Saturday, November 12, 2022

Elon Musk's destruction of Twitter is harming disabled people

Pictured is a Twitter chat announcement from 2019. ID: Graphic with a white background with text: “#DisabilityCivics Twitter Chat, Civic Participation & the Disability Community, May 22, 2019, 4 pm Pacific/ 5 pm Mountain/ 6 pm Central/ 7 pm Eastern, Co-hosts: @LurieInstitute @IntersectedCrip @DisVisibility” On the left is a black Twitter bird and on the right is a computer screen with two caption bubbles coming out."

On October 28, Twitter users woke up to a new reality: Elon Musk had taken over the platform and almost immediately begun making changes. For people with disabilities who’d found an emotional support system on Twitter, anxiety over Musk’s upheaval was especially sharp. Twitter had been one of the most user-friendly social media platforms out there—with a world-class team that made sure it was usable by people who had a variety of different needs. Plus, it’d been a megaphone and a lifeline to the outside world, for those who’d been especially vulnerable during the pandemic and mostly stayed indoors. Everything was now up in the air.

One such user is Stephanie Tait, an author, speaker, and disability advocate who suffers from multiple chronic health issues related to Lyme disease. “There are a lot of people joking about how Twitter going away would be for the best because everyone would go outside and touch grass,” she says. “What’s difficult for our community is that we’re here trying to get people to understand that for some of us, that’s not an option.”

Many users said they’d be leaving. The hashtag #TwitterMigration started trending. But for some people the stakes were higher than for others. For Tait and other users with disabilities, there’s much more at stake on Twitter than a timeline filled with jokes, memes, and news updates. Tait has used Twitter for years to build up her audience as an author and raise awareness about disabilities, and has garnered nearly 37,000 followers in the process.

For Karli Drew, a writer, creator, and activist with nearly 20,000 followers who was born with a progressive neuromuscular disorder called spinal muscular atrophy, Twitter has been the source of a ton of career opportunities. She says that one change Musk already tried to institute—charging $8 a month for verification—was a threat to the livelihood of some users with disabilities.

“There are disabled public figures on Twitter who have already been verified and whose credibility and jobs have come out of that verification,” she says. “They wouldn’t be able to maintain that $8 fee.”

If Musk’s ownership leads to a mass exodus from Twitter, or a potential bankruptcy, which he warned about on Thursday, it could mean a huge loss: of essential social circles, of knowledge sources, and of financial resources for many. And if misinformation takes over and the disabled community doesn’t stay on the platform, those things are lost even if Twitter continues to thrive.

What Twitter means to users with disabilities

When Abi Oyewole began regularly using Twitter in 2019, she was looking for answers. She says she sought out “disability Twitter” while dealing with a number of medical issues, including fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Now, she has over 25,000 followers.

“I was looking for community and finding people like me, who were struggling with their health, really helped me come to terms with my own health issues,” she says. “At the time, it pretty much saved my life because I got some pretty important information. It was quite crucial to have that support and to know others that were going through the same thing.”

Touted as the “world’s largest focus group,” Twitter’s follower structure—you can follow someone without them following you back and vice versa—gives users the ability to both broadcast and access information from all corners of the platform. “Someone who is talking about their experience of living with a disability could potentially be reaching a large and broad audience thanks to the public and asymmetric nature of Twitter,” says Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, communication, and information at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

That has allowed people with disabilities and other marginalized groups that experience discrimination and exclusion to build community in a way that isn’t possible on other platforms, Tait says. “When you have certain kinds of disabilities, especially when you have diagnoses that are not as common, you need sheer numbers to even have the odds of potentially finding somebody with the same condition as you,” she says. “Twitter’s made it a lot easier to find people that you have no connection to at all and say, ‘Hey, we have similar symptoms or similar diagnoses, or you’ve reached a diagnosis and I haven’t, or you have research that you’ve already done and that research is going to be really important to me now.'”

The megaphone effect of Twitter has also made it instrumental for organizing mutual aid, fundraising, and other forms of community care efforts for people with disabilities, Tait says. “If you’re just asking the same people in your immediate circle for help again and again, it only goes so far.” she says. “If you take away Twitter, it’s no exaggeration to say that there will be medical procedures that don’t happen.”

