As a talent agent, Keely Cat-Wells advocates for more presence of people with disabilities on screens and for expanding their roles beyond representing disability.
Introduction: Welcome to Disability Dialogues, a series of conversations with leaders and activists from around the world who are advancing the rights of persons with disabilities. In this series, we will hear from people who are playing a significant role in advancing the disability rights agenda in the global system, in their regions, and at home in their own countries. We will explore success stories as well as challenges. I am your host, Gerard Quinn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Gerard Quinn: In previous shows, we heard from experts at the World Bank and the United Nations who shared with us institutional experiences in the international system to include persons with disabilities in social development and to ensure their active participation in economic development, justice and protection in times of conflict and crises.
Today, we shift our focus towards popular culture, the movies and entertainment industries. These are arguably the most powerful vehicles for popularising new ideas and bringing communities with a history of stigma and marginalization into the mainstream and on their terms.
Culture can reflect inequality or be a powerful engine for change. As I have said many times, culture is a vibrant space that helps us frame our realities and imagine the future. It is a space for collective imagination – a vital ingredient for change. It is not for nothing that we have a whole Article in the UN CRPD focused on culture – Article 30. By way of coincidence, my very first appearance as UN SR was to a seminar in Brussels organised by the European Association of service providers on the right to culture. So today I am coming full circle.
Keely Cat-Wells is a young entrepreneur in media based in California who is well placed to give us insights into whats going on in the media and its potential to re-frame disability.
At a very young age, she started C-Talent, an agency dedicated to the placement of disabled talent in movies, entertainment and social media. She wanted to promote not only more presence of people with disabilities on screen, but also to expand their roles - beyond simply representing disability.
For her work, she’s been invited to discuss disability inclusion policies at the White House by US President Joe Biden and at the UN’s Youth Activist Summit in Geneva. She’s become an advisor of the Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation and other philanthropies on disability inclusion.
She has received numerous awards for her work, including the Diana Award, the Forbes 30 under 30 award, the Great British Entrepreneur of the Year award, the LinkedIn Top Voice among others. Keely, welcome to disability dialogues…
Keely Cat Wells: Thank you so, so much. I'm so happy to be here.
GQ: So, Keely, this is a very impressive life story and it's only really just started. We always like to start podcasts by asking interviewees to tell us something about yourself, where you grew up, who are the big influences on your life and why you got to be where you are today. So. Over to you, Keely.
KCW: I think my life can be kind of summed up in one sentence "Didn't go to plan". I never planned on being an entrepreneur or even really being in this space. I grew up on a farm in the UK in West Sussex and really raised by my granddad, who is my everything. He was actually a businessman and definitely inspired my journey, but I wanted to go into dance and I was training to be a ballerina. I thought that I was going to be dancing in the West End, maybe on Broadway, and that would be my life. But I ended up becoming severely unwell when I was around 17. And after about three years of misdiagnosis, being not diagnosed, being not believed by the medical system, and really gaslit by the system that's supposed to help and support you the most, I was finally given the tests that I needed and had many, many operations and kind of came at the other end of that whole journey as a disabled person.
And I really moved around the world in a very, very different way, and it was a huge life change. I didn't go back to college, which was dance college for me, and I ended up actually just helping some of my friends while I was in hospital get jobs in the media industry while they were still in dance college. And that really turned into C Talent and representing disabled talent because when I also came to the US, I actually got a job in the entertainment industry. And after disclosing my disability, I got told that I could no longer have that job. And that was definitely a big light bulb moment, realising that this A isn't just happening to me, this is a systemic issue, and that I'm not disabled because of my medical conditions. I'm disabled by the inaccessible world that we live in, and that was really what kick started this whole journey.
