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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photo via ABC/Bob D'Amico.

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

My, how things have changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via ABC/Tony Rivetti.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via ABC/Tony Rivetti.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo via ABC/Richard Cartwright.

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

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

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

The battle between millennials and older generations isn't exactly a generational war—it's more a case of mistaken generational identity. A decade ago, whining about millennials being young adults unprepared to make their way in the world at least made sense mathematically. But when people bag on millennials now they end up looking rather foolish.

A marketing researcher with a doctorate in social psychology wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune titled "Post-pandemic, some millennials finally decide to start #adulting." And when the Tribune shared it to Twitter, their since-deleted tweet read, "Writer Jennifer Rosner predicts COVID-10 lockdowns will force easy-breezy millennials to grow up."

Hoo boy.

Interestingly, the writer of the op-ed is a millennial herself, but she repeats generalizations about her entire generation that seem like they mainly apply to her own social circle. Read it yourself to decide, but regardless, the tweet of the op-ed itself set off a firestorm of responses from millennials who are tired of being painted as irresponsible young people who don't know how to "adult" instead of what they actually are.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.