Monday, December 19, 2016

Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 works to move young disabled people toward media careers

By B.A. Haller
©Media dis&dat
Transparency statement: I participated as a mentor for all three Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 events.

All photos by B.A. Haller. The photo at right is from the November 14 White House event with Maria Town, left, senior associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Towson University mass communication student, Ben Pearce. 

In three summits during fall 2016, Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 (LCA 2.0) provided mentoring and networking for young disabled people interested in media careers.

Tari Hartman Squire, CEO, EIN SOF Communications and the Loreen Arbus Foundation, in collaboration with City University of New York (CUNY LEADS & CUNY Coalition of Students with Disabilities), Deaf Film Camp, DisBeat, Gallaudet University, National Disability Mentoring Coalition, PolicyWorks, SIGNmation and NY Womenin Film & Television, hosted events at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice (October 31), the White House (Nov. 14), and Gallaudet University in D.C. (Dec. 12).

“Loreen and I are proud of Team LCA 2.0 collaborative Phase I accomplishments, including two Think Tanks that coincided with ADA25, adoption by the Clinton Foundation as a ‘Commitment to Action,’ co-branded CBS News/LCA 2.0 Internship, three Resume Review, Speed Interviewing and Flash Mentoring Summits, and expanded partners," Squire said.

“We look forward to launching Phase II with adding Summits in Hollywood, Informational Webinars, expanded Internships, deeper focus on the Disability Narrative Imperative, collaborations with Industry Associations and Unions, and building the groundwork for our LCA2.0 Mentoring Data Tracking System. We welcome new partners and collaborators who want to support the next generation of media professionals with disabilities,” Squire explained. 

Becky Curran (pictured left), coordinator of EEO and diversity at SAG-AFTRA and who participated as a mentor at the Oct. 31 LCA 2.0, explained how important these events are for young disabled people: "LCA 2.0 is a wonderful opportunity for college students, who happen to have disabilities, to find mentors in people like them, who are in professions that they want to seek out for the near future."

The summits drew high school students, college students and recent graduates with disabilities who participated in resume reviews, flash mentoring, networking discussions and heard from speakers and panelists with disabilities about how they got into media work.

Rutgers University journalism/media studies/theatre 2013 graduate Melanie Waldman said the events she attended gave her a new perspective on the vibrant and diverse community of people with disabilities: “Before attending the summit, I don't think I truly realized just how broadly the disability community extended. Between mentors, mentees and the event organizers, whether able-bodied or not, every single person in attendance was working towards the same goal.

“I think that it's incredibly empowering to know that my community is not just around to be present as a support system, but that they are truly working at their utmost capacities to further our future careers into the world of entertainment and media. It's given me the motivation to take a look at my own work and realize the true power I have within myself to help change the ‘disabled narrative’ as a millennial post-grad with disabilities,” she explained. 

Waldman blogs about her experiences as an amputee at Where’sWaldman.

Ben Pearce, a public relations student at Towson University who graduated in December 2016, attended the Nov. 14 LCA 2.0 at the White House. He said, “more than anything, this event opened my eyes to the lack of media representation of those with disabilities. I'd gotten so used to it, I never even thought about it. It's refreshing to see efforts being made to change that trend. What I took away from it is that I want to be a voice for the disabled community in the media, to show what we're capable of and hopefully because of it, one day my disability won't be much of a factor anymore.”

LCA 2.0 Partners also invited select high school students to measure impact on career exploration of youth with disabilities.  The mother of a high school student with cerebral palsy said, “My teenage daughter attended one of these events a few weeks ago at the White House, and I believe it may have changed her life… What you don’t know is that she has had a challenging time in middle school, feeling increasingly isolated and stigmatized by her ‘typical’ classmates. You offered her a radically different narrative for her life—and gave her a stronger sense of her own future than she otherwise would have had at her age. After the networking session ended she immediately marched over to Maysoon (Zayid), asked her to exchange business cards, and said ‘I hope we can work together someday.’ That is not something she would have done before.”

Lights! Camera! Access! began seven years ago as a “Call-to-Action” Summit produced by EIN SOF for the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) and the Television Academy’s Diversity Committee. Current LCA 2.0 events were in response to the growing awareness that to make positive change in the representation of people with disabilities in the media, disabled people need to work in the media. LCA 2.0 reports its objectives as: “1) Increase disability employment in-front-of and behind-the-camera/keyboard; 2) Improve authentic disability-inclusive diversity portrayals in television, film, advertising, and digital platforms; 3) Expand accessible media with captions/audio descriptions to those who are Deaf, blind, or have other disabilities.”