I officially started C Talent in the US. But I didn't really realise that I was actually being an agent and kind of doing everything and all of the work and laying the foundations for C Talent while I was in the UK. When I was in hospital helping my friends get jobs, I was really doing that for my mental health and to take the continuous emphasis off myself and just putting it on other people. And I got some amazing advice from someone who came to visit me in hospital who just said, stop being so selfish. If in doubt, just give and it will make you feel better in so many ways. And I was in such a dark place, and that really kind of took me out of worrying about my future and my health and everything that I was going through, and really allowed me to have a purpose. And I didn't realise it, but that would be the domino effect for what kind of laid the foundations for my career moving forward.
GQ: Yeah, it reminds me of something somebody once wrote about successful careers... That you don't necessarily create them, but you look back retrospectively on them and then make sense of things once you get a perspective on your life, years later. So it's really fascinating, this kind of inflection point when you were about 17. And how you helped your friends and colleagues. Were they successful, by the way?
KCW: They were. I couldn't quite believe it. It took a decent amount of time, but it wasn't long before I actually ended up starting I started to make money from it. I was like, wait, what? This can be a thing. I'm in hospital and I'm able to help my friends get jobs, help them make money, and make a little bit of pocket change at the same time. It was amazing.
GQ: Fascinating. In many previous interviews, Keeley, you insisted that the inadequate on screen presence of persons with disabilities is really only part of the problem - maybe even a symptom of a bigger problem. And you say that the problem extends to the absence of content creators with disabilities. And you also talk about the entertainment industry's, ableist infrastructure. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What do you mean by the ableist infrastructure in the creative arts industries?
KCW: So we have a huge lack of disability representation and accurate disability representation in front of the camera. But if we peek behind the curtain and go behind the camera, we have an even worse state of affairs. Unfortunately because within Hollywood, and I think within a lot of industries, early entry stage jobs oftentimes rely on stamina over talent. And that is usually our only way to get into a certain industry. And for me also, as a chronically ill person, that would never work for me. I can't lift the kind of weight that they want you to lift. I can't drive a car. I can't do various different things that they rely on to get you into that industry. So that is the very first barrier to entry in addition to the financial barriers that exist, because oftentimes those entry level jobs or those internships are not well paid and they're kind of rooted in hustle culture where you have to be working 24/7, you have to be grinding early in the morning.
All of this creates an environment that isn't necessarily the inaccessible environment one would initially think of. When you think of inaccessibility, you think of the lack of ramps, you think of the lack of physical infrastructure. And while that plays a huge part, and especially within these industries, if we look at studios, they're still very inaccessible because of the infrastructure. But we have to look at everything surrounding that as well, and the attitudes that exist and the communication barriers that exist, but also just the way that we're trained to think that is the only way to break in.
I would also say there has been a lot of progress and I don't want to take away from great things that have been happening. But I also do believe there has been a lot of diversity programs within Hollywood which are great, but oftentimes do fall into the category of doing things for ticking a box, and oftentimes do unfortunately miss disability from that definition of diversity. And they also have this failure of actually getting people into employment. Maybe these programs run for a week or two and then fail to really bridge that gap to full time employment. So there's a lot of barriers to entry behind the camera.
GQ: So the kind of gig element to the early stage career, it seems to be extending across many industries. It's not just prevalent in the communications industry. Do you think there are lessons there for other industries as well?
KCW: Absolutely, I think there are so many lessons to be had. And I actually just started a new company since selling C Talent a year ago, and my new company is called Zeta. And it's all around accessible education and bridging that gap between education and employment and enabling companies to invest in their prospective workforces and create credentialing courses online where talent can pre-enroll and pre-qualify. Because I think globally we're seeing this labor force shortage of talent not having the right skills for the workforce. But the workforce is also failing to invest and recognise so many incredible talent pools, including the disabled community of talent who are just so untapped, who are dedicated, wanting to learn, ready to jump into the workforce ... But unfortunately just don't have that opportunity to get the right education or to start their careers.
GQ: Yeah, there does seem to be a disconnect between some positive action measures and actually achieving realistic embeddedness in the economy and full paying productive jobs.