Economically, too, it’s impacting people. Those who struggle to hold traditional jobs have built their entire business models around Twitter’s reach and amplification.

For Oyewole, Twitter has played an essential role in growing the online business that enables her to support herself. “I can’t work most jobs because I’m disabled and by being on Twitter, I’m able to promote my business quite easily,” she says. “Other platforms require you to pay so your work can be seen. But with Twitter, it can gain a lot of reach through support from your followers.”

The factors that made Twitter special

Unique in its ability to amplify marginalized voices, Twitter has become a vital tool for building and sustaining community among vulnerable populations, says Zuckerman.

“For years, people have been finding community on social networks when they have difficulty finding community in the physical world,” he says. “That could be people who are in small minorities in the communities where they’re living or it could be people for whom it’s difficult to access the physical world.”

Just over a week after taking control of Twitter, Musk gutted the company’s accessibility team. That means the work those employees were doing to make the platform accessible for as many people as possible has stopped. For example: adding image descriptions to tweets for people who are visually impaired and updating Twitter’s sounds to help make them pleasing to people with sensory sensitivities.

That’s not surprising to many experts, who’ve noted that Musk’s “free speech” goals seem in conflict with creating a space that’s welcoming to those who are easy targets for trolls and other bad actors.

“Musk’s vaunted commitment to free speech is meaningless if Twitter becomes a place that lets harassers and trolls operate with impunity,” Zuckerman says. “Allowing people to be harassed into silence is as least an effective form of censorship as banning users.”

Musk also cut employees across Twitter’s human rights, product trust and safety, and ethical AI divisions, and platform safety seems to already be unraveling. On Wednesday, Musk took to Twitter spaces to explain how the platform wouldn’t devolve into a free-for-all for imposters and trolls. The next day, the site was rife with fake “verified” accounts, and key privacy and security executives quit.

The cost of leaving Twitter

Some users are quickly leaving the platform. In the days after Musk completed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, estimates from research firm Bot Sentinel suggested that Twitter may have lost more than a million users. Bot Sentinel found that around 877,000 accounts were deactivated and a further 497,000 were suspended between October 27 and November 1. That’s more than double the usual number of account losses, according to MIT Technology Review.

Since then, downloads of Twitter alternate Mastodon have skyrocketed, with data analytics firm reporting that Mastodon downloads in the U.S. increased by nearly 5000% during the 10 day period of October 27 to November 5.

But simply switching platforms is not an option for many users with disabilities. “A lot of people are finding support in communities on Twitter,” Zuckerman says. “Having that space go away or having it migrate to another platform where people have to figure out how to rebuild all the tools and infrastructure that they need to use that platform is a huge cost.”

For Drew, losing Twitter would mean losing the social platform that’s most accessible to her. Drew’s spinal muscular atrophy causes muscle weakness. “It takes a while for me to type and I can’t take photos myself, so Instagram and TikTok and other platforms are more difficult for me,” she says. “With Twitter, I can easily say what I want to say without asking anyone for help or using up all my energy and time.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating health and isolation issues for many people with disabilities, Drew says that losing Twitter as a gateway to the world would be dire. “Personally, my following has dropped significantly and I’m already seeing it happening,” she says. “A lot of disabled people are feeling lost because we’re losing that sense of community. We’re a few years into the pandemic and a lot of us are still quarantining, so that’s kind of all we have left.”

The problem with Twitter alternatives like Mastodon and Reddit where users organize themselves into different communities is they are siloed by topic and interest. That could make it hard for the same community to reunite on a new platform, and it would mean that if—for example—people with a particular disability coalesced around a particular online space, their posts wouldn’t have the same broad, universal reach.

“Even if you could somehow magically get all of disability Twitter to move to the same alternative social media platform, we would be siloed in a way where the rest of the world wouldn’t have to see us anymore,” Tait says. “If you push us to a site where we can find each other, but other people don’t have to see us anymore, it’s very dangerous for us because it becomes so much easier to marginalize us and to leave us behind.”