LCA 2.0 summits are also a response to the July 2016 Ruderman Family Foundation WhitePaper about lack of TV representation of disabled people: “Although people with disabilities make up nearly 20% of our population, they are still significantly under-represented on television. What compounds the problem is the fact that even when characters with disabilities are featured on the small screen, they are far too often played by actors without disabilities.” 

At the November 14 White House summit, Scott Silveri, creator of the ABC network comedy “Speechless” that features a main character with a disability played by a disabled actor, spoke about his focus on authentic casting. The show is based on Silveri’s family; he has an older brother with cerebral palsy.

In picture right, the creator/producer of the ABC comedy "Speechless" Scott Silveri speaks to attendees via a telepresence robot named ALF (Accessible Life Form) that resides at the USDA TARGET Center.  

“Because there is so little representation of people with disabilities on television, we cast a net far” to audition a disabled actor, he said. He saw quickly that Micah Fowler, who plays the disabled character JJ, would be the best actor for the role because “he brought warmth and humor to the role, without the benefit of lines.” (The JJ character on Speechless is a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, like Fowler, but is nonverbal, unlike Fowler.)

“It was important me that we cast someone with a disability because first of all. Just for the reality of the show, we didn’t want to be faking it,” Silveri said. “And to do a show about inclusion and to get it wrong so fast... I didn’t want to mess it up in the most obvious way. Because the show has found a home on the network, I am hoping that experience will be replicated, because people are seeing that these stories are stories that can find an audience.”

Maria Town, senior associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, helped organize the White House summits. Her work focuses on connecting the White House, the federal government, and the disability community.   

At the White House summit at Gallaudet University on Dec. 12, Town questioned “Breaking Bad” actor RJ Mitte about what he wants the future of disability media to look like. Mitte has cerebral palsy.

“I look forward to seeing more people with disabilities on television. There is such a small percentage of characters that actually have disabilities on current television. We need people to see people with disabilities and bring the normality of it,” he said.

Mitte added that he thinks through events like Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0, the media will make a positive turn in disability representation.

“I hope to see more realism, more honesty, and more truth in our television because that’s what people are hungry for,” Mitte explained. 

Mentor Emily Ladau (pictured left), communications consultant and writer at Words I Wheel By and Editor in Chief of Rooted in Rights, said she wanted to give back: "I attribute much of my early career success to mentors who provided guidance and support, so when I was offered the opportunity to serve as a mentor for LCA 2.0, I knew what an honor it would be to pay it forward to the next generation of media-makers in the disability community."

Anna Pakman, director of Digital Strategy, Empire StateDevelopment in New York, moderated panels at all three events on the topic of media careers. Speakers on the Dec. 12 panel Pakman moderated were:  Scott Lewers, senior vice president, TLC Productions; Tyrone Giordano, community engagement strategist, Communication Service for the Deaf; and Roger Purcell, director of Customer and Competitive Intelligence, Conde Nast.

Pakman said: "Whether it’s the boardroom or the writer’s room, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you don’t exist. It’s important to build a talent pipeline, not only so that this generation has more of an opportunity in the industry, but also so that our stories get told for years to come."

In the picture right, Pakman, right, does a resume review with a Deaf student filmmaker from Rochester, N.Y.

At the Oct. 31 LCA 2.0, Vanderbilt University’s Next Steps Ambassador Program and Eye to Eye were inducted into the Susan M. Daniels Disability Mentoring Hall ofFame.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Assisted Suicide: a British musical that asks us to think critically about the portrayal of euthanasia

