Globally, more than 17 million people are living with cerebral palsy; one in 2 live in chronic pain, one in 3 cannot walk and 1 in 5 cannot speak. Cerebral palsy is a physical disability that affects movement and posture. In most cases, brain injury leading to cerebral palsy occurs during pregnancy. Fowler’s diagnosis presents a wide range of challenges on and off screen.
Defying the odds
“Cerebral palsy has affected my muscle strength and control, which makes it difficult to accomplish everyday tasks such as getting dressed and preparing meals,” Fowler tells Mediaplanet. “It definitely makes it more difficult to pursue acting as a career. It’s harder to get auditions if you have a disability. I think this is partly due to misconceptions and generalizations of capabilities of people with disabilities, especially if they are in a wheelchair.”
A recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that just 5 percent of television characters with a disability are played by an actor with a disability. “I am so grateful to casting director Susie Farris, Scott Silveri and the team at ABC and Fox for giving myself and others in the disabled community the opportunity to audition. They could have assumed no one with a disability could portray the role of JJ and just auditioned and cast an able-bodied person, but they didn’t, and every day I am so grateful.”
Taking on a new role
Fowler’s career started early, when he landed roles on television shows like “Sesame Street” and “Blue’s Clues” at the age of five. “I pursue acting because I really love it,” he shares. “I never imagined the response ‘Speechless’ would generate and how my portrayal would impact lives. If you look at the last 10 years of television, you see that exposure on a regular basis can cause viewers to change their perspectives and become more comfortable with diversity. ‘Speechless’ is breaking down barriers, changing perspectives and helping viewers become more aware and comfortable interacting with those with disabilities.”
Changing the conversation
Fowler recently became an ambassador for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, where he creates content that teaches readers how to interact with people who live with disabilities. He hopes that his ventures will continue to change the way people think about these disorders.
“The biggest misconception people have about cerebral palsy is that our abilities are all the same,” Fowler explains. “Sometimes people tend to generalize [us], when, really, we are people with unique personalities and different capabilities just like everyone else.
“I hope that people are encouraged to look past people’s disabilities to see their character, their hopes and ambitions. It’s my dream for people to see me for who I am and not for my disability.”