One of Drew’s biggest concerns is that marginalized people will be left to fend for themselves on Twitter if too many people decide to leave the platform. “I don’t blame marginalized people who are leaving because the website could become an unsafe place without moderation and verification based on actual merits,” she says. “But as far as allies go, if we don’t have them sticking around, we’ll have nothing.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Photographers and illustrators with disabilities, Shutterstock is offering monetary grants for work that authentically depicts disabled people


Please share widely!


Photographers and illustrators with disabilities, Shutterstock is offering monetary grants for work that authentically depicts disabled people. Please consider submitting your work.


The Global Alliance for Disability in Media and Entertainment ( has partnered with Shutterstock and the World Institute on Disability ( to offer $50,000 in grants and a guide to increase and diversify portrayals of disabilities in the Shutterstock content library.


Learn more and apply today: 


Shutterstock, in collaboration with GADIM and WID, has also created guidance on portraying disabled people accurately in stock photography, Authentic Portrayals of People with Disabilities Guide. You can download the guide here:


Sunday, May 22, 2022

Netflix launches its first-ever disability collection, ‘Celebrating Disability with Dimension,' expands accessibility features

 From The Verge:

Netflix’s closed captioning, subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing (SDH), and audio descriptions (AD) are all powerful tools designed to help make films and television shows more accessible to people with disabilities. But those kinds of features have also become integral parts of how people from all walks of life consume the streaming platform’s content, and Netflix is planning to give its subscribers more of what they want.

In celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Netflix is gearing up to expand its accessibility features across the globe and launching a new collection highlighting stories focused on people living with disabilities. Celebrating Disability with Dimension will function much like the platform’s other special collections that pull from Netflix’s catalog of existing content with the goal of promoting their visibility as users browse the service. In addition to the new collection, Netflix is also beefing up its AD and SDH offerings in more languages, including Spanish, French, Korean, and Portuguese.

When we recently spoke with Netflix’s director of accessibility, Heather Dowdy, she explained how, typically, people’s ability to use AD and SDH have depended on whether the networks airing content took the initiative to provide the features in multiple languages. While shows produced in France like Lupin might have those features available in French, for example, English-speakers hoping to watch the series with English AD or SDH would only be able to do so if that accessibility was prioritized by the platform airing it.

Dowdy said that while providing those features to those who need them is the core of the work she’s done at Netflix, one of the big reasons the platform’s been planning for this expansion is the fact that more subscribers are watching content from across the globe.

“We’re adding more titles because we recognize that folks are finding these inclusive stories all over the world,” Dowdy said. “We have some global hits when you think about with Squid Game and La Casa de Papel, and we want our members and others in other countries to be able to access that content as well.”

Netflix says that 40 percent of its global user base regularly uses subtitles and that people have been watching hundreds of thousands of hours worth of shows like LuciferOzark, and Seinfeld with their audio descriptions turned on. Dowdy, who herself is a CODA, explained that Netflix also worked with members of the disability community to develop more robust AD guidelines meant to make the platform’s approach to accessibility more inclusive.

“Things like race, gender, hair texture, skin tone — things that really bring our characters to life,” Dowdy said. “That’s evident visually, but then we’re able to put that in the audio description as well so that our members are involved in the conversations that we’re having around these characters.”

Netflix’s efforts have paid off with series like Bridgerton, which the platform says is its number one most-watched show or film with subtitles in six countries. But the story’s been somewhat different from other global phenomenons like Squid Game, whose English subtitles came under fire for being woefully inaccurate. Dowdy didn’t specify what steps Netflix plans to take as part of its new initiative to ensure that shows and movies’ original voices are maintained as the streamer localizes them. She did say, however, that the Squid Game situation was a learning opportunity for Netflix that came as a direct result of viewers’ critical feedback.

“If our members with disabilities aren’t even able to access that title and give us the feedback to improve the SDH, then we aren’t serving all of the members the best way that we can,” Dowdy said. “So I think that’s an example of our continuously listening to members and incorporating that feedback to get better, which is something that Netflix is really good at doing.”