You previously pointed out the influence of the creator economy in shaping perceptions and realities and that it's become far bigger than that of traditional TV networks or even the mainstream film industry. Could you maybe expand a little bit on that for our listeners?
KCW: When I first started C Talent, we were solely representing disabled actors, disabled writers, directors and producers, and really kind of focusing on Hollywood. And then when the Pandemic hit, we had to pivot pretty quickly because productions shut down. And a lot of our talent turned to social media to showcase their work, to connect with the community, to build audiences. And from there we found this incredible opportunity because disabled people for many, many years have been disrupting the narrative and taking control of their own stories and dismantling stereotypes and stigmas by bypassing Hollywood. And taking it to social media. And it's incredible to see how so much talent has created audiences that have become a commodity. And from there, from building their audiences on social media, they've created jobs for themselves, for other people. They've created this whole new economy. And then they've been asked to break into Hollywood. They've been asked to participate in roles and be directors of movies because of what they've been able to create on social media, they've also been able to showcase a new perspective that we really haven't seen before. And talk about things that haven't ever been talked about on screen before.
I remember for me personally, when I was going through being misdiagnosed and undiagnosed and struggling with the medical system, I turned to social media and I ended up following a ton of chronically ill creators on social media. And that's how I managed to find the right answers and be able to advocate for myself, because I learned from these creators and I learned the right things to say and the wrong things to say and how to be listened. So they hold so much power and I think disabled people have been so underestimated for such a long period of time, but social media has really given us that opportunity to control that narrative.
GQ: So it sounds like it's not just adding to the market, but creating whole new markets.
KCW: Absolutely. And I do think, unfortunately, we still face so many accessibility issues with social media. It's not perfect. There's still ableist algorithms that exist and policies that discriminate against disabled people. They're still censoring the content of so many disabled bodies that post online: in lingerie, for instance, because the disabled people are still seen within the eyes of the people making the policies in social media as, quote-unquote "vulnerable people". So there's a lot that has to change, but it has been one way to bypass many barriers to entry.
GQ: And why do you think, if there is such a natural market and social media is, quote-unquote "capitalising" on the new market, how come the old market didn't see that? What explains the structural blind spot, if I could use a politically incorrect term?
KCW: I think with Hollywood, we've been trained to think what beauty is. We have a very traditional lens on what beauty is, what success looks like. I think Hollywood has tried to predict what audiences have wanted to see and they have been able to do that well for a long time. And Hollywood takes a long time to change anything. They are a massive machine with also a lot of people in leadership positions who are not necessarily diverse or underrepresented, or who have experienced those barriers in society that other people have. So I think with social media, it's allowed new leaders to rise to the top and to be making the decisions. So I think a lot of it is definitely rooted in that leadership.
GQ: So it's allowing people to tell their own stories and connect with others in ways that weren't possible in the past?
KCW: Yeah, it really is.
GQ: Do you think, even intuitively, that helps to reinforce or perhaps even drive advocacy for change? Or what's the link between that kind of artistic flourishing and policy advocacy, in other words?
KCW: I follow so many incredible activists and advocates on social media, and I have had conversations with many of them about how rallies and peaceful protests have been inaccessible for so many people for so long, and there has been barriers to entry, for people to even fight for their rights. But on social media, you can create a hashtag, and that hashtag can get millions and millions of views and shares and likes and influence the masses in a very quick period of time. And you can do that all from an accessible place, whether that's your home, whether that's in a community co-working space. I think people do underestimate Gen Z and Millennials and people who do use social media to advocate. I think there is definitely a fine line between people and companies using social media to just showcase the surface and who aren't actually doing the work. But I think for the people who are, it's a great platform to bring attention to that.
