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How ABC's 'Speechless' is changing attitudes about disability.

'Speechless' matters because inclusivity on TV promotes inclusivity in life.

How ABC's 'Speechless' is changing attitudes about disability.

Over six decades ago, a disabled character starred on a TV show for the very first time.

She was a woman and a wheelchair-using attorney, and she starred in "Martinsville, U.S.A." The program, a 15-minute soap opera, featured actress Susan Peters. In the storyline, she had moved back to her hometown of Martinsville, Ohio, to begin her own law practice.

Use of the wheelchair — unlike later instances, like Robert T. Ironside (a former cop who became a consultant for the San Francisco Police Department after being paralyzed from the waist down after getting shot in the line of duty) — wasn’t simply a plot device. Peters, who was paralyzed due to a hunting accident just a few years earlier, used a wheelchair both onscreen and off.


"Miss Susan," the show’s original title, was one of several planned soap operas in the early days of television that aspired to "spread sweetness and light and an optimistic philosophy" while shying away from the more “over-the-top storylines” that dominated radio waves in 1951.

Fast forward 65 years, and we get "Speechless" — a new sitcom from ABC.

Photo via ABC/Bob D'Amico.

In "Speechless," which premiered  on Sept. 21, 2016, the first thing disabled teenager JJ DiMeo (played by legitimately disabled actor 18-year-old Micah Fowler) does is flip the bird at two slackers — cerebral palsy style, amplified by using four fingers instead of one.  Call it a comedic accommodation, but the message is funny, unexpected, and crystal clear.

My, how things have changed.

In the show, Fowler stars as a nonverbal teen in a family of five.  But that doesn’t mean the character has nothing to say.

Most of the talk around the show has been positive, especially from the disability community.

According to Stephanie Hydal, who co-organized a premier event at the Westside Center for Independent Living in Mar Vista, "Speechless" did what it needed to do with its first episode.

“'Speechless' introduced audiences to major concepts rooted in the disability experience: inspiration porn, parental roles in advocacy, the role of support providers, and the importance of disability advocacy and self-direction,” said Hydal, who noted that viewers in attendance were impressed by how the show humorously highlighted the difference between compliance and accessibility, which she says is a new concept for most people.

By the end of their screening, Hydal says she witnessed budding non-disabled allies engaging with disability stories told by disabled people, and it felt like an important and rare occurrence.

Social issues aside, and perhaps most importantly, "Speechless" is also genuinely funny.

For a comedy show, “Is it funny?” should be first priority, and "Speechless" really is. Not in a mocking, stereotypical way, but in a way that draws from real life, resonates, and invites people in.

The real life approaches used in "Speechless" are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the ways JJ communicates. "Speechless" creator and "Friends" alum Scott Silveri based JJ’s communication technique on the method developed and used by Eva Sweeney, who has cerebral palsy herself.

Photo via ABC/Tony Rivetti.

Early on, Silveri met with Sweeney to discuss the concept for the show. When he saw Sweeney and her aide communicating with a letter board and laser pointer, he immediately changed the script to insert a human aide in the story, rather than computer-voiced communications, opening up additional avenues for storylines.

Now a paid consultant for the show, Sweeney reads every script “to make sure nothing is completely off or offensive about having CP” and to make sure that the show accurately depicts what being nonverbal is like.

“This doesn’t necessarily make the show better,” wrote Sweeney via email. “But it offers a different and new perspective into how people with disabilities can communicate.”

Plus, the creators brought in actors who actually live with disabilities daily.

Maysoon Zayid, a comedian and actress with cerebral palsy, said "Speechless" is noticeably different when it comes to casting methods: “I love that it makes non-disabled actors playing disabled characters look clownish and offensive.”

Zayid, whose popular TED Talk currently totals over 7 million views, suggested another reason for the show’s success: its authenticity.

“Overbearing moms are definitely REAL for a lot of us," she said. "Being broke is very real too. Disability is not cheap. I love how from the opening scene, JJ shows that nonverbal isn’t the same as infantile. 'Speechless' also champions the inclusion of disabled and non-disabled students together in school which in my case, was life changing.”

"Speechless" matters because inclusivity on TV promotes inclusivity in life too.

For once, it is nice to see something happening on camera that I have experienced in my own life,” said Dominick Evans, a trans disabled film director and creator of the popular #FilmDis weekly Twitter chat on entertainment and media issues.

Photo via ABC/Tony Rivetti.