In November, Colorado voters approved a ballot that made it the fifth state to legalise physician-assisted suicide (excluding Montana, which allows it via court ruling). Discussions around this issue are understandably fraught. 
At a time when legalisation is becoming more common, it’s now even more important that we consider how the debate around assisted dying is framed. Not only the news – but also documentaries and fictional entertainment such as novels and films contribute towards the public understanding of euthanasia. And in the main, such fictional depictions and documentaries are largely in support of assisted suicide. Unless handled carefully, such media could work to stifle the debate. 
A musical attempting to highlight this dynamic was staged this weekend at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre as part of DaDa Fest – an arts festival which delivers events based around disability. Assisted Suicide: The Musical is described by its creator, Liz Carr, as “a TED talk with show tunes”. 
Carr is a well-known disability activist, comedian and actress, who has spent a lot of time campaigning against the legalisation of assisted dying. The musical finds Carr, alongside a small cast of actors, singing a collection of catchy tunes which draw attention to various issues surrounding the debate, including the contested notion of choice and the various social barriers faced by those living with disabilities. 
The musical is refreshing for many reasons – not least because it addresses the bias of creative work exploring this contentious issue. As Carr points out, it’s very rare to see people with disabilities being shown to lead happy and fulfilling lives. It’s the stories in which individuals request to end their life that receive most attention. 
Setting agendas
A film released this year called Me Before You played a large role in highlighting this bias. Carr and other campaigners from the group Not Dead Yet protested against what they saw as the film’s romanticisation of euthanasia at its premiere in June of this year. 
Based on a 2012 novel by Jojo Moyes, Me Before You tells the story of Will, a young man who is left quadriplegic after being hit by a motorcycle. On realising that his paralysis is permanent, Will requests to travel to Switzerland where he can be helped to end his life. Much of the novel is concerned with the romance that develops between Will and his carer, Louisa. Despite their feelings for one another, Will maintains that he will not change his mind about ending his life. Louisa struggles to understand how their relationship is not enough for him to want to live. 
Criticism of Me Before You was certainly justified – the film doesn’t do enough to criticise the social barriers Will faces nor does it delve into the mental health side of things. And yet there are individuals living with disabilities who are not wholly disappointed with the way in which the film raised the issue of assisted suicide. The dialogue which emerged in response to Me Before You raised questions over the way entertainment explores these issues and its role as a means of engaging the public with the ethical debates around euthanasia. 
Documentaries also have an important role in setting the agenda of these debates. Assisted Suicide: The Musical pokes fun at these, too. Carr believes such documentaries are intended to pull at audiences’ heartstrings by showing disabled people as pitiable – and euthanasia as a suitably compassionate response. No specific examples are mentioned but documentaries such as the BBC’s How to Die and Terry Pratchett’s Choosing to Die undoubtedly fit the bill here. 
Once again, the issue is representation. It’s not so much that these portrayals are maliciously insincere, only that so few documentaries consider how disabled individuals should be assisted to live, not simply to die. 
Better alternatives?
There do exist books and films which are, at least to my mind, more adept at handling the topic of euthanasia and disability. 
You’re Not You is both a novel and a film which centres on the life of Kate, a classical pianist who is diagnosed with ALS. Kate employs a carer – Bec, a college student desperate for money, who applies for the job despite a lack of experience. The narrative ends with Kate being taken off life support. Or there’s the 2011 French film The Intouchables, loosely based on a true story in which a wealthy aristocrat hires a young man from the projects to be his caregiver. The film ends with Philippe marrying the love of his life. 
The difference with these narratives is their capacity to reflect nuance – to show the characters as indecisive, to show the realities of their condition while also showing them enjoying life. The key point here is uncertainty. Disability rights groups who reject physician-assisted suicide focus on the idea that it’s understandable to want to end one’s life but also that this is never permanent, just a phase. 
Whether you agree with this perspective or not, the high book sales of Me Before You and Carr’s sold-out musical demonstrate that the arts are a prominent platform for engaging people with social and bio-ethical issues. They may not always be successful in terms of appropriate representation, but they still promote reflection on how they participate in and frame these discussions.
And such reflection is to be promoted. It encourages future books, plays, films and documentaries to acknowledge the complexity of this issue and avoid attempting to provide a blueprint that must be followed in order to achieve clearly defined positive or moral outcomes.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Micah Fowler on Booking His Speechless Role and Playing a Character With More Severe Cerebral Palsy Than Himself

Speechless brought a new household to ABC’s block of family sitcoms: the DiMeos, led by Minnie Driver as a fired-up, helicoptering mother named Maya to a special-needs child named J.J. Eighteen-year-old high-school senior Micah Fowler plays J.J., who like his character has cerebral palsy, but has a different disability level. Where J.J. is non-verbal, communicating with the use of a laser pointer and a chart of commonly used words and an alphabet, Fowler can speak given some time. I had a conversation with J.J. around the premiere of Speechless, which was picked up for a full season just a few episodes into their season. Since a conventional phone interview wouldn’t be logistically possible, we decided to email over the course of several weeks through his mother, Tammy Fowler, who wrote down his responses. Vulture talked with Fowler about juggling school with acting, the representation of disabled actors on screen, and how he found out he got the part on his 18th birthday. 

