you have one or two moments that are precious to you that you want to share with us? Pick one moment, with all this work you’ve been doing helping other people, was there a time when it came back to you in an unexpected way, or some have touched your heart?

The most precious moments that I’ve had have actually come to the activism that I do. Every year I produce something, I write something, but when somebody looks at you and says to you, “You have changed my life. Thank you,” that’s pretty awesome. 

Yep. You’re gonna make me cry.

I’m a very fortunate person because I’ve had those moments. It’s always been important to me that I have been of service and that I have tried to leave this planet when my time comes a little bit better than when I found it. And not that I’m no major anything, but I have done my part, I did something. That was always important to me, and I have that. And so to me, those are the most important moments when someone who has been pushed aside their whole lives are not seen, tells me, thank you. I see you see me, and that’s just amazing. 

Yeah. Well, I hope that you just keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s so important. And we do appreciate it, and we do see you.

Thank you.

Alright, now, I’m crying. Oh my gosh.

Oh, we have so many reasons to cry these days.

I’m just thinking about the years that I was involved with you on that committee and other committees and the celebration before that, it’s wonderful. It’s just wonderful. And we need to be reminded, especially now, about that, and how important it is to kind of all row in the same boat. And thank you, I know you’re really, really busy. But I want to encourage everyone listening to go to your Facebook page Media Access Awards on Facebook. You can also go to, which is your production site, and look at some of the work you’ve done there. But think about volunteering, nudge the companies that you work for possibly to help sponsor this wonderful event. And Deborah, thank you so much for taking the time to come on.

Oh, thank you.

I hope to talk to you again very soon. And don’t make me cry next time. Thanks for everything, a big hug to you. And everyone listening, remember what I always tell you, get up off your chairs and go do something wonderful today and it might even be in your own home, but do something very special for yourself and for the world today. Thanks, Deborah. You take care.

Thank you.


  1. Encourage inclusivity in your community. Inclusion recognizes and respects the differences between people without trying to assimilate one group into another.
  2. Highlight minorities and promote equality in your advocacy. Minority groups usually don’t have enough resources and privilege. 
  3. Keep searching for and spreading positive stories. There are still so many stories out there still waiting to be told. Make it your mission as a storyteller to help others be heard.
  4. When creating film, be authentic in casting. There’s a diverse pool of talented actors out there. It’s a disservice to cast anyone who’s not a fit for the role when there’s someone out there who is.
  5. Break the stigma of disability. Keep talking about it on different platforms until it becomes normal and accepted in society. The more people are informed, the more they can accept the idea.  
  6. Be the voice for those who can’t speak. Cultivate more activism in your life. Fight for your rights and help others fight for theirs. 
  7. Inspire others to get involved in supporting worthwhile causes. It doesn’t matter what the objective is as long as it promotes peace, love, and camaraderie.
  8. Do something. Get off your seat and be a part of something that’s positive and worth fighting for. 
  9. Remember that we are all the same. We may come from different backgrounds, but our hearts beat the same.
  10. Check out Deborah Calla’s website to learn more about her incredible advocacies.


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About Cirina Catania, Host of OWC RADiO and Founder and Lead Creative, The Catania Group

Filmmaker Cirina Catania, the Founder and Lead Creative at The Catania Group, has been involved as a writer, director, producer, cinematographer or marketing exec on over 130 film, television and new media projects for the big screen as well as for networks such as National Geographic, Discovery, etc. She is one of the co-founders and former director of the Sundance Film Festival and former senior executive at MGM-UA and United Artists. Cirina lives in San Diego, D.C. and Berlin when she is not on the road filming for her projects or for clients, or speaking as a tech evangelist for companies such as Blackmagic Design and Lumberjack System. For nine years, she was the original “BuZZ Babe” showrunner on the weekly tech podcast, Digital Production BuZZ heard in 195 countries.  Cirina is a member of Local 600 (IATSE), the PGA and the WGA. Best way to know more about her is to type her name into your favorite search engine! There you will find all the good stuff. 🙂

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