Update 3/10: A previous version of this story erroneously stated the ‘“Cleft Hood’ episode was inspired by Gerber’s son It was Shipp’s son
Although I’m not an entertainment reporter, this column has seen its fair share of stories covering the confluence of disability, technology, and Hollywood in its three years of life. Especially in the last couple years, led chiefly by Apple TV+ and its groundbreaking Best Picture Oscar win for CODA a year ago, disability representation in film and television has risen exponentially. Long depicted as mournful and pitiful, the tide is slowly but steadily turning to show otherwise.
The children’s show Firebuds stands shoulder to shoulder in this mission.
The series, which debuted last September and airs on Disney Junior, follows a group of young children and their anthropomorphized rescue vehicles who keep the communities of Gearbox Grove and Motopolis safe. Firebuds is the brainchild of Craig Gerber, who is credited with creating other Disney Junior properties such as Sofia the First and Elena of Avalor. Firebuds is admittedly not as disability forward in the same sense CODA and See are, insofar as the thrust of the show is about deafness or blindness, respectively. Firebuds contribution is more subtle, yet not any less impactful. The series has two episodes, one premiering today (called “Cleft Hood”) and another premiering next week (called “All That Jazzy”), that is much more disability-centric along the lines of the aforementioned shows. In fact, the former episode was inspired by writer Jeremy Shipp’s real-life son, who was born with a cleft lip and palate. What’s more, his now 7-year-old’s fondness for fire trucks and the like proved a muse for Gerber to create the series in the first place.
There’s a sneak peek of the Jazzy episode on YouTube.
“I think historically, in Hollywood, there’s been a lack of visibility for a lot of cultures and types of people,” Gerber said to me in an interview conducted earlier this month via videoconference. “Over time, that has gotten better in terms of people from different people of different races or cultures. I think it’s finally become time for people in Hollywood to really look at who should get more visibility, but hasn’t gotten the chance yet. I think that’s why we’re seeing more movies and television shows featuring people with disabilities.”
He continued: “People are much more open minded. Because of that, it’s easier for folks like myself to pitch stories about people with disabilities, and get a warmer reception. I’ve seen it happen over the course of my career—the characters [in] Firebirds who have disabilities are more prevalent in this show than the characters in previous shows.”
The desire for marginalized people to see themselves represented in media has always been there, but it’s taken (arguably too much) time for such opportunities to manifest. Gerber and team wants to keep the momentum going for the future.
For Shipp, the diversity is meaningful and truthful.
“I can happily say that this is the most diverse writers room I’ve been in, which is, in my mind, progress. It is been a true honor to listen to their different experiences, and to witness firsthand how important it is to represent these different experiences these different cultures and ethnicities and preferences,” he told me in a recent interview via videoconference. “To have them positively and authentically put on a screen in a way that kids can appreciate and enjoy. It was following their example that I looked to my own family and wanted to tell a story that was very much inspired by my own experience and my son’s experience.”
Although the target demographic for Firebuds is children ages 2 to 7, having authentic representation nonetheless remains important. The high-level concepts may be too advanced in terms of comprehension, but Shipp is bullish on the idea that a disabled child will be receptive to seeing someone like them on television. More pointedly, he feels children have the sophistication to perceive the trend.
“Children are sponges,” he said of their abilities. “I believe they are much smarter than many give them credit for—they understand a lot more than we give them credit for. We have an opportunity to present to them a world where people of all abilities and appearances and cultures are treated respectfully. I think that is healthy; they may not understand the intricacies of some of those issues that come to light as they grow older perhaps, but they can, from a very early age, see joy and authenticity and equality. I believe those qualities will ingrain [into them] positively as they grow up, and help as they develop and contribute to society.”
It’s worth noting that disability intersects with and exists alongside other marginalized groups, and Firebuds is cognizant of that dynamic. The show features a cornucopia of diversity in terms of not only disability, but of racial makeup and sexuality. The character Bo has a Filipino dad and a Jewish mom, while Violet is Japanese and Filipino, and adopted by two women. Jayden and Jazzy are both Black, with the latter having spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
Of course, representation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Actual work has to put into ensuring the representations are earnest and authentic, which is the responsible and empathetic thing to do if you’re not part of a certain marginalized community, if any at all. To that end, Gerber, Shipp, and team tapped the folks at RespectAbility to help them ensure Firebuds was being as genuine as possible. On its website, the non-profit organization describes itself as a “diverse, disability-led nonprofit that works to create systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities, and that advances policies and practices that empower people with disabilities to have a better future. Our mission is to fight stigmas and advance opportunities so people with disabilities can fully participate in all aspects of community.” For Firebuds, the creative team worked with RespectAbility’s Lauren Appelbaum. A former broadcast journalist who worked at NBC News, she became disabled six years ago with a condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy that affects her right arm and leg. She soon found allyship in the disability community, especially when it came to relearning techniques to care for her daughter. Appelbaum’s decision to join RespectAbility, she said to me, was driven in large part by a desire to ultimately join a place where she could harness the skills she had as an ex-journalist to “join an organization that I cared about.”