First off, I'd just love for you to tell me about yourself. What do you like to do?
I'm 18, a high-school senior, and grew up in Barnegat, New Jersey. I have cerebral palsy and use both a walker and a wheelchair. I use the wheelchair for longer distances. Unlike J.J. in Speechless, I do communicate verbally but have to work very hard at it. I am an avid movie fan and especially enjoy the Marvel and DC franchises. Oh, and I am a resident expert in all things Star Wars. I love playing video games, acting, and playing sled hockey. I also collect vintage cell phones. 
Who's your favorite superhero? My favorite superhero is Batman. I think he is my favorite because he was the first hero I was fascinated with as a child. 
How did you get cast in Speechless? What was the audition process like?I credit my love of acting to my sister Kelsey who is a veteran Broadway actress and currently a junior at Pace University in New York. We are very close, and I developed an interest in acting when I was younger through watching her many shows. My sister’s agent asked if I was interested in acting, and I eagerly jumped on board. I made my television debut on an episode of Blue's Clues when I was 9, and later appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street. When I was 15, I played the role of Barry in Jason Reitman’s movie Labor Day, with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. 
To answer your question of how I was cast in Speechless, I have to go back a year and a half when my agent was asked to have me send in a "personality tape" for an "untitled Scott Silveri project." I put together a tape of me just talking about myself and joking around. Time went by, and I never heard anything else. A year later, my agent called and said they had requested another personality tape for the same project, now titled Speechless. So I again put together a personality tape just talking about my interests and joking around. A few days later the agent said the casting director was sending six scenes over. I spent an entire Saturday putting together the tape of the six scenes. My parents verbalized all of the other characters lines (off-camera) while I reacted to all of the dialogue on-camera. My sister was at school, so my mom sent her the audition footage to upload to the agent. She texted my mom, "This is hilarious, he is totally going to book this." How crazy is that? She called it. The agent told us they loved the tape and would be in touch. About two months later, I found out I booked the role on the day of my 18th birthday, BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER! 
What a birthday! That’s incredible. What’s it like working on a television show for the first time? I know that the hours must be long because you have to shoot so many episodes.I love working on Speechless. It has been a blast and I am enjoying every minute of it. We do work really long hours, 10–14 hour days, five days a week, but we get a one-week hiatus off a month. I was not used to working full time, but to tell you the truth, it never feels like work to me, even on the really long days. I guess that's because I am doing something that I love. 
Everybody on-set is so invested in this show and loves that it is impacting so many people, so it is a great working environment. So everybody including the actors, the writing staff, the directors, the producers, and even the crew get along great, appreciate each other and are grateful to be part of such a great project. We laugh a lot while filming and in-between scenes we chat, share stories, and Kyla does magic tricks. 
What does your schedule look like on a day-to-day basis?My schedule greatly varies from day to day. I am usually at the Fox Lot or on location filming, and I have tutoring 10–12. [During our] one-week hiatus every month, we usually fly back to New Jersey. As far as my daily schedule, one day I might be in every scene and only able to tutor during lighting setups and in between takes; another day I might have a scene off and go to tutoring intermittently throughout the day. I get 15 hours of private tutoring in a week. Once in a while, I do get a day off during the week because I am not in any of the scenes scheduled to film that day. When I come home at night, I read through and prep for my scenes for the next day, watch a television show, and go to bed. 
There’s an episode where Minnie Driver's character, Maya DiMeo, gets the principal to cancel a bonfire party. It was a great way to think about accessibility and how the majority should handle minority concerns. What would you have wanted in that situation?If I was in that situation, I definitely would not have wanted the event canceled. I would have wanted a solution for me to get to the beach, a zip-line to the beach or an all-terrain beach wheelchair. 
