Eric Ascher

@eric_ascher | contributor
Eric Ascher is the Communications Associate for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities. He initially joined RespectAbility as a Communications Fellow in the Spring 2018 cohort. He was drawn to RespectAbility because, being on the autism spectrum himself, he knows that people with disabilities are capable of doing great work, just like everyone else.

Autistic Performer Kodi Lee Wins 'America's Got Talent'

On Wednesday, reality talent competition “America’s Got Talent” concluded its 14th season, naming Kodi Lee, a blind and autistic singer and pianist, the winner. Lee is the first disabled person to win the show. Lee originally won a golden buzzer from judge Gabrielle Union after his performance of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You.” His performance earned a standing ovation from the audience and a guaranteed spot in the semi-finals. SPOILER ALERT: Your AGT Winner Is Revealed! – America's Got TalentSPOILER ALERT: Your next AGT superstar is…????Posted by America's Got Talent on Wednesday, September 18, 2019 In the quarterfinals, Lee won praise for his performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” “I want to thank Paul Simon, who never really gives permission for anyone to sing this song because it’s very precious to him,” judge Simon Cowell said. “He gave [Lee] clearance within 30 minutes.” Though Lee’s talent was celebrated by the judges all season, many critiqued the way the show portrayed his story, calling it “inspiration porn.” While the language has since been changed, initially “AGT” labeled its YouTube video of Lee’s performance with a title that implied Lee had “defeated” autism and blindness with music. Autism is not something that needs to be “cured” or “overcome.” Lee is talented because of his musical ability, something he’s worked to nurture just like any other musician. You did it @Kodileerocks!!!!!!! From the first note you sang, I knew you were something special and that you were here to change the world. I am SO proud of you my #goldenbuzzer. This is just the beginning. #agt pic.twitter.com/rLpq62HOcv— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) September 19, 2019 Lee wasn’t the only disabled performer honored in the finals. Comedian Ryan Niemiller, the self-proclaimed “Cripple Threat of Comedy” took third place. “Growing up with a disability, I learned really early on that the best way for me to survive and not get made fun of was to be able to make the jokes before anyone else could even think of them,” Niemiller previously told The Mighty. “I was so good at them that I never really got bullied that much.” In 3rd place, we have… @CrippleThreat8! Thanks for the laughs and the love. ???? pic.twitter.com/G7bz5DL6G7— America's Got Talent (@AGT) September 19, 2019 Congrats, Kodi and Ryan! We can’t wait to see what you do next.

Eric Ascher

The Differences in How 'AGT' Portrayed Kodi Lee and Ryan Niemiller

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.

Eric Ascher

Blind Autistic Singer Earns Golden Buzzer on America's Got Talent

On the season premiere of “America’s Got Talent,” a 22-year-old blind autistic man sang for the judges and earned the golden buzzer, advancing straight to the live shows. Kodi Lee’s voice and piano skills were exceptional, and it is wonderful to see people with disabilities succeed and be represented on reality television. But unfortunately, the way “America’s Got Talent” portrayed Lee could have been better. It is clear that Lee deserves the golden buzzer due to his singing and piano-playing abilities. However, all too often people with disabilities are made to be inspirational characters simply for having a disability, falling into the trap of “inspiration porn,” which assumes that disability itself is so terrible that the mere act of living a normal life with a disability is inspirational. Like anything that turns another human being into a simplified foil or object of pity, the ultimate result is to deny the complex humanity of the person with a disability. The original title “America’s Got Talent” used for the YouTube upload of the clip was “Kodi Lee Defeats Autism and Blindness With Music.” This title was problematic, to say the least. It implied that autism and blindness are burdens that need to be overcome. Disability is not a burden, rather, the societal obstacles people with disabilities face are burdensome. Thankfully, the title was changed on YouTube to “Kodi Lee Wows You With a Historical Music Moment!” This puts the focus back on his talent. When Lee walks out on stage with his mother, it is important to note that the judges correctly asked questions directly to Lee, and not to his mother. All too often people will talk to a relative or friend instead of the disabled person. After Lee effortlessly performs “A Song for You,” all the judges and audience stand and applaud for him. However, it is disappointing that judge Gabrielle Union does not address Lee before hitting the golden buzzer. Instead, she talks to his mother, saying, “you just want to give your kids everything.” As someone who watched “Britain’s Got Talent” last year and was truly impressed by the way it showcased comedians with disabilities like Lost Voice Guy, this audition felt like a regression, not a progression. Lost Voice Guy did an entire show about inspiration porn and told some jokes about the subject on “America’s Got Talent: The Champions” earlier this year. Simon Cowell was honored at last year’s Media Access Awards for the representation seen on his shows. Because of this track record, I know “America’s Got Talent” is capable of better representation than we saw in this audition. I can only hope that in future rounds, they remedy the situation and focus more on Lee’s talent and abilities.

