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Why Did 'AGT' Present Kodi Lee and Ryan Niemiller So Differently?

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This season on “America’s Got Talent,” we already have seen two acts with disabilities audition. On the season premiere, autistic blind singer Kodi Lee earned the golden buzzer from Gabrielle Union, skipping straight to the live shows. In the second audition episode, Ryan Niemiller, a comedian with a disability in both arms, made it through to the next round with a standing ovation and four enthusiastic yeses. Both acts were extremely talented, but the differences in how they were presented is a great case study in how to accurately and positively portray people with disabilities.

Ryan Niemiller immediately won over the audience with his quip, “So, obviously I have a disability. I think the technical term for it is being very handsome.”

“When I was growing up, there was nobody that looked like me on television,” Niemiller said to Simon Cowell about what he wants to do with the platform. “I want people to be able to look at what I’m doing.”

Niemiller’s plug for representation was important for viewers to hear. Although one in four Americans have a disability, among regular characters on primetime TV in the 2018-2019 season, only 2.1 percent have disabilities.

After finishing his set with a hilarious story about what he does when he sees kids staring at him, Niemiller earns a standing ovation from the judges and the audience. This is where we can start drawing a contrast between Niemiller and Kodi Lee’s treatment. While the comments Lee received were focused primarily on his disability, and many were directed toward his mother instead of him, Niemiller’s comments were focused almost exclusively on the fact that he is really funny. For example, Gabrielle Union says, “You’re freaking funny and I want to know your next tour dates… I’m going to be your roadie.” Howie Mandel tells him he could be a finalist.

“I think you are amazing,” Cowell told him before asking, “why do you think you haven’t had the break you’re looking for yet?”

“I think part of it is having a disability like this, it’s really hard to break through without people thinking you’re a novelty act,” Niemiller replied. ”I’ve had the booker tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t think this is what we like.’”

Cowell replied that, “they have the disability, not you.” This was a poor way of phrasing this sentiment, in that it implies that disability is a bad thing. However, apart from this one slip-up, I was really impressed with this segment.

When I wrote about Kodi Lee last week, I concluded that “I know that ‘America’s Got Talent’ is capable of better representation than we saw in this audition.” And I am happy to see that this week, we saw a much better example of how to portray disability on screen. I am looking forward to seeing more of Kodi Lee and Ryan Niemiller this season and I hope “America’s Got Talent” continues to focus on the talents of people with disabilities.

Originally published: June 6, 2019
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