By Daniel Smrokowski
Bugle Columnist | Special Voices
A month ago, I spent four-and-a-half hours on a gray couch in the Changing The Face of Beauty studio to film an interview for their new #FaceMyBeauty Couch Series. As I wore a blue button down shirt, khaki pants, and a blue blazer, I was grateful for the opportunity to be part of this new Couch video series. This new platform gives me, and others in the disability community, a place to talk about the need for our representation in advertising and in the media in general.
In the opening scene of this video, I talked about how the lack of inclusion in media matters to me because there isn’t understanding in the general public of the special needs community. As the founder and host of Special Chronicles, a media platform that gives respect and voice to people with special needs, I am passionate about telling the stories of those of us with special needs. This lack of understanding of those of us with disabilities in the media means that viewers don’t see us. By us not being seen, the mainstream community cannot understand and accept us.
This is a time to celebrate the acceptance and inclusion of those of us with disabilities in the media. It is time to showcase the lives of those with disabilities on media platforms. In the media, whether on film, television, radio, or podcast, those of us with disabilities are rarely seen, and, if we are we are not usually portrayed in a positive light.
Today, however, the inclusion of people with disabilities in the media is beginning to change for the better. The general public is beginning to see the joy on the faces of those who are diagnosed with special needs.
A Palos Park-based nonprofit, Changing The Face of Beauty, is the driving force behind this #FaceMyBeauty Couch Series. Every month of this year they’re giving individuals in the disability community the opportunity to sit on their couch and talk about how the media and advertising worlds can change the face of beauty.
The Couch Series has its mission to include people with disabilities in advertising and, more generally, in the media. Another enterprise, the ABC sitcom “Speechless,” has as its mission to include the disability community in entertainment television.
The television show “Speechless” is breaking new ground as being one of the first sitcoms to feature a character and actor diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The show centers around the daily life of a special needs family— The DiMeo family includes Maya (Minnie Driver) and Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) and their three children: JJ (Micah Fowler), Ray (Mason Cook), and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy)— and JJ’s aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough). As with the many different types of disabilities, there is no one disability diagnoses that is the same. The character of JJ DiMeo was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is also nonverbal. JJ communicates with a letter board and has someone else speak for him. The actor Micah Fowler, who plays JJ, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and is verbal. Even though it takes Micah a while to speak, he is still able to communicate for himself. Micah has to use a lot of facial cues and body language to play the character of JJ. In this role of JJ, I believe that Micah should be recognized for the outstanding work that he is doing as an actor.
This show is not meant to be an “after school special” but a funny and honest television sitcom show. Micah Fowler’s family, and others in the disability community, do consult on the television show to make sure that there is this realistic portrayer of disability. In many of the episodes, it takes on disability issues but does so in a light, comedic tone.
Many in the special needs community can laugh at scenes on “Speechless” while it also being very autobiographical to their own life. For one viewer in the disability community who I have spoken to explained that when she talks with her friends she says that this show is “my life in a sitcom.”
“It’s [Speechless’s] so crazy that it’s funny,” said Sarah Kate Sligh, an eighth grade student from Alabama who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. “But it’s just realistic I can relate too.”
Sarah Kate’s own mom, Andi of the blog BringingTheSunshine.com, can even relate to the character of Maya DiMeo and the “hate list” that Maya has on the “Speechless” television show. There are certain places where Andi will not go because it may not be disability friendly.
A few weeks ago, the cast and crew of “Speechless” wrapped filming Season One. The Season One finale, episode 23, titled “C-A-CAMP,” will air on the ABC network the beginning of May. During the filming of the finale, Kelsey Fowler, the older sister of Micah Fowler, flew from New York City to Los Angeles to be on set for the filming of “Speechless.” She documented her brother Micah on her own YouTube Channel Vlog. Even though for the many months that Micah is filming “Speechless,” he and his sister Kelsey are across the country from each other, they are really close to each other.
“Speechless” is an excellent vehicle for more inclusion and accurate inclusion in the mainstream media. Join me by tuning in on Wednesday’s at 8:30/7:30c to ABC’s “Speechless.”
Join me more broadly by supporting more inclusion and accurate inclusion in the mainstream media of us with special needs.
Daniel Smrokowski was born three-and-a-third months premature and was diagnosed with learning disabilities and a severe language disorder. He is an award-winning columnist covering special needs stories. Daniel is the founder of Special Chronicles, a pioneering nonprofit new media network that gives respect and voice to people with special needs. Daniel is also involved as an athlete and global messenger with Special Olympics Illinois. Come join us at www.SpecialChronicles.com.