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How the TV Show '9-1-1' Normalizes Inclusion of Children With Disabilities


Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

When 20th Century Fox Television’s “9-1-1” introduced a recurring character with a disability, it provided an opportunity to both normalize the inclusion of people with disabilities in all areas of society and highlight the importance of setting high expectations for children with disabilities.

Spoilers ahead.

The opening scene of Season 2, Episode 4, “Stuck,” shows Eddie Diaz (Ryan Anthony Guzman), a LAPD firefighter and single dad, and seven-year-old son Christopher (Gavin McHugh), who has cerebral palsy, getting ready for the day:

  • Diaz does push-ups; Christopher is on the floor doing a modified version.
  • Christopher pours himself some cereal – pouring too much, as many 7-year-olds do.
  • They brush their hair and teeth together.
  • In scenes showing each of them getting dressed, Christopher struggles with getting his socks on. Diaz starts to offer help, then stops himself, giving his son an opportunity to achieve on his own. Viewers are rewarded by hearing Christopher say “finally” and then flash a bright smile.

This two-minute opening scene does two things:

  • By juxtaposing the two getting ready together, viewers see that people with disabilities get up and do the same things each morning as everyone does. Later in the episode, Christopher spends a day with his dad’s fire department, going with them to calls, playing pinball and eating lunch. As Fellow Firefighter Evan “Buck” Buckley (Oliver Stark) says, Christopher is “smart, adorable, funny in a kid way, and just needs a little extra help.”
  • It sets up the idea that parents of children with disabilities need to set high expectations for their children – giving them opportunities to both fail and succeed on their own. This theme is then present throughout the rest of the episode. When dropping Christopher off at his grandmother’s house later, she tells Diaz “help him out,” to which he firmly responds, “he wants to do it.”

Bureaucratic Tape

Buckley notices how Diaz is struggling with the bureaucratic tape in ensuring that his son receives childcare services through city, state and county. “The requirements are all different,” Buckley explains. “You can apply for one and it can disqualify you from another. It’s a whole giant bureaucratic mess. I can’t get my head around it.”

He sets Diaz up with Carla, a home healthcare aide his girlfriend had used for her mother. As Buckley explains, she has years of experience navigating giant bureaucracies.

“I’m red tape’s worst nightmare,” Carla says. “I’ll get you through this in no time.”

Cerebral palsy (CP), which Christopher has, is a nonprogressive group of disorders that affects an individual’s muscle tone and movement, caused by brain damage before or during birth or within the first few years of a child’s life. People who have cerebral palsy can have mild to severe issues with balance, muscle and motor control, but how cerebral palsy affects each person is very individual. This can include walking (possibly requiring the use of a wheelchair), balance, fine motor and gross motor skills and speech (ranging from very mild to severe). Some people who have cerebral palsy may require accommodations (for example, a ramp) while others may not. According to Cerebral Palsy Foundation, about 17 million children and adults worldwide have CP.

The fact that Christopher is played by Gavin McHugh, a young boy with cerebral palsy, is important. Actors without disabilities play more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities on television, but “9-1-1” is bucking that trend with the casting of McHugh and ensuring his full inclusion.“I love playing Christopher on ‘9-1-1,’” McHugh said. “My dad Ryan helps me by giving me piggy back rides. Everyone on set is so nice because they help me all the time and they give me a lot of time to practice and walk places and the director even changes things to help me. Like one time they wanted me to walk up a couple steps, but there wasn’t a rail so they just moved it to the sidewalk so I could do it easier. It is so much fun to go to set; everyone is my friend and I miss them when I’m not there. I wish I could go every day!”

“9-1-1” airs on Fox on Mondays at 9:00 pm ET / 8:00 pm CT. “9-1-1” is produced by 20th Century Fox Television in association with Ryan Murphy Television and Brad Falchuk Teley-Vision. Follow along with Gavin McHugh at @iamgavinmchugh on Instagram.