Where should the show go next? Evans said he’d “like to see JJ’s mom [hilariously played by Minnie Driver] move from Mama Bear protector mode into teaching JJ how to be a great self advocate, and 'Speechless' has the potential to do just that... It can do a lot of good by showing the world disabled teens are just as capable of being annoying buttheads as any other teen out there.”

Or, as Zayid put it, “I'd really love to see JJ date.”

When its stacked up against where we’ve been, ABC’s "Speechless" lands solidly in the “win” column.

Thankfully, audiences seem to agree. The series premiered to universally positive reviews and solid opening ratings (2.0, 7.3 million in Live+same day). It held up so well, in fact, that the network just announced a rare early full-season order just a week-and-a-half into the season.

But don't think we're all the way there just yet. When it comes to bringing more authentic disabled talent to the screen, a lot more work needs to be done.

A recent study published by the Ruderman Family Foundation reports that less than 1% of TV characters have disabilities — and 95% of those roles are played by actors without disabilities. Even fewer disabled people have established careers as writers, producers, or directors, despite census data that suggests over 56 million, or roughly 1 in 5, Americans are disabled, within every demographic — rich, poor, gay, straight, female, male, trans, person of color, or white as newly fallen snow.

In 2016, disability is a cultural and political identity, a diverse community, and entire libraries of compelling, outside-the-box stories that, by and large, haven’t been widely told — yet.

Hollywood take note: Whether it is creative input, audience cultivation, or hiring practices, the disability community — however one defines or understands it — can no longer be ignored.

Photo via ABC/Richard Cartwright.

If your ideas about disability are stuck in 1951 and you get it wrong, disability advocates, artists, and influencers are going to call you out.

Get it right and you might just have a hit television show like "Speechless."  

Courtesy of Macy's

Brantley and his snowman

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"Would you like to build a snowman?" If you asked five-year-old Brantley from Texas this question, the answer would be a resounding "Yes!" While it may sound like a simple dream, since Texas doesn't usually see much snow, it seemed like a lofty one for him, even more so because Brantley has a congenital heart disease.

On Dec. 11, 2019, however, the real Macy's Santa and his two elves teamed up with Make-A-Wish to surprise Brantley and his family on his way to Colorado where there was plenty of snow for him to build his very own snowman, fulfilling his wish as part of the Macy's Believe campaign. After a joy-filled plane ride where every passenger got gift bags from Macy's, the family arrived in Breckenridge, Colorado where Santa and his elves helped Brantley build a snowman.

Brantley, Brantley's mom, and Santa marveling at their snowmanAll photos courtesy of Macy's

Brantley, who according to his mom had never actually seen snow, was blown away by the experience.

"Well, I had to build a snowman because snowmen are my favorite," Brantley said in an interview with Summit Daily. "All of it was my favorite part."

This is just one example of the more than 330,000 wishes the nonprofit Make-A-Wish have fulfilled to bring joy to children fighting critical illnesses since its founding 40 years ago. Even though many of the children that Make-A-Wish grants wishes for manage or overcome their illnesses, they often face months, if not years of doctor's visits, hospital stays and uncomfortable treatments. The nonprofit helps these children and their families replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy and anxiety with hope.

It's hardly an outlandish notion — research shows that a wish come true can help increase these children's resiliency and improve their quality of life. Brantley is a prime example.

"This couldn't have come at a better time because we see all the hardships that we went through last year," Brantley's mom Brandi told Summit Daily.

Brantley playing with snowballs

Now more than ever, kids with critical illnesses need hope. Since they're particularly vulnerable to disease, they and their families have had to isolate even more during the pandemic and avoid the people they love most and many of the activities that recharge them. That's why Make-A-Wish is doing everything it can to fulfill wishes in spite of the unprecedented obstacles.

That's where you come in. Macy's has raised over $132 million for Make-A-Wish, and helped grant more than 15,500 wishes since their partnership began in 2003, but they couldn't have done that without the support of everyday people. The crux of that support comes from Macy's Believe Campaign — the longstanding holiday fundraising effort where for every letter to Santa that's written online at Macys.com or dropped off safely at the red Believe mailbox at their stores, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. New this year, National Believe Day will be expanded to National Believe Week and will provide customers the opportunity to double their donations ($2 per letter, up to an additional $1 million) for a full week from Sunday, Nov. 29 through Saturday, Dec. 5.

There are more ways to support Make-A-Wish besides letter-writing too. If you purchase a $4 Believe bracelet, $2 of each bracelet will be donated to Make-A-Wish through Dec. 31. And for families who are all about the holiday PJs, on Giving Tuesday (Dec. 1), 20 percent of the purchase price of select family pajamas will benefit Make-A-Wish.

