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Speechless Highlights Importance of Self Advocacy and Independence

Watch Speechless on ABC, Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET.

View Education Resources on Disability Issues and Tools in Spanish

Micah Fowler on the Red Carpet at the Creative Arts Emmys

Micah Fowler

Los Angeles, California, Nov. 5 — In the U.S., schools were not required to provide special education until 1975. Today, the fight for inclusive education remains a constant battle for parents and students. Speechless, a comedy starring Micah Fowler, a young adult with cerebral palsy, as J.J., a high school senior with cerebral palsy, shines the spotlight on the importance of young adults taking over the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process as they grow older.

Creating an IEP, an individual education plan that outlines what a student with a disability needs to be successful in school, can be a daunting challenge for parents and often stressful as there is much to consider when determining the education of a child. The implementation of an IEP is integral for children with disabilities. An IEP is a formal plan for students who have been identified to need accommodations specific to their individual disability in the public-school system. In addition to accommodations, the classroom can be tailored within a general classroom, a smaller group or one-on-one instruction.

Parents are integral to ensuring the IEP covers the needs of the student. However, as students grow older, they are encouraged to take a larger part in the process. It is not uncommon for parents and even teachers to encourage children to take part in developing their own IEPs. While the show takes a comic look at mothers, who typically advocate on behalf of their children needing IEPs, it also highlights J.J.’s journey to self-advocacy.

When J.J. zips his own zipper, he has a renewed confidence in all of his abilities. “Someone said I couldn’t when I was six and I never tried since,” he said. “I wonder what else I could do.”

During his senior year IEP, his aide Kenneth announces that J.J. has been on a “self-empowerment kick” and reads a list of demands. J.J.’s principal, beaming with “pride,” congratulates J.J. for “such initiative.”

“Turns out … I can do a lot of things I thought people had to do for me,” J.J. announces.

Taking a more active role in his IEP allows J.J. to have a strong voice in his own education and teaches him about self-advocacy and self-determination.

In an effort to assert his independence, J.J. gambles away his powerchair.

“What you did today is just because you’re stupid,” Kenneth tells him. “It has nothing to do with any disability.”

Just like any other teenager, J.J. needs to learn his limits – including those limits that have nothing to do with his disability.

Educational Tools Supporting Success for Students with Disabilities

Ensuring children with disabilities receive the education and training they need to succeed is vitally important. Nationally, only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school each year compared to 86 percent of student without disabilities. That means there is 21-point gap in outcomes. Furthermore, only seven percent of students with disabilities graduate college. As such, educators have a critical role to play in empowering more students with disabilities to succeed.

Teachers are important partners in the efforts to overcome bias, barriers and stigmas by promoting and implementing best practices in the classroom. In coordination with partners, RespectAbility has released a lengthy educational guide featuring resources to teach students about disability and assist students with disabilities to succeed, as well as recommended reading for both children and adults. RespectAbility also released tools in Spanish, as the IEP process is harder for parents who do not know English with a lack of materials available in Spanish.

Want more tools on preparing for an IEP? Understood.org’s guide includes detailed information on what is an IEP, who gets IEPs and the benefits of IEPs, as well as 10 myths parents may hear about special education, IEP personal stories, including how a student with dyslexia became an early self-advocate, and information about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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