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Hallmark to debut romance with lead character who has Down Syndrome


from CNN:

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries is diversifying its content.

The cable channel is set to feature a romance with a lead who has Down Syndrome.
"Never Have I Ever" actress Lily D. Moore(pictured) is set to star in "Color My World With Love" as Kendall, "a talented artist with Down syndrome who creates beautiful paintings in the impressionist style that reflect the reality of her subjects as she sees them."
    Things take a romantic turn when she meets Brad, played by David DeSanctis, in a cooking class.
    Erica Durance, Benjamin Ayres and Karen Kruper also star.
      "Thanks to the support of her mother, Emma (Durance), and grandmother, Bev Kruper), Kendall is happy and thriving," according to a press release provided to CNN. "Her life takes an exciting turn when she meets Brad (DeSanctis) in a cooking class at the local center for diverse learners and romance blooms. Emma has spent the last 22 years trying to protect her daughter and has reservations about Kendall and Brad's new relationship, especially when it quickly moves in a serious direction."
        "Everyone has a dream to fall in love and get married one day, even people with disabilities," Moore said in a statement. "I hope viewers take away that 'Color My World With Love' is about painting your own story through your emotions and that we all have endless possibilities."
          "Color My World With Love" is set to air later in 2022.

          Sunday, April 3, 2022

          Disabled filmmakers demand UCLA amend Hollywood diversity report to document disabled, LGBTQIA+ representation

           From Variety

          Pictured is Anna Dzieduszycka, an actor with dwarfism, who starred in the Oscar-nominated film from Poland, "The Dress."

          UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report found some improvement in 2022 in regards to hiring women and people of color, but activist group FWD-Doc is demanding that UCLA address other overlooked groups such as LGBTQIA+ individuals and the “invisible minority” — disabled people — in the industry.

          Jim LeBrecht, co-founder of FWD-Doc and co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp” (2020), states, “UCLA’s report that stands for promoting diversity is an egregious case of exclusion and perpetuates the misconception that people with disabilities do not exist in the entertainment industry. In light of ‘CODA’s’ three Oscar wins at the recent 94th Academy Awards ceremony, this oversight reinforces FWD-Doc’s assertion that this report is incomplete and not comprehensive.”

          He adds that other groups have been under-represented, such as LGBTQIA+ people, but were ignored in the study.

          The ninth annual report, from UCLA’s Division of Social Sciences, covers the top 200 theatrical English-language releases in 2021, ranked by global box office, as well as all major streaming films based on total household ratings. The study says people of color rep nearly 43% of the U.S. population and will be in the majority by 2050. POC last year represented 38.9% of film leads and 43.1% of all actors, as well as 30.2% of directors and 32.3% of writers.

          Women accounted for 47.2% of film leads, according to the study, and 42.2% among all performers. Women accounted for 21.8% of film directors and 33.5% of writers.

          LeBrecht adds that since UCLA’s report is designed to “explore relationships between diversity and the bottom line in the Hollywood entertainment industry,” it is critical that other demographics be included.

          FWD-Doc demands a public statement that acknowledges UCLA’s oversight and the damage it creates, imploring UCLA to commit to releasing a report on disabled representation, including Deaf, disabled and neurodiverse workers, in the film industry within six months. Additionally, FWD-Doc expects that the UCLA report on representation in television (due in Fall 2022) does not repeat this omission.

          FWD-Doc says there are globally 1.85 billion people with disabilities, holding $8 trillion dollars in disposable income (this jumps to $13 trillion if you include their families), making people with disabilities the third largest economic power in the world — with more than the countries of Japan, Germany, and the U.K..

          Filmmakers with disabilities are key to unlocking these audiences and the org says there are an estimated 500 filmmakers with disabilities and their allies.

          The UCLA report states, “America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film content.” FWD-Doc adds that so far there is a dearth of projects related to disabilities, despite audiences’ positive reaction to recent Oscar-nominated and winning films (“CODA,” “Audible,” “Crip Camp,” “The Dress,” “Feeling Through” and “Sound of Metal”).