Elizabeth living out her wish of being a fashion designer

Additionally, this year's campaign features 6-year-old Elizabeth, a Make-A-Wish child diagnosed with leukemia, whose wish to design a dress recently came true. Thanks to the style experts at Macy's Fashion Office and I.N.C. International Concepts, only at Macy's, Elizabeth had the opportunity to design a colorful floral maxi dress. Elizabeth's exclusive design is now available online at Macys.com and in select Macy's stores. In the spirit of giving back this holiday season, 20 percent of the purchase price of Elizabeth's dress (through Dec. 31) will benefit Make-A-Wish.You can also donate directly to Make-A-Wish via Macy's website.

This holiday season may be a tough one this year, but you can bring joy to children fighting critical illnesses by delivering hope for their wishes to come true.

With vaccine rollouts for the novel coronavirus on the horizon, humanity is getting its first ray of hope for a return to normalcy in 2021. That normalcy, however, will depend on enough people's willingness to get the vaccine to achieve some level of herd immunity. While some people are ready to jump in line immediately for the vaccine, others are reticent to get the shots.

Hesitancy runs the gamut from outright anti-vaxxers to people who trust the time-tested vaccines we already have but are unsure about these new ones. Scientists have tried to educate the public about the development of the new mRNA vaccines and why they feel confident in their safety, but getting that information through the noise of hot takes and misinformation is tricky.

To help increase the public's confidence in taking the vaccine, three former presidents have volunteered to get their shots on camera. President George W. Bush initially reached out to Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx to ask how he could help promote a vaccine once it's approved. Presidents Obama and Bill Clinton have both stated that they will take the vaccine if it is approved and will do so publicly if it will help more people feel comfortable taking it. CNN says it has also reached out to President Jimmy Carter to see if he is on board with the idea as well.

A big part of responsible leadership is setting an example. Though these presidents are no longer in the position of power they once held, they are in a position of influence and have offered to use that influence for the greater good.

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This year, we've all experienced a little more stress and anxiety. This is especially true for youth facing homelessness, like Megan and Lionel. Enter Covenant House, an international organization that helps transform and save the lives of more than a million homeless, runaway, and trafficked young people.

Watch the full story:

Amazon is Delivering Smiles this holiday season by donating essential items and fulfilling AmazonSmile Charity Lists for organizations, like Covenant House, that have been impacted this year more than ever. Visit AmazonSmile Charity Lists to donate directly to a charity of your choice or simply shop smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price of eligible products to your selected charity.

Anne Owens and Luke Redito / Wikimedia Commons
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When Madeline Swegle was a little girl growing up in Burke, VA, she loved watching the Blue Angels zip through the sky. Her family went to see the display every time it was in town, and it was her parents' encouragement to pursue her dreams that led her to the U.S. Naval Academy in 2017.

Before beginning the intense three-year training required to become a tactical air (TACAIR) pilot, Swegle had never been in an aircraft before; piloting was simply something she was interested in. It turns out she's got a gift for it—and not only is she skilled, she finds the "exhilaration to be unmatched."

"I'm excited to have this opportunity to work harder and fly high performance jet aircraft in the fleet," Swegle said in a statement released by the Navy. "It would've been nice to see someone who looked like me in this role; I never intended to be the first. I hope it's encouraging to other people."

As Swegle's story shows, representation and equality matter. And the responsibility to advance equality for all people - especially Black Americans facing racism - falls on individuals, organizations, businesses, and governmental leadership. This clear need for equality is why P&G established the Take On Race Fund to fight for justice, advance economic opportunity, enable greater access to education and health care, and make our communities more equitable. The funds raised go directly into organizations like NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, YWCA Stand Against Racism and the United Negro College Fund, helping to level the playing field.

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Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down...in the most delightful way.

There are certain songs from kids' movies that most of us can sing along to, but we often don't know how they originated. Now we have a timely insight into one such song—"A Spoonful of Sugar" from "Mary Poppins."

It's common for parents to try all kinds of tricks to get kids to take medications they don't want to take, but the inspiration for "A Spoonful of Sugar" was much more specific. Jeffrey Sherman, the son and nephew of the Sherman Brothers—the musical duo responsible not just for "Mary Poppins," but a host of Disney films including "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "The Jungle Book," "The Aristocats," as well as the song "It's a Small World After All"—told the story of how "A Spoonful of Sugar" came about on Facebook.

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