The writing seems "lived in" to me. Would you agree with that? Do you have input with the writers regarding J.J.'s plotlines or character development?Yes, I agree. Many of the writers have someone in their lives that they are close to who is dealing with a disability so they are able to draw from those personal experiences. The show also consults with The Cerebral Palsy Foundation regularly. 
Yes, my parents and I have shared many of our personal experiences with the writers as well; some have already been used in episodes we have shot. I have also given input during filming certain scenes, input concerning J.J.’s disability level and the equipment he uses. 
What are some of your personal experiences that have been incorporated into the show? What was some of the input that you gave regarding J.J.'s disability level?There have been several of my personal experiences incorporated into the show. One is: My mom had a “Micah Manual” for when my grandparents watched me for extended amounts of time growing up. In one episode, Mia hands a book to Kenneth and he says, “This kid comes with instructions?” Another is: I like to watch The Bachelor, and it was incorporated into one of the episodes of J.J. watching The Bachelor
As far as J.J.'s disability level, J.J. was written as having a more severe form of cerebral palsy than I do. So there are times, especially in the beginning when we had to work out J.J.’s abilities and struggles. My parents and I would think about the abilities and struggles of others we know with more severe cerebral palsy and say, "J.J. would probably not be able to do this or would adapt and do it this way." An example is: I can brush my own teeth and pick up a knife and fork and feed myself. J.J., not having much dexterity in his hands, has difficulty with these tasks. 
It's rare to see a disabled actor on TV: A recent study showed that less than 2 percent of actors onscreen were themselves actually disabled, despite the fact that people with disabilities make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. There have been a few notable exceptions like RJ Mitte in Breaking Badand Daryl Mitchell, who is currently on NCIS: New Orleans. What do you think of the state of representation of disabled people on TV and film?I have not seen NCIS: New Orleans, but I have seen Breaking Bad and I think RJ Mitte is great! 
I think it is sad that less than 2 percent of actors on screen are themselves actually disabled. Growing up a huge television and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of both disabled actors and disabled characters being portrayed on television. So I am so very excited that Speechless, a prime-time network-television show, conquers both of those missing links by having both an actor actually living with cerebral palsy as a main character and by having a “character” in the story line living with a disability. 
I think there is a lack of auditioning opportunities and a lack of hiring of disabled actors due to misconceptions and generalizations of people with disabilities, a lack of breakdowns for roles of characters with disabilities, and a lack of handicap-accessible auditioning rooms. 
Look at the last ten years of television — regular exposure on a regular basis causes viewers to change their perspectives and become comfortable with diversity in families. As they get to know J.J., it will bring understanding and relatability towards those with disabilities. This really is a groundbreaking experience, a person with a disability hired as an actor portraying a main character with cerebral palsy on prime-time television! I think Speechless will make people more comfortable around people with disabilities. I think Speechless will encourage viewers to look beyond the physical or other limitations of special-needs people who come into their own lives and discover their love, personality, and even their humor! 
What has your favorite episode of Speechless been so far?My favorite episode so far — wow, that is hard! I would have to say the Halloween episode is definitely my favorite that has aired so far. I loved all the amazing costumes our incredible crew created and had a blast trying out the R2D2 costume, and the Back to the Future's DeLorean. I had a blast driving the DeLorean, crashing the DeLorean, and playing drunk! It was fun to watch, too. I love that episode!