GQ: Also, Keely, disability - and you've been very active in this for quite some time -, has become an increasingly important part of the philanthropic milieu. And philanthropy has and actually always has had a very important role to play in helping to drive positive change. Some of the larger foundations were first out of the block, right after the ratification of the UN Disability Treaty to support advocacy right around the world. How do you see the world of philanthropy intersecting with your business world of media and culture in the media?
KCW: Disability is severely underrepresented within the entrepreneurship, venture capital and business worlds. I'm currently raising capital for my business right now, my new company, and I consistently get the comment: "Oh, it's got something to do with disability, then it should be a charity". So I think, unfortunately, disability oftentimes does get put solely in that charity bubble and box. And while it is needed and there are incredible philanthropic organisations out there and charities out there doing incredible work and they should be supported fully, there should also be this "Oh yeah, disabled people can be entrepreneurs as well". And disability should be a metric, when we're measuring how much funding is being allocated towards underrepresented entrepreneurs. I think women is a great example. Those metrics are now being measured and people are making a much greater effort to invest in female entrepreneurs. But with disability, it's still, as I mentioned earlier, not even usually in the dimension of diversity. And disability is once again just seen as "Oh, we've got to help or donate and help these poor disabled people". It's like "No, disabled people are valuable, are talented, and they're going to create incredible businesses and have been creating incredible businesses". I think even if we look at people who have created businesses, even like, -I hate to bring them up, but like Elon Musk and Richard Branson -, they have disabilities, but people don't see them as disabled people also because of the lack of diversity within disability that we've seen on our screens. And I know that we have the stats and the figures around how many disabled people there are in this world, but I think it's actually substantially more. We just tend not to disclose or identify because of the stigmas and stereotypes that exist. So I would love to see more funding going towards disabled owned businesses.
GQ: So some of the simpler and more direct foundations to the UN Disability Treaty, which is that I'm a human just like you. It seems like we have to continually argue for that and make the point. And we're coming across that in the work we're doing at the moment on peace building and disability. Because the focus seems to be immediately telescoped into immediate rehabilitation, which is a worthy thing in and of itself. But these rare peacebuilding moments are actually rare opportunities to face the past and to build a much more inclusive future. Which is why it's not just good to have people with disabilities present at them, but it's actually good for the overall process itself in that it injects: the ethic of inclusion and hopefully creates the possibility of more sustainable, peaceful outcomes long-term. But it's the same kind of functional challenge that you have, which is trying to reframe the original pivot, if you know what I mean, in the popular imagination.
KCW: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, and I think once we tie accessibility and disability to strategy of all things, no matter what it is, then we can make systemic change. Because I think oftentimes disability has been siloed as its own separate issue rather than actually disability intersects with every issue, every single thing, climate change, peace building, economic mobility. It intersects with everything. And as soon as we tie it to the strategy of each and every one of those issues, we will all be able to make progress much quicker.
GQ: Yeah, and it is interesting that the drafters of the UN Disability Treaty made sure that in the article on employment... That it wasn't just the usual things, but it also carved out positive space for entrepreneurship. And of course to actually take advantage of that you have to have equal opportunity, access to venture capital and other forms of financing. And that's one of the Achilles' heels of the burgeoning economy, isn't it?
KCW: It really is. It really is. And I think we've already seen it also like... Disabled people, if they're given the opportunity in that venture capital, they will not only create thriving businesses, but they're going to hire more disabled people inherently and they're going to create a more inclusive future and infrastructure and future of work in general.
GQ: We saw that vividly close up in a factory on the outskirts of Amman in Jordan. Very, very interesting entrepreneur who hired something like 40% of his workforce with disability and is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Jordan at the moment, I'm very glad to say. And we think a model for what an inclusive employer could be, not only in the country, but also in the region. From a business point of view, I don't know how steeped you are into the arcane technicalities of business and human rights, but how do you see that agenda? Do you see that agenda? Is it relevant to what you're trying to do in the culture industries?
