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Erin Kelly

It’s hard to find common ground in today’s whirlwind of news and chaos. It has become even harder to balance personal choices about things like identity and other core values. It’s everywhere we turn.

That’s all the more reason why we all must find a temporary escape – or at least something to help us balance reality. For me, that means gluing myself to my T.V. for a half hour every week to watch the award-winning TV show, Speechless.

The show follows The DiMeo’s, a fictional family whose son, JJ, played by actor and disability advocate Micah Fowler, has cerebral palsy. Fowler leads an incredible cast including Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie as JJ’s loving but protective parents, Mason Cook and Kayla Kenedy as his brother and sister and Cedric Yarbrough as his trusty sidekick and personal care aide.

I don’t watch much TV, but this is a show that speaks to me in many ways.

I was intrigued from the start because I’m a daughter who has cerebral palsy with a family who goes the extra mile every day. I didn’t need much convincing other than that to tune in, but then I found out that Fowler has cerebral palsy in real life.

That made me feel like I had a responsibility to watch because everything I’d heard about it resonated with me on an intimately personal level. Not only that, but I wanted to see how all of this would play out on screen.  

Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images.

I didn’t have negative feelings about anything I was hearing. I was just curious and excited to see something like this on network television.

It was the first time I can remember a show having this much effect on me. My expectations were exceeded – and then some.

My eyes were fixed on my TV screen as I was introduced to JJ – an inquisitive, free-spirited teenager who wants to be as independent as possible. His disability is his biggest obstacle, but it doesn’t stop him from being who he is and living life to its fullest. When things don’t work out, his family comes up with another way of doing whatever it is JJ has his mind set on.

They adapt with care and compassion, together.

I slowly whispered to myself, "This is my life. Someone finally gets it!"

I couldn’t believe something that had been so heavily advertised in the media could capture the essence of my life so accurately and vividly.

I started watching intently after the pilot episode, paying attention to how beautifully the show addresses the topic of disability without overdoing it or making it out to be something that it’s not.

It is crafted with such heart, warmth and humor that I forget I’m watching a show about a family much like my own. The DiMeo’s tackle everyday tasks with humility—like helping JJ into the family’s wheelchair-accessible van or making sure his school has everything he needs. All while trying to get to work on time or realizing their van stalled in the middle of a road trip.

It’s scenarios like these that bring a sense of camaraderie and normalcy to what a typical family goes through. It also breaks away from the widespread idea that there’s very little “good” in the media these days, and that it only reinforces the negativity that’s being spread.  

I was immediately hooked, and fell in love with the fact that the show also paints a very real, accessible portrait of life that happens to have someone with a disability at its center.

I appreciate that this show is for everyone to watch – not just those with disabilities. It shines a vibrant light on the importance of acceptance, diversity and inclusiveness – three core values that have been buried underneath shameful political agendas and irrational actions in society as of late.

Speechless is a shining example of what we need right now, as well as how we need to act towards each other regardless of our differences. In an article published in 2016, The Atlantic praised the authentic and heartfelt approach to the show:

Speechless became one of the most important shows about disability in the history of television. That’s not hyperbole; rather, it speaks to the fact that shows that center characters with disabilities, feature actors with disabilities, and tell authentic and informed stories about disability are extremely rare.”

This message is bold, enlightening and still holds true about the show. Yet, it says so much more about society in America, where it’s going and what it desperately needs more of.

With all the progress that's been made in America, the "Land of Opportunity," it’s hard to believe the right to vote wasn’t always a given for everyone — including the disabled.

But if we take a look back at American history, we can see that there was a time not too long ago when people with disabilities did not have a say in any election, let alone a presidential one.

It wasn’t because of someone’s personal beliefs against voting, or even religious beliefs. There were simply no laws in place for the disabled to make their voices heard, which caused a longstanding battle of discrimination and prejudice. In fact, people within the disabled community were (and still are) often denied the right to vote despite steps being taken to grant them that right.

Photo via iStock

In the 1960s, the disabled community got real about prejudice during the disability rights movement.

Before that, if you had a disability, you probably couldn't vote. The polls weren’t accessible.

The movement sparked radical change for more than 54 million Americans by ensuring that polling places — as well as the actual voting process — would be made accessible. This includes having ballots printed in Braille for the blind or visually impaired.

I have cerebral palsy and use a motorized wheelchair, so I’m one of those 54 million people who can now vote more easily.

I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to be a statistic in this demographic because it’s a group that often has to fight a little harder for what they want and what they believe in.

I’m also not ashamed to say I’ve voted before. In fact, it was one of the first things I did when I came of age. My older brother went with me to help, and at this particular time, I didn’t have my motorized chair. I just had my manual one that I use in case of an emergency or if I’m going somewhere for a short period of time.

Photo via iStock.

My brother lifted me (and my chair) out of the car and pushed me into our local polling place. The room was fairly large, and there was a woman waiting at a table to check my voter registration card as we came in the door. I pulled the card out of my wallet and showed it to her.

“It says here you’re 18?” She asked immediately (because I didn’t look 18).

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

My age caught her off guard, but I could tell by the surprised look on her face and her body language that my chair did, too. I don’t know which one surprised her more, but I wasn’t really bothered by it. I’m used to getting that reaction from people, and I understand it’s part of having a disability.

For the most part, voting for the first time was a hassle-free experience for me — except the booth was almost too high for me to reach from my chair.

It made for some difficulties, but I decided not to make a big deal out of it because it wasn’t a matter of someone doing that on purpose to prevent me from voting. It was minor compared to some of the challenges I’ve faced in my life. If anything, I was just proud to cast my vote.

For me, voting for the first time mattered because it made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself.

This year, disabled Americans will be turning out in droves to vote, given Donald Trump’s blatant mockery of disabled folks. That means it’s even more important for every voting booth to be accessible.  

In fact, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities, people with disabilities will account for about one-sixth of eligible voters in the 2016 election — 34.6 million people.

In 2016, there will be 62.7 million eligible voters who either have a disability or live with someone who has a disability, more than one-fourth of the total electorate. And in 2012, 56.8% of people with disabilities voted, compared to 62.5% of people without disabilities.

Photo via iStock.

This election will be a milestone not just because of its magnitude, but also because of what it represents, as well as what’s at stake. And for the first time, I think people with disabilities will be on a level playing field like never before.  

Changes have been made to include the disabled community in voting, and that is a huge step forward.

But our progress can’t — and won’t — stop there. If we have something to say, Nov. 8, 2016, is the time to say it.

It’s our chance to counteract the embarrassment that Trump has inflicted on so many people with disabilities and to start righting some wrongs, too.