Toddler with Down syndrome stars in OshKosh B'Gosh holiday ad

From CBS news:

The story of 16-month-old Asher Nash went viral earlier this year after the toddler was turned down by a modeling agency in Buford, Georgia. 
His mother, Meagan Nash, refusing to take no for an answer, shared photos of her son on Facebook to speak out about the incident. She wanted him to at least be considered for an ad campaign for the clothing company OshKosh B’gosh — and her message to raise awareness for kids with special needs, like her son, reached the right audience.  
“Using people with special needs [in ads] shows the world that these people have value and worth just like any typical person does,” Nash told CBS News. 
It turns out, OshKosh B’gosh couldn’t agree more. 
The clothing company invited the little boy to model for their holiday ad this year. Photos from the shoot are now being released, and customers, including Nash, are thrilled. 
“I knew when Asher was born he was destined to be great and do great things,” Nash told CBS news. “So I am very proud to share his beauty with the world.” 
Nash says OshKosh was impressed with her social media campaign and commended her on getting the word out and raising awareness. 
The 27-year-old Georgia mom hopes Asher will continue to work with Down syndrome organizations and help end the many misconceptions about children who have the condition. 
The world is changing and so is our perception of people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, Nash explained. 
“I want people to be able to see my son or others like him in an ad and not instantly say, ‘Oh, he has Down Syndrome,’” Nash said. “I want them to say, ‘Oh I love that shirt that baby is wearing, I want that for my child!’” 
Dozens of people have commended OshKosh for featuring the child with the hopes that he won’t be the only one. 
“Thank you Oshkosh for recognizing our special needs children also have the right to be treated equally, fairly, and with love,” one user commented on a photo of the boy on Facebook. 
“Ok, I’ve always loved Oshkosh, but I love them even more now,” another wrote. “That little boy is so precious.” 
Not only is Nash excited by her child’s success, but she’s hopeful for the future of other children like him. 
Children with Down syndrome and all other disabilities are incredible human beings and we want OshKosh to help us change the world’s perception,” she said. 
Since this has all happened, more opportunities have come up for Asher to work with several brands including, Kids II, Oball, Ingenuity, Toys “R” Us, Safety 1st, Happy Family Brand and Num Num.  
“It is time we realize they are not ‘just a trend’ that comes and goes in advertisement,” Nash said. “They’re here to stay.”

How Did ABC’s Speechless Make Life With Disability Funny? By Hiring the Right People

From New York magazine. In the picture, Director Ben Lewin and co-executive producer Mark Kunerth filming the episode "R-o Road T-r Trip." 