Eric Ascher

Born This Way Features Disability-Owned Businesses

Eric Ascher is the Communications Associate for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. Sean McElwee and Megan Bomgaars are talented designers who have sold products featuring their designs to make a living. These entrepreneurs also happen to have Down syndrome. McElwee and Bomgaars are cast members on “Born This Way,” an Emmy award-winning unscripted reality television program created by Bunim/Murray Productions and airing on A&E Network. “Born This Way” stars seven young adults with Down syndrome and their families, and showcases their lives in a positive, accurate way. The fourth season of the hit docuseries highlights McElwee’s and Bomgaars’ businesses, both of which have made remarkable progress in recent months. Seanese McElwee and his mother Sandra manage a t-shirt business called Seanese. Sean said the business was named after a running joke in Sean’s family that he spoke his own language, Seanese. The brochures feature a picture of Sean with a t-shirt that says, “I speak Seanese” in front of a California boardwalk. Above him, the slogan reads, “Seanese: Because I speak my own language.” In the current season of “Born This Way,” Sandra works with Sean to more effectively manage the range of designs offered and to eliminate designs that did not sell very well. Sean’s mother knows that Seanese is going to be an important source of financial support for Sean, but he has to be happy with the products they are putting out. A year ago, Sandra told RespectAbility that Sean “comes up with [ideas] that I wouldn’t think of myself.” This week’s episode of “Born This Way” will show this is still the case. During the August 29 episode of “Born This Way,” Sean and his mother have an important conversation about which designs to order and sell at a pop up shop. Megology Megan Bomgaars also runs a business with her mother. Megology sells t-shirts with the words “Don’t Limit Me” on them, a reference to a video Bomgaars made with her teachers at school. Megology also sells hand-dyed silk scarves, tote bags and phone cases. During the August 22 episode of “Born This Way,” Bomgaars met with executives at Sanrio, the company responsible for Hello Kitty. The meeting resulted in a partnership, Sanrio ♥ Megology. The fashion collection features Hello Kitty characters alongside Megology branding and empowering text. Megan was overjoyed upon seeing potential products mocked up. She said that “Having a new brand, having a new style — I’m kind of emotional because this is a dream that I’ve always wanted. I’m building a new Megpire.” Other Entrepreneurs With Disabilities An estimated 15 percent of business owners are people with disabilities. Another man with Down syndrome, John Cronin, and his father created John’s Crazy Socks. Former President George H.W. Bush is a repeat customer of Cronin’s company. He tweeted a photo of one pair he purchased for World Down Syndrome Day, and a few months later, he wore socks he bought from John’s Crazy Socks to First Lady Barbara Bush’s funeral. In Iowa, brothers Jake and Josh Spece may have spinal muscular atrophy and use wheelchairs to get around, but neither allows his physical limitations to get in the way of his dreams. Jake owns Johnston Creek Farms, where he provides customized feeding and tending of baby calves for farms and agribusiness in the area. His brother Josh owns and operates In the Country Garden and Gifts, a garden and gift shop located on the family dairy farm. Josh founded the shop business in 1998 with some artistic collaboration from his mother, Sue Spece. Down the road, Emilea Hillman is well known for leaving a segregated workshop and becoming a business owner with the support of her family, the Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services’ Self-Employment Program and other agencies. Born with a congenital condition causing a lack of nerve tissue connecting the left and right side of her brain, her parents were given little hope that she would learn to walk or talk, much less that she would ever be gainfully employed. Now she owns and operates Em’s Coffee Shop in Independence, Iowa. Em’s is known as the place where local, state and national candidates and elected officials from both parties have come to meet voters and constituents. Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin has visited on multiple occasions. Hillary Clinton visited during her presidential campaign. Hillman also was invited to the White House to witness former President Barack Obama signing into law the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) following overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. Hillman’s entrepreneurial spirit and goal-oriented attitude serves as a role model for other young women with disabilities looking to become business owners around the country. Partnerships with state vocational rehabilitation services and proper training are the building blocks for people with disabilities to create successful business models that benefit their entire communities. As more people with disabilities enter the workforce, some are finding entrepreneurship as their best path, so much so that the National Association of Workforce Boards has programs in place for entrepreneurship by and for people with disabilities. Their CEO, Ron Painter, was enthusiastic about this topic, saying there are “a lot of workforce boards across the U.S. that are investing in entrepreneurship training” while at a day-long summit about the future of Americans with disabilities organized by RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. Painter stressed that entrepreneurship is a great option for people with disabilities to have a fulfilling life and support themselves financially. Aspiring entrepreneurs with disabilities clearly have plenty of examples to model their business after. High expectations and family engagement are key parts of promoting independence and improving employment outcomes for young people with disabilities. The examples cited above are succeeding because their parents continued to have high expectations for their children as they entered adulthood. Expecting and working toward success are motivational factors that can support the ultimate entry of a student with disabilities into the workforce, especially entrepreneurship. For far too long, people with disabilities have faced stigma, myths and misconceptions about their capacity to work, to become independent and to pursue careers. Setting high expectations for success that begins with families often leads to successful career training and job preparation.