KCW: I think to have a successful business, you have to keep in mind that you want to benefit a large number of people. I mean, I think for us, it is human rights and humanity in general. It decides who we partner with, who our stakeholders are. And it dictates all of our partnerships. It's a hugely important subject that I think, unfortunately, a lot of people get wrapped up in money and their business side. But it is possible to have a thriving, profitable business and be doing good for the world. And I hope and I think the future is the businesses that are doing both. And that is the only way to create an equitable future.
GQ: I see that you've been active in advocating for the elimination of some US laws that create the possibility of allowing employers to hire people with disabilities and pay them less than the minimum wage. Could you describe that work to us? And do you think these laws are more widespread throughout the world? Do we have a systemic problem here?
KCW: I was only first educated around 14 C and... the law that allows disabled people to be paid sub minimum wage in America. I think in, I think it was 2020. Someone told me. And I didn't believe them. I was like: that's not humane. That's not possible. How is that? That must be an old law that's not still in law. And they said, "No, it's still in 37 states". And I was shocked. It shows how society does not view disabled people as equal citizens in society. It says disabled people are second class citizens and has also a huge knock on effect to the way people think about disabled people, the way people value disabled people, and it affects the mental health of disabled people as well. I think approximately today, there's over 300,000 Americans with disabilities in these sheltered workshops, segregated sheltered workshops, being paid sub minimum wage. And in these workshops, people are often given repetitive manual tasks. But a lot of the work that they are doing should be treated as proper work and be paid and be paid equal minimum wage.
They get stuck and siloed in these sheltered segregated workshops and are treated not like humans. I mean, there's even huge companies who unfortunately still use sheltered workshops and still have 14(c) in place. We just need to eliminate 14(c) and these sheltered workshops. And start viewing and paying disabled people as equal human beings.
GQ: Keely, I can't let you go without asking you about the Lady Gaga Foundation. Please tell us about that.
KCW: It has been such an honour to work with Born This Way Foundation, and Cynthia Germanotta, who is really Gaga's mom, and Lady Gaga and what she's created with her foundation. They created this foundation to really just emit kindness and say... I may have used the wrong word there... But just to share kindness. And say how kindness has a huge positive effect on everyone's mental health. And oftentimes, I think, the conversation around mental health has not led to action. And has also been, I think, confusing for a few people. For various people... Scary for people. But the way in which Lady Gaga and her foundation talks about mental health, it's just around kindness. And saying "our small acts of kindness have a massive positive effect on our society", and trying to increase that. So it's been amazing. They've been able to create the Be There Certificate in collaboration with Jack.org, which is a certificate and training that helps you support both yourself and also a friend, a colleague, a family member going through mental health or mental illness. And it's truly an amazing organisation with such wonderful people who just genuinely want to create a better world. And they say, a braver and kinder world for young people.
GQ: That's fascinating to learn about. I'll certainly look that up myself. Is there a way for people to connect with you and get involved with your work and support you in what you do?
KCW: Absolutely. I mean, the first thing I would say is not just in my work, but if you ever have the opportunity to make an accessible space, an inclusive space, and you choose not to, that is an example of privilege in action. So please, whenever you have that opportunity to just create an accessible and inclusive space, do you have the ability to create a better world, even just by adding image descriptions to your social media posts, for instance. But in terms of my work, I would say I've just started Zeta, which I'm really excited about, bridging that education employment gap, and would love to connect on LinkedIn, which is just my name: Keely Cat Wells.
GQ: Thanks, Keely.
Listeners, you can follow the work of Keely on Twitter and Instagram at @keely_cat_wells. Additional resources accompanying this podcast and every Disability Dialogues podcast can be found on the right hand side menu bar. Do get in touch with us with ideas about topics or potential interviewees. Well, that's it for this episode of Disability Dialogues. The executive producer is Hernan Bonomo. Original sound, design and editing is by Jeremy Bouquet and Thomas Kusberg from the Bull Media Podcast agency. My name is Gerard Quinn, and until the next episode, goodbye.