The work RespectAbility does with media organizations like Disney is exactly what Appelbaum sought when she initially signed up with RespectAbility.
“We should really be thinking about how we can help people to create entertainment media, be more disability inclusive, [strive for] authentic disability representation—not only in front of the camera, but also behind the camera,” she said. “I’ve been able to grow our entertainment and news media team at RespectAbility, where we now have worked on more than 400 different products. A project is defined as a television episode, film, or video game or something related to that. I consider myself really lucky to be able to work with different studios and production companies and writers rooms. [With Firebuds] Disney very early on, when we were doing this work, really started interacting with us in a really, really great way. So our goal is that when we partner with folks like Disney, we ultimately increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall storytelling experience. Then those initiatives will hopefully increase diverse and authentic representation of abled people on screen leading to systemic changes and how society views and values people with disabilities.”
Appelbaum’s comments on Disney’s support throughout the creative process jibes with Gerber’s comments. Both said executives were fully supportive in everything the team wanted to accomplish representationally. Appelbaum also echoed both Gerber and Shipp’s sentiments on the increased awareness of disabled people.
“When I first started doing this work, I must admit, a lot of the conversations were centered on just including disability in diversity conversations, because a lot of places did not consider disability to be part of that diversity conversation,” she said of DEI efforts in media. “In fact, places—not Disney—but some other places actively said no. I do think that, as people were paying attention to the #MeToo movement and other [movements], there was a space where people were kind of taking a step back and evaluating the work that they personally were doing and ensuring that they were being as inclusive of all people as humanly possible. I do think that disability got a chance to be part of those conversations, when people started realizing that ‘Hey, we’re not being fair, gender-wise, we’re not being fair race-wise, we’re not being fair sexual orientation-wise. Let’s also take a look at disability status.’ Some people are doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Appelbaum is especially proud of Firebuds and diversity.
“When we don’t show disability on screen, we’re excluding folks,” she said of the imperative for disability inclusion. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to be seen on screen, and getting disability [be] part of these conversations. When you take a look at the environment of Firebuds, one way that I was describing [the show to others] was it really is inclusive of so many different types of people, disability included, but beyond without tokenizing any single person or population. What it really does is it gives a snapshot of what it’s like to live in America.”
She added: “[Absent representation], we’re causing an issue where people without disabilities don’t get a chance to learn about disability. When we’re talking about children’s content—content for preschoolers—[it’s] so important that kids get to see kids that not only look like themselves, but also kids that look very different from them, and learn how to interact with all different types of people.”
It’s a lesson that, frankly, most adults can learn from as well.
“We want to contribute positively to society along those lines,” Gerber said. “We want to, in our little slice of the world on Firebuds, we want to tell stories that are affecting and emotional and that make us proud. Even seeing some of the positive reactions to the authentic portrayal of a Filipino family, for example, it makes it all worth it. It warms our hearts. We want to continue along those lines, for sure.”
As for how RespectAbility’s consultancy on Firebuds worked in practice, Appelbaum explained Disney and the creative group didn’t treat it like a performative thing. “They wanted to incorporate the input,” she said. “They were not just coming to us because they wanted check off a box and say, ’Oh, we consulted with those folks.’” She stressed it’s important for RespectAbility to bring in people with lived experience to help make fiction as realistic as can be. For Firebuds, Appelbaum explained they brought in Tatiana Lee for this very reason. Lee, a wheelchair user, provided the team with guidance on how to make Jazzy’s depiction in a wheelchair feel real. (She also provides the voice for Ayanna.)
This included giving reference videos to the show’s animators with which to work from. All told, RespectAbility’s work with its myriad client roster not only involves the on-screen experience, but extended off-screen as well in terms of the writers’ room and even working with marketing people on the advertising side. “We like to say that RespectAbility is the one-stop shop where folks can come to us and we pull in lots of different folks that can be helpful,” Appelbaum told me.
In the end, what Firebuds is trying to do in terms of diversity and representation is a big deal but a small step in the grand scheme of the universe. Covering assistive technologies and accessibility in the tech industry, it’s often said accessibility is evergreen. The work is never done, never truly finished. It’s like that in the entertainment industry as well. CODA was a breakthrough in terms of getting the attention of mainstream eyeballs, but there remains so much work yet to be done. Appelbaum cited a statistic from Geena Davis, who said a few years ago less than 1% of leading roles in children’s content had a disability while 8% of characters who did have a disability “were more likely to have to be rescued or die,” Appelbaum said Davis reported. It goes to show that there’s still a ways to go in shedding the stigma that disability is bad, as as such, people with disabilities should be mourned and pitied and saved. The reality is, as Appelbaum alluded to many times during our discussion, anyone can become disabled at anytime, for any reason. It makes sense, then, for creators (and studio bosses) to bear in mind the popular saying in the disability community: “Nothing about us without us.”
The “Cleft Hood” episode premieres today on Disney Channel and Disney Junior, with availability on Disney+ beginning Wednesday, March 15th at 11:30am Eastern. “All That Jazzy” debuts on Disney+ on March 15th, with availability on Disney Channel and Disney Junior starting April 7th. Airtime is still TBD.