Growing up as a Disney-loving theater kid, Melanie always knew she wanted a career in film. But after losing her arm and nearly her life, at the age of 23, Melanie’s dreams seemingly vanished in an instant. That is until she discovered a way to redirect herself down a similar, unexpected, yet perfectly serendipitous path.
Meet Melanie Waldman
A rising film-maker and Hollywood actress with a mission to see people with disabilities represented more authentically on-screen – not just as stereotypes and victims but as well-rounded characters at the center of storytelling. Because the recent statistics on how people with disabilities are depicted in film and TV are pretty grim:
- Even though one in four people in the US currently live with a disability, only 2.3% of all speaking characters on-screen have a disability.
- Only 20% of those on-screen characters with disabilities are played by actors who share that same disability in real life.
- The majority of disabled characters in film and TV are portrayed in a negative light.
But Melanie believes we can change all this. “I really do believe equality can be obtained,” Melanie says. “We just need more opportunities for the under-represented to share their art, their stories.”
Melanie’s Story: From Disney Performer to Inclusive Film-Maker
After college, Melanie landed a dream job working as an entertainer at Disney World. Every day she would dress up in her pirate costume and put on live-action performances for kids. When her shift ended, she would ride rides in the Magic Kingdom for hours, with free access to the park.
But after a few months, Melanie’s Lupus symptoms, including almost daily fever spikes, started to worsen. “Sometimes, I would get home and just cry,” Melanie says. “The scariest thing for me was that I loved my job so much I didn’t want to lose it.”
One morning, Melanie’s symptoms got so bad her doctor sent her straight to a vascular surgeon, who hospitalized her immediately.
After five surgeries and an emergency transfer to the trauma ICU at SHAM’s hospital, Melanie received a medication called Heparin for the two blood clots in her right wrist.
She Had a Sudden, Rare Allergic Reaction That Changed Her Life.
Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, they call it. A phrase Melanie was told to memorize as she will be repeating it to doctors for the rest of her life.
After three blood transfusions and countless surgeries, the doctors were able to save Melanie. But she remained in the hospital for the next thirty days. “The second week in, the doctors told me my hand had lost all function,” Melanie says.
She was told they would have to amputate her arm. But first, they would have to assess the function loss over a few days so they could determine where to do the amputation. “For me, having those two days gave me the chance to cope with what was happening,” Melanie says. “To talk to a therapist, to grieve with my parents.”
It also gave her parents the chance to plan a surprise visit from her 17-year-old brother, Matt. “I started screaming crying when I saw him. We were all so excited to be together. Matt just wanted to feed me the whole time,” Melanie says, laughing.
Melanie Gains Attention for Her Blog about Acquiring a Disability.
Melanie first started writing about her experience while in the hospital, posting blogs she would dictate to her phone through a CaringBridge website. When she got out of the hospital, she continued to blog and began adding videos. “I started to get a little bit of a following,” Melanie says. “And then Beth Haller reached out.”
At the time, Beth Haller was teaching a class at Towson University about disabilities and social media. She contacted Melanie to let her know she had been using Melanie’s blog as an example in the class and a resource for her students. “I was so new to the amputee community, it was really motivating to hear that I could translate my skills in my former life to the disabled population,” Melanie says.
Melanie started to gear her writing towards the exploration of her life post-disability as it reflected on her former life. Which then sparked her interest in film production.
Helping Under-Represented Communities Through Film.
Having just come off producing, acting, and directing her latest short film, “Couples Therapy” – with 87% of the team having some type of disability – Melanie is helping pave the way towards more on-screen inclusivity.
As a first-time director, Melanie attributes much of the film’s success to her editor, who helped guide her through the process. “I found when you have the right support, there’s really nothing that’s impossible,” Melanie says.
A belief she holds in regards to creating films – but also facing any challenge in life.
Discovering Another Support System in the Amputee Community.
It is Melanie’s mission to help people find the right support systems by connecting them to others who share similar adversities.
So when Melanie met Kevin Herbert at a Lucky Finn Project event, she was intrigued about his prosthetic company, Allcare, whose philosophy is to bring people with limb differences together through community support groups. “Kevin and I also really connected because we share an upper limb difference,” Melanie says.
Given Kevin’s first-hand experience with Allcare’s ability to fit upper limbs – a personal struggle of Melanie’s – plus the emphasis on community-building, she decided to give Allcare a try. “I have three devices from them now,” Melanie says. “Kevin kept his promise. They’re really comfortable.”
Melanie even began teaching some adaptive yoga classes for Allcare. “Allcare’s programs are always run by employees with limb differences,” Melanie says. “I’ve not seen that anywhere else. As a patient, it’s a game-changer.”
Melanie hopes to continue connecting people with disabilities to further develop these kinds of support systems– all while helping under-represented communities share their stories so they can truly feel understood. And to help others know they are not in this alone.
Thank you, Melanie, for all that you do.