          The group says that by including disability in its research, UCLA can help focus industry attention on disabilities and ensure more projects made by filmmakers with disabilities receive funding to reach audiences.

          FWD-Doc (Filmmakers with Disabilities) is a group of filmmakers with disabilities and active allies. The org seeks to increase the visibility of, support for and direct access to opportunities, networks and employment for Deaf, disabled, and neurodiverse filmmakers.

          Aside from LeBrecht, group leadership includes co-founders Day Al-Mohamed, Lindsey Dryden and Alysa Nahmias and interim director Amanda Upson.

          Sunday, February 20, 2022

          'I'm proving everyone wrong': Actors with Down syndrome enjoying new era of media representation

          From the CBC-Radio Canada. Pictured is Toronto performer Madison Tevlin, who will star in a new CBC series called "Who Do You Think I Am?," in which she interviews people who are misperceived because of their physical appearance. Tevlin says she's trying to disprove misconceptions about people with Down syndrome. 

          Madison Tevlin went viral in 2015 when her YouTube cover of John Legend's All of Me blew up.

          The Toronto teen had only intended family and friends to see it, but she's now racked up more than eight million views and is onto her next gig: a CBC show.

          It's called Who Do You Think I Am, in which Tevlin interviews a roster of guests who are misperceived due to their exterior appearance.

          Tevlin has Down syndrome, in which an individual is born with an extra copy of the 21st chromosome, leading to some cognitive and developmental disability. She wants to prove to the public that people with Down syndrome can do it all — and she's flashing her triple-threat status as an actor, singer and dancer to prove it.

          "People may think that we can't do lots of things and assume things about us that [are] not always true," Tevlin told CBC News. "That we can't walk, we can't sing, can't dance, can't live on our own and can't do all these things.

          "But actually, I'm proving everyone wrong."

          As film, television and the arts become more inclusive and social media platforms like TikTok give the disability community a space to thrive and build an audience, individuals with Down syndrome have greater avenues for finding success in the performing arts.

          'Part of our stories'

          There's still room for improvement, but advocates say representation is getting better.

          "Media representation of people with Down syndrome — and people with disabilities in general — it's changing rapidly. It's becoming more mainstream," said Chelsea Jones, an assistant professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who researches critical disability studies and disability media.

          "We're seeing people with Down syndrome cast as more characters on TV shows, for example, which is really exciting, and it has sort of this effect of normalizing disability and showing us that people with Down syndrome are part of our culture and part of our society and part of our stories," Jones said.

          According to the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, about 45,000 Canadians have Down syndrome, and one in 781 Canadians are born with it. While television characters with Down syndrome are an increasingly frequent occurrence, the overall landscape has been dry — and some depictions lean on stereotypes, making actors with Down syndrome feel misunderstood.

          "I think people think that people with Down syndrome can't do a lot, and they feel sorry for us," said Lily D. Moore, an American actress best known for her role as Rebecca in Never Have I Ever, the Netflix comedy created by Mindy Kaling.

          "We can go to college; we can own our own businesses. We want to live independently and we want to follow our dreams."

          Like Moore, a handful of American actors with Down syndrome have had success, paving the way for others long after Chris Burke starred as Corky in Life Goes On. In 2019, Zack Gottsagen made headlines when he co-starred in the film Peanut Butter Falcon with Shia LaBeouf, later becoming the first person with Down syndrome to present at the Academy Awards. 

          California actor Lauren Potter starred in Glee for its six-season run, portraying feisty high school student Becky in the Fox musical comedy. Meanwhile, Jamie Brewer — also from California — has played Addie in the FX anthology series American Horror Story since 2011. Incidentally, those two shows were created by television producer Ryan Murphy.

          Part of the push for more nuanced depictions of people with Down syndrome is due to widely held misconceptions about their capabilities. Some media depictions teeter into one-note tokenism, portraying people with Down syndrome as "cherub-like characters who are perpetually innocent," Jones said. 

          "They should be held to the same standard as other actors who — or as other characters, I should say — who have things happen to them, and sometimes things that make us cringe or make us uncomfortable."

