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

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

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."  

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

TikTok about '80s childhood is a total Gen X flashback.

As a Gen X parent, it's weird to try to describe my childhood to my kids. We're the generation that didn't grow up with the internet or cell phones, yet are raising kids who have never known a world without them. That difference alone is enough to make our 1980s childhoods feel like a completely different planet, but there are other differences too that often get overlooked.

How do you explain the transition from the brown and orange aesthetic of the '70s to the dusty rose and forest green carpeting of the '80s if you didn't experience it? When I tell my kids there were smoking sections in restaurants and airplanes and ashtrays everywhere, they look horrified (and rightfully so—what were we thinking?!). The fact that we went places with our friends with no quick way to get ahold of our parents? Unbelievable.

One day I described the process of listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite song to come on so I could record it on my tape recorder, and how mad I would get when the deejay talked through the intro of the song until the lyrics started. My Spotify-spoiled kids didn't even understand half of the words I said.

And '80s hair? With the feathered bangs and the terrible perms and the crunchy hair spray? What, why and how?

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Ginger the dog reunited with family 5 years after being stolen

Ginger's family never gave up hope, and it payed off.

Ginger the dog was missing for five years before being reunited with her family.

A sweet pup is finally home with her family where she belongs after way too many years away.

Ginger the dog was stolen from her family back in 2017. Her owner, Barney Lattimore of Janesville, Wisconsin, never gave up the hope that his sweet girl was out there somewhere. Whenever he'd see a dog listed on a rescue website or humane society website that even remotely resembled his Ginger, he would inquire about the dog. Unfortunately, it was never her. You'd think that after a while he would stop, but if he had, he likely wouldn't have gotten the sweetest reunion.

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That first car is a rite of passage into adulthood. Specifically, the hard-earned lesson of expectations versus reality. Though some of us are blessed with Teslas at 17, most teenagers receive a car that’s been … let’s say previously loved. And that’s probably a good thing, considering nearly half of first-year drivers end up in wrecks. Might as well get the dings on the lemon, right?

Of course, wrecks aside, buying a used car might end up costing more in the long run after needing repairs, breaking down and just a general slew of unexpected surprises. But hey, at least we can all look back and laugh.

My first car, for example, was a hand-me-down Toyota of some sort from my mother. I don’t recall the specific model, but I definitely remember getting into a fender bender within the first week of having it. She had forgotten to get the brakes fixed … isn’t that a fun story?

Jimmy Fallon recently asked his “Tonight Show” audience on Twitter to share their own worst car experiences. Some of them make my brake fiasco look like cakewalk (or cakedrive, in this case). Either way, these responses might make us all feel a little less alone. Or at the very least, give us a chuckle.

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