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Why I Loved 'Best Summer Ever,' a Groundbreaking, Disability-Inclusive Musical

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A teen moves to a new town. She starts chatting with a waitress in a diner who is around her age. So she asks her, “What is your high school like here?” The waitress responds, “The usual. The football players and cheerleaders, like me, rule the school.”

Typical USA right? Wrong. The new student is a wheelchair user. The waitress has cerebral palsy. The wonderful, comical villain does not have a disability. This movie has great music, singing and dancing performed by people with all types of abilities and disabilities. A utopian world is created on screen where all walks of life are represented, be it disability, race or sexual identity – with an emphasis on disability. For the first time in my life, disability was not forgotten or an afterthought in a great musical. “Best Summer Ever” celebrates diversity — real diversity.

There is also humor. Imagine a world where a high school kicker is “the” star player of a high school football team, with all the pressure that brings. As a football fan, that fact alone was cute and humorous. (For those who don’t know, kickers are very important, but rarely the star of a team.) This kicker did not have a disability, but several of his teammates did. This made me smile, thinking of my daughter’s friend, Caden Cox, who has Down syndrome and was a kicker on his high school’s varsity team. He is now a kicker at his community college. I know what was shown in this movie is possible, it is just that in 2021, inclusion of this magnitude for those with disabilities is still rare.

An interracial couple stars in this movie. Sage is played by the very talented actor/singer/comedienne Shannon DeVido. This young woman can do anything, in a wheelchair. Tony is played by actor/dancer/singer Rickey Wilson, Jr. He is handsome. She is beautiful. They have that starry-eyed quality unique to young love. No worries that Tony is Black and Sage is white. And Sage has two mothers. As I said, diversity of all stripes is shown in “Best Summer Ever.”

You will see people without disabilities confiding in best friends who do have disabilities, and vice versa. You will see people from all walks of life portrayed with and without disabilities, side by side.

Then there are treats, like a cameo with Benjamin Bratt (Yes that actor from “Law & Order”) and his daughter Sophia. Sophia has a brain injury that occurred at birth. Maggie Gyllenhaal and her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, make cameos and are executive producers. Amy Brenneman, Ted Dansen, Mary Steenburgen, and Jamie Lee Curtis also were executive producers. These Hollywood stars are important because disability is everywhere — including among “perfect” Hollywood actors. And their influence in Hollywood not only helps movies like this be made and distributed, it helps normalize the whole process. And right now including people with disabilities in media is still a “process.”

Including youth with significant disabilities in our schools is a dream and maze beyond comprehension, explanation, and justification. As of a February 2018 National Council on Disability report, only 17% of students with intellectual disabilities, and 13% of students with multiple disabilities were included in general education classes at least 80% of the time in their home schools. Rephrased, 83% of students with intellectual disabilities and 87% of students with multiple disabilities are segregated. The road is long, arduous and not for the weak of heart, be they student or supporting family. I know because my daughter with Down syndrome graduated in 2020, always fully included – and she had to prove her place in the class every single year. She was a unicorn.

A good musical is supposed to lift you up, make you sing, make you smile, make you tap your feet, and leave you much happier at the end than you were before you saw the movie. A great musical delivers a message at the same time, a subtle but important one that helps make our world a better place. “Best Summer Ever” delivers soundly on all accounts. It is great. When it comes out, go see it. You won’t be sorry. And you’ll want the soundtrack.

Originally published: May 7, 2021
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