          "I feel like it is getting better, for sure," Moore said. "Down syndrome people used to be portrayed as happy all the time and people feel sorry for us … We were not taken seriously. But now the TV and film industry is giving Down syndrome people bigger roles, and it's great."

          Other avenues for breakthroughs

          Laura LaChance, the executive director of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, said "individuals with Down syndrome have aspirations and dreams, and yet … there seem to be sort of these self-imposed or cultural limitations that people are showing us."

          She points to the emergence of TikTok as a venue for performers with Down syndrome, citing Toronto dancer Julia Slater — who has 1.2 million followers on the app — as a particular success story. 

          "Those [followers] are not all people who have Down syndrome," LaChance said. "She's found a niche for herself in performance on social media. Maybe not on the stage, but in the airwaves."

          Tevlin has found additional success through her TikTok and Instagram videos, where she frequently shares educational posts with her 132,000 followers about what it's like to live with Down syndrome.

          The app has an "accessibility and useability … that makes it possible to create content and to generate an audience," said Jones.

          John Tucker, an American actor who starred in the Emmy Award-winning series Born This Way, a reality series following individuals with Down syndrome as they work to overcome barriers, said the app has given people with disabilities the opportunity to show what they can do.

          Tucker is on TikTok himself, where he interacts with fans of Born This Way and elevates his rap music career to an audience of 15,000 followers.

          More traditional venues for a pathway to stardom, like talent agencies, are evolving to make the process more welcoming to people with disabilities. 

          The Toronto- and Vancouver-based agency Ignite Artists offers free training and coaching to individuals with disabilities who have an interest in acting. 

          "The opportunities are still fairly slim, but the industry is changing very quickly and we have seen an uptick in auditions just this year as productions strive to be more representative," the agency said in an email to CBC News.

          LaChance said that the Canadian Down Syndrome Society frequently shares casting calls in search of people with diversity in ability, which she says is a relatively new development.

          "I think that [talent agencies] have increased their reach and they've increased their hiring opportunities and they are looking at people of diversity who do apply to Canadian talent agencies."

          Tuesday, February 8, 2022

          Troy Kotsur makes history as the first Deaf male actor to get Oscar nomination


          From The New York Times. Pictured are Deaf actors Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, who play deaf parents in “CODA.”

          A couple of weeks ago in The Hollywood Reporter, Troy Kotsur compared the opportunities for deaf actors like himself to one small hair in a beard’s worth of roles for those who can hear.

          With Sian Heder’s “CODA,” which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, he plucked it and made history. He’s the first deaf actor to be nominated for an Oscar. In 1987, Marlee Matlin became the first deaf performer to be nominated; she went on to win the Oscar, for “Children of a Lesser God.” Matlin happens to be Kotsur’s co-star in “CODA.”

          Kotsur plays Frank Rossi, a deaf fisherman, gruff yet surprisingly tender, trying to keep his business in Gloucester, Mass., afloat with the help of his teenage daughter, Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of their family. Ruby has served as the interpreter for Frank, her mother, Jackie (Matlin), and her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) for most of her life. But she longs to go to music school and become a singer, a dream her parents can’t understand. (“If I were blind, would you paint?” Jackie asks.) And the thought of having to navigate life on their own is terrifying.

          The critical response to Kotsur’s portrayal has been overwhelmingly warm. Owen Gleiberman of Variety called him “an extraordinary actor”; Steve Pond of The Wrap declared him “a treasure as Matlin’s gloriously profane husband”; and Peter Travers of “Good Morning America” said he was “hilarious and heartbreaking.”

          The role has also earned Kotsur 31 nominations, including a BAFTAa Golden Globe, the first Screen Actors Guild nod for an individual deaf male actor and now an Oscar for best supporting actor. So far he has tallied nine wins, including a Gotham Award and a Spotlight Award from the Hollywood Critics Association.

          In a statement on Tuesday after the Oscar nominations were announced, Kotsur said he was stunned, explaining, “I can still remember watching Marlee win her Oscar on television and telling friends I was going to get nominated one day and them being skeptical. I would like to thank everyone for this huge honor.”

