Los Angeles, March 15 – With less than one percent of children’s content featuring a disabled character, the new animated preschool series “Team Zenko Go!” is breaking barriers. The show follows a group of stealthy do-gooder kids who harness the art of distraction to perform anonymous acts of kindness for the residents of their town, Harmony Harbor.
One of the show’s main characters is a boy named Ari who recently has moved to town with his mother, and also happens to be a wheelchair user. Ari is voiced by Hartley Bernier, an actor who has lived with Intestinal Failure due to Total Hirschsprung’s Disease since birth, and also occasionally uses a wheelchair due to chronic pain.
“I think it’s really important for kids to see themselves represented on screen,” Bernier said. “There aren’t a lot of characters who have disabilities or medical complexities represented in mainstream kids programming.”
Produced by DreamWorks Animation and Mainframe Studios, “Team Zenko Go!” is available for streaming on Netflix starting today, March 15, 2022. The team hired Kirsten Sharp as a Disability Consultant to ensure the character of Ari was represented accurately and without tokenism. Sharp herself is a wheelchair user since the age of 14.
RespectAbility’s Senior Entertainment Media Associate Tatiana Lee recently interviewed Bernier about his experience voicing Ari, and how it feels to be breaking barriers for representation of young kids with chronic illness and disabilities everywhere.
“Growing up I never saw anyone like me in television or film,” Bernier said. “I hope that in the future kids with disabilities or medical complexities will be better represented in children’s content.”
Read their full conversation below, and watch a recording of a virtual discussion with Bernier and several other members of the “Team Zenko Go!” team.
TL: You voiced the character of Ari, who is a wheelchair user. Did you ever think you would be playing a character that is also disabled, and do you think having a disability yourself added a unique element to the character?
HB: I think it’s really important for kids to see themselves represented on screen. There aren’t a lot of characters who have disabilities or medical complexities represented in mainstream kids programming. Casting an actor with a disability helps to make the character more authentic.
TL: Ari’s character was so fun, interesting, and clever. Are there any elements of Ari’s character that are similar to yourself in real life?
HB: Ari and I share many things in common like our love for comic books and superhero movies, but I think another really important thing we share is that although we both rely on medical technology because of our medical complexities, (Ari’s chair and my IV pump), we don’t let that get in the way of doing the things that we want to do.
TL: What message would you like to send to producers, writers, and directors about creating stories with characters with disabilities, or working with talent with disabilities?
HB: In terms of creating a character with a disability, I want people to know that this doesn’t need to be the focus or main storyline. The disability can just be a part of their identity, and we need more stories that show disabled characters living rich, full lives. I think directors shouldn’t shy away from working with talent with disabilities. There are so many incredible disabled actors out there!
TL: What do you hope to see as the future of disability-inclusive children’s content?
HB: Growing up I never saw anyone like me in television or film. I love cartoons but I never saw a character with an IV pump, ostomy bag, or wheelchair. I think it’s really important for kids to see themselves represented on screen. I hope that in the future kids with disabilities or medical complexities will be better represented in children’s content.
TL: I read that you also like to cook with your family. What is your favorite dish to make?
HB: I do love to cook! Part of my illness means that I have to eat…A LOT! I don’t absorb nutrients like other people do. I love all foods but my favorite thing to make is potato latkes! We have a recipe that has been passed down through generations and they are delicious!
Make sure to check out Hartley Bernier and the rest of the team of “Team Zenko Go!” streaming now on Netflix.