LOS ANGELES --  Speechless actors John Ross Bowie and Micah Fowler are working through a scene for a January episode of the ABC comedy on the Fox lot. In it, we see JJ’s (Fowler) mischievous side for the first time: During a stop at a crafts fair during a family road trip, somebody mistakenly assumes the DiMeos are selling water from their car, which gives JJ an idea to peddle off the family's junk — yoga pants, a curling iron, among other items — out of their truck. Impressed by his son's initiative, the father (Bowie) and son start conspiring.
Between takes, director Ben Lewin stands up from his seat and walks over to the actors. “Micah, don’t smile this time,” he tells the 18-year-old newcomer. “Just think.” 
JJ, who is wheelchair-bound, has a nonverbal form of cerebral palsy which means Fowler (who also has cerebral palsy, but can speak with some difficulty), relies solely on his facial expressions for his performance. “Sometimes I just want JJ to say it,” says Fowler, during an interview in his trailer, acknowledging that depending on only his face to perform can get tough. 
It helps that his director understands him. Lewin, 69, the writer-director of the 2012 critically acclaimed film The Sessions,survived boyhood polio and uses crutches to walk. “It’s a real challenge to give the audience a sense of what’s in your mind and what’s developing in your mind when you can’t speak,” Lewin says of working with Fowler on the scene. “What I was trying to get out of him was, he was seeing all this stuff laid out and as they see it laid out, he realizes this is all crap, how am I going to sell this? So I was just trying to get the sense of the idea brewing.” 
Before Speechless — the ABC comedy starring Minnie Driver and Bowie as Maya and Jimmy, the heads of the DiMeo family, raising JJ and their two other children in Orange County — the Australian indie filmmaker’s American TV résumé was limited to one episode each of Ally McBeal and Touched By an Angel. Lewin’s approach to actors is simple: Treat each one individually.
“Everyone has got a different shtick, a different set of issues, and you work each person in different ways,” he said. “It’s not very obvious, but I don’t relate to Micah as a special-needs actor. Of course, there’s a whole kind of physical element to it, but you’d be amazed how that just disappears. My kids, for instance, don’t cut me any slack whatsoever. Get your own bloody coffee! So I’m not inclined to cut anyone slack because they need more than someone else.” For his part, Fowler is acutely aware of how rare it is to work with a disabled director (Lewin is one of two disabled directors who are members of the Director's Guild of America). The experience taught him, he says with a big smile, that "no dream is too high." 
The warmly received show is ABC’s newest family comedy to succeed at presenting family life from a specific perspective. In this case, creator and showrunner Scott Silveri (Friends, Perfect Couples) mined his own family for comedy — his older brother has cerebral palsy and he has two younger siblings. Silveri had tried to tell their story for years, but had trouble landing on a tone that didn’t feel preachy. 
“It’s a tough tone to pull off,” Silveri says. “I also didn’t want it to be beat-for-beat my family.” There are some direct connections, though: 16-year-old Mason Cook, who plays middle-child Ray, is modeled after Silveri. And the element that gives the show its distinctive point of view was inspired by the Silveris: “Embracing being different and not apologizing for it — not even a little bit,” he says. “Not only did we not feel less than, we felt special. There were other families on our block that had a kid with a disability. But there weren’t any families who laughed harder than us.” 
Growing up in the '70s, he and his family didn’t have the types of online and community support that exists today. “This kind of funny and sweet thing happened where I went to read about families like ours and met a lot more people who went through the same thing,” he says. “What I found was that we fit into these clichés, and there was something oddly comforting about that.”
He discovered there were many loving, tough mothers who will do anything and everything to protect a special-needs child the way Maya (Driver) does, harassing the school principal about installing a wheelchair ramp and meticulously orchestrating every moment of JJ’s first date. Driver was drawn to the part of Maya because of how unusual she was. “She has to fight very hard,” Driver says. “She’s in a difficult situation. But she also makes me laugh. She’s got a weird charm."  
Lewin knows mothers like Maya — he had one. “I had this mixed relationship with my mother, and in a way, she made me who I am, and in the other way, I wanted to run to the other side of the earth from her,” Lewin says, laughing. “I think the show really does get into that dynamic. I had an out-of-control mother. I guess I was lucky I wasn’t her husband.” 
Lewin is the comedy’s first disabled director, but Silveri has notably assembled a team of people who have personal experience caring for others with disabilities. Several of the show’s writers have either siblings or children with disabilities, and Silveri hired two consultants with disabilities. The writers have gone on field trips to physical-therapy centers and listened to guest speakers in their office. The show also struck up a partnership with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation for feedback on story lines and scripts. 
“It’s important for us to make this show as realistic as possible,” Silveri said. “They don’t have veto power, but they make us aware of things we should be sensitive to since we are here to entertain and be funny. This is not a documentary, but we do want to get it right.” 
Bowie, who also has a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory, remembers hearing about Speechless during pilot season from actors who thought the subject matter was too risky. “This is either going to be really, really sentimental or it’s going to be really tasteless,” Bowie recalled of the chatter about the show. “I thought to myself, Okay, what if it’s neither, or what if it’s a decent balance of both? Wouldn’t that be a show I’d want to watch?” Then he read the script and caught onto the show’s dark sense of humor. “Really early on in the script there’s a moment where Ray calls JJ a bully,” he recalls. “I’ve never seen a kid who uses a wheelchair called a bully. I really wanted in.” When Bowie met Fowler and realized playing with nonverbal cues would become a cornerstone of the comedy, he readily welcomed the challenge. 
In earlier iterations of the pilot script, JJ spoke through an augmented speech device on an iPad, but that “didn’t feel as fun to dramatize,” Silveri says. Then, the producer met a young woman with cerebral palsy (who later became one of the consultants on the show) who uses a communication board like the one JJ uses on the show, and a human aid to verbalize what she is expressing. “They had this great rapport and it was another dynamic to play with, another person to help add to scenes," Silveri says. 
Inspired by his meeting, Silveri created a character, Kenneth, played by comedian Cedric Yarbrough, as JJ’s aide. “Instead of a computer,” Silveri says, "we have one of the funniest guys on the planet.” Because having Fowler use the board can become repetitive and drags out jokes, Yarbrough is given license to speed-read. “If we simply had him reading off the board, realistically we’d get about three pages done for every Wednesday night,” Silveri says, laughing. “You think as a writer you want this blue-sky canvas to do whatever you want, but it’s actually fun to work inside a box. It’s like a puzzle: How are we going to have two characters communicate when only one is speaking, and what’s a fun way to keep it active? Micah is so good and so expressive that a lot of times in editing we will cut the line and just have a look sell it. It worked in the silent movies for a long time.” 
That’s what ultimately drew Lewin to Speechless: its unexpected mix of humor and compassion. “I wouldn’t want to work on a show that made you cringe, but I like to work on a show that almost says the wrong thing on a fairly regular basis. It bangs into political incorrectness,” Lewin says, “and that tickles me.”