          Despite the scarcity of jobs for deaf actors, Kotsur is not exactly a stranger to the limelight. In 2003, he shared the role of Pap with a hearing actor in the Tony-nominated 2003 American Sign Language adaptation of “Big River” on Broadway. More recently he helped to develop a sign language for the Tusken Raiders in “The Mandalorian.”

          Still, “I’m so glad that they recognized me,” Kotsur told The Hollywood Reporter of the accolades that have come his way, “not because I’m deaf but because I’m a talented actor.”


          Saturday, January 15, 2022

          How children’s author Cece Bell, ‘El Deafo’ give deafness a lead role in new Apple TV+ animated series

          From Steven Aquino, the diversity, 

          equity & inclusion contributor at Forbes

          Considering the world is entering into its third year amidst a pandemic, it’s hard to recall what life was like before it. At this point, 2019 feels like ancient history. It might as well have happened during the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

          As a tech journalist who’s covered Apple at close range for years, I remember 2019 for the star-studded event the company held in March at Apple Park to announce, amongst other things, the hotly-anticipated Apple TV+ streaming service. The glitzy event was the closest I’ve ever come to covering a red carpet show, only nobody wore their fanciest designer clothing. It was quite something to sit in the audience and watch Apple parade A-lister after A-lister onstage to hype up their new project: Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Momoa—even Big Bird was there. Afterwards, as I was milling around the press area in the Steve Jobs Theater with Apple PR folks and fellow reporters, I distinctly remember being alerted at one point that JJ Abrams was standing twenty feet away. He was surrounded by other people, but to this day, it’s kinda cool to think I once was in close proximity of a celebrity.

          When TV+ launched that November, it debuted with shows like The Morning ShowSeeDickinsonFor All Mankind, and moreAnd the roster has grown considerably since. One of its newest titles is the animated series El Deafo, which premiered on January 7. It shows the journey of a young girl named Cece who loses a substantial amount of her hearing following an infection. In its press release announcing the show, Apple described Cece as “[learning] to embrace what makes her extraordinary.”

          Apple’s trailer for El Deafo is on YouTube.

          El Deafo is based upon the graphic novel of the same name, written by author and illustrator Cece Bell. The book is autobiographical of sorts, as it mirrors Bell’s own childhood experience with being born hearing and then becoming deaf. In a recent interview with me, Bell said the impetus for the comic started a decade ago. She felt a need to come to terms with her deafness, as she was reticent to tell anyone she was deaf nor discuss it. Having already been a published children’s author, she figured what better way to confront her feelings than by writing for others. “I felt like the graphic novel would be the perfect format to try to share this story,” she said.

          As for how El Deafo came to be for the small screen, veteran TV writer Will McRobb contacted Bell and expressed how much he enjoyed the novel and was interested in developing a version for TV. Bell was a fan of his prior work, so she felt comfortable working with him. (Both Bell and McRobb serve as executive producers.) “[It] all just sort of fell into place after that,” she said. “But it took somebody like him being [someone] I already respected for me to really dive into turning the book into a show.” The decision to make the show animated was an easy one as well, given the book is in cartoon form. Another reason for animating El Deafo was, of course, the pandemic. With the animation studio located in Ireland, it was easiest (and sensible given Covid) to work remotely by passing around notes and having virtual meetings. The remote aspect of production came in especially handy when doing the post-production audio work, which includes Bell’s voiceovers, both of which play crucial roles in the show.

          Bell described the audio work as a “very complicated, very tricky” process; she worked closely with engineers to get it right. In order to achieve maximum authenticity, Bell told them to “take beautiful sound and make it sound terrible.” The complicated and tricky part was Bell needing to explain to engineers what she hears and what it feels like, and then ask them to recreate it. Characters’ voices on the show are purposefully distorted, almost to an unintelligible level, to try to give audiences a sense of what Bell’s world sounds like. She clarified, however, that what’s heard in the show isn’t literally what she hears—it’s an approximation of what she perceives to hear.

          “I was so involved [in the sound design], and I read more notes than you would ever want,” Bell said with a laugh.

          One poignant point Cece the narrator makes in the pilot episode is that, although she lost her hearing, she did not learn American Sign Language. She became deaf in 1975, and explained deafness and sign language were not as socially accepted then as they are nowadays. Bell explained how, growing up, she attended a school dedicated to deaf children; communicatively, teachers pushed students to learn to talk vocally and become lip-readers rather than learn sign language. Bell had about four-and-a-half years of typical hearing and language, so she grasped the concepts of lip-reading quickly. Sign language was never an option for her, not only because it wasn’t taught but also because Bell “didn’t want to be pigeon-holed,” she said. She thought of herself as a hearing person, and felt learning sign language would stigmatize her as an official deaf person. Sign language is inherently performative, and Bell didn’t want to be gawked at by her peers. “I just felt like I was that kid who didn't want anybody to see me as a different person,” Bell said. “I didn't want anybody to look at me. That was me as a kid, but I don't think I really understood it [sign language] the way I do now.”

          Bell is finally learning sign language, little by little, now that she’s an adult. It hasn’t been easy for her. “I’m very slow,” she said.

          The addition of El Deafo to the TV+ lineup is significant not only for attrition’s sake—Apple’s used its nigh-infinite war chest to pour considerable resources into building the service’s catalog, with new content appearing all the time—but for representation too. For all of the incessant talk about subscriber numbers by analysts, the company deserves the utmost credit for being amongst a select few streaming providers to tackle disability representation in Hollywood with tenacity—and authenticity. Bell’s series joins the ranks of See and CODA, as well as the recently-cancelled Little Voice, as positive displays of disability. As disability has been historically portrayed in TV and film as something to be pitied and overcome—too often resulting in feel-good, patronizing fodder that the disability community derisively refer to as “inspiration porn”—Apple instead has positioned disability matter-of-factly. To wit, that being disabled is not something out of a Shakespearean tragedy—it’s simply part of who we are as humans. Put another way, Apple has taken the same thoughtfulness it uses for the accessibility support for its products and applied it just as meaningfully to the shows it bankrolls for TV+. Apple is certainly not above criticism, but again, is deserving of more recognition for its effort to boost inclusivity of our marginalized communities. It gives TV+ an undervalued differentiator as it competes in the market.

          As for Bell’s relationship with Apple, she couldn’t have been more complimentary of her dealings with the company. “Overall, it’s just been a terrific experience,” she said. Bell has had “100% involvement” with El Deafo every step of the way, saying Apple has listened to her and given whatever support she needed. Executives never questioned, for example, Bell’s insistence that the lead voice actress be deaf and have similar life experiences to hers. I asked if the aforementioned disability-centric shows were factors into her signing on with Apple for El Deafo, and Bell said her deal was struck long before stuff like CODA arrived—in the days when TV+ carried a fraction of the content that’s available currently. Like seemingly everyone else on the planet, she adores Ted Lasso, telling me it was the first show she watched. “This [being on Apple TV+] has been a happy accident, you know. I’ve ended up at the right spot,” she said.

          Bell had kind words to say about Tara Sorensen, who leads creative development of children’s programming for Apple Worldwide Video. Sorensen, Bell told me, was adamant about El Deafo staying true by preserving its authenticity. Bell called Sorensen “a great, great advocate for the book from the beginning.” Bell noted that, although there were hiccups along the way—Bell often was the only deaf person in meetings—“everyone listened and was willing to absorb information,” she said.

          The show is still very much in its infancy, but feedback on El Deafo has been terrific thus far. One of the comments Bell receives most often are notes from people who say they love the show, but felt they needed to adjust the volume of their TV because the show’s distorted audio made it seem like their set was broken. She also hears from many parents, who are excited for their children to see what other kids’ lives are like, and to be exposed to esoteric pieces of technology like hearing aids. Deaf children in particular, she added, are “very excited” to see themselves on TV and to personally identify with the experiences the animated Cece goes through. “It’s been really, really fun [working on the show], and I’m very relieved people are enjoying it,” Bell said.

          Apple has posted a video to YouTube that features special commentary by Bell.

          The three-part El Deafo can be found now in Apple’s TV app.