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Terri Mauro
BY Terri Mauro

10 Special Needs Stories That Made Us Happy and Proud in 2016

Okay, if what you’re really looking for here at the end of a long year is a look back at the special needs stories that made your blood boil, there was this. And also this. And remember this, this, and this? Personally, I’d rather not. There are enough challenges facing people with disabilities and their families in 2017 without churning up a whole bunch of barely settled angst and anxiety. I’d rather close out 2016 by remembering things that made me feel hopeful about the future and proud of what people of differing abilities can accomplish in the world at this moment. Take a little break with me from the bad news — there’ll be plenty waiting for us when we get back — and let’s celebrate 2016 as the year when …

Speechless put a special needs family in the sitcom lineup.

There’s a lot to be excited about with ABC’s freshman sitcom Speechless — the casting of a young person with a disability to play a young person with a disability; the way Minnie Driver depicts the kind of Mama Bear we all are in our heads if not in real life; the knowing depiction of kids with special needs and their families as neither saintly nor selfless but real and trying hard; the presentation of an eagerly inclusive (if sometime clueless) school; and scenes like that “bulletproof” speech that make us cry. But maybe my very favorite thing about it is that it’s a funny sitcom taking its place among the diverse sitcoms on ABC’s lineup, with the DiMeos just another family among families. Imagine. Let’s hope that when it comes time to hand out renewals for next season, Speechless is bulletproof too.

… a deaf contestant won Dancing With the Stars.

Dancing with the Stars is not the kind of show you look to for important social commentary. Yet the glitter-heavy, scantily costumed competition has often included people with special needs among its contestants. Season 22 competitor Nyle DiMarco wasn’t the first “star” with a disability to make a try at the mirrorball trophy (Noah Galloway and Amy Purdy made the finals in their respective seasons), and he wasn’t even the first deaf contestant to give it a try (Marlee Matlin competed in season 6). But he’s the first one to win, and he was a favorite right from the start. In addition to a lot of steamy dance numbers, fans got a steady stream of ASL and advocacy. Since DWTS has two seasons a year, in 2016 we also saw Terra Jolé make it to fifth place in season 23. More inclusion, please!

… the Rio Paralympics highlighted the achievements of amazing athletes.

For a while, it looked like this would be a bad-news story. As the Olympics drew to a close, stories of money shortages and unpaid travel allowances made it look like the competition for athletes with disabilities might be severely curtailed. Philanthropic efforts like #filltheseats and #savetheparalympics sprang up to fund tickets for Rio children and get the word out that the Paralympics was something worth cheering. The games did indeed go on, giving us plentiful opportunities to marvel at what humans can do. The 2016 Paralympics was the most televised ever (even if you did have to search out previously unknown channels on your cable dial), and Paralympic athletes seemed to be showing up in more commercials than ever too.

… ESPN and ABC announced plans to televise the 2017 Special Olympics Winter Games.

We have to wait until March 18-25 for the actual games, but the announcement that ESPN would be offering “the first-ever global coverage for a World Winter Games event” was something we could cheer in 2016. Ditto ABC airing the opening ceremony, nightly coverage by ESPN, features in SportsCenter and other ESPN shows over the course of the week, and vignettes on athletes, coaches, and teams to get ESPN’s audience excited in advance. Anyone who’s attended a Special Olympics event live knows what fun, upbeat celebrations of ability they can be. The wider world needs all the positive depictions of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities it can get. Maybe it will make a difference beyond those viewing hours. Let’s hope. And watch.

… a reality series about young adults with Down syndrome won an Emmy.

A&E’s Born This Way beat higher-profile shows like The Deadliest Catch and Project Greenlight to take the 2016 Emmy for outstanding structured reality program. A few months earlier, the series received a Television Academy Honor “for its powerful pronouncement that people with disabilities can lead joyful, meaningful lives.” According to the show’s website, “In their willingness and courage to openly share their lives, through a lens that is not often shown on television, we learn they have high hopes just like anyone else. The series also gives voice to the parents, allowing them to talk about the joy their son or daughter brings to their family, and the challenges they face in helping them live as independently as possible.”

… an ASL production of Spring Awakening performed at the Tonys.

It was exciting when Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening, featuring deaf and hearing actors plus the first Broadway actress in a wheelchair, got nominated for a Tony award. But a show presented by a nonprofit in a limited engagement that was long over can’t easily throw everything back together to perform a number on the Tony telecast. So the producers went back to the same strategy they used to get the production launched in the first place: They asked for help on Kickstarter. The campaign was a success, and although in the end the Tony went to the revival of The Color Purple, it was a thrill to see Deaf West’s cast get one more moment in the spotlight.

… “sensory friendly” became a bandwagon for everybody to jump on.

Sensory-friendly movie showings have been around for nearly a decade, and it’s become less and less unusual to hear about some movie theater or stage show offering performances in which kids can be noisy and not-still without repercussion. In 2016, though, it seemed like not a week went by without some announcement of a show or a store or a mall or a Santa getting sensitive to sensory or accommodating to autism. Some were about waiving the “sit still and be quiet” rule, while others — like special shopping hours at Target and Toys R Us — were about keeping things quiet and calm. Of course, there are plenty of people outside the special needs population who might enjoy those adjustments too. See how inclusion benefits everyone?

… you couldn’t say no to a cute model with special needs.

In 2016, kids with special needs turned up in ads for Target and Kmart, and on the cover of Parents magazine. But my favorite kid modeling story of the year was of Asher Nash. His mom submitted him to talent agencies for modeling opportunities, as one does when one’s kid is adorable and bursting with charisma. She was surprised to find out that he wasn’t being submitted for an Osh Kosh B’Gosh ad because the retailer hadn’t specifically asked for kids with special needs. She posted a complaint on Facebook, Asher’s picture went viral with the help of the Kids with Down Syndrome Facebook page, and Osh Kosh B’Gosh came around. Adorable kids with special needs can sell things just as effectively as anybody else. Get with it, advertisers.

… an autism documentary made a splash at Sundance.

Life, Animated — a documentary about a young man with autism, Owen Suskind, who learned to communicate with the help of Disney films — won the directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. As described on the Sundance site, “The film explores how identification and empathy with characters like Simba, Jafar, and Ariel forge a conduit for [Owen] to understand his feelings and interpret reality. Beautiful, original animations further give form to Owen’s fruitful dialogue with the Disney oeuvre as he imagines himself heroically facing adversity in a tribe of sidekicks. With an arsenal of narratives at his disposal, Owen rises to meet the challenges of adulthood.” Let’s hope we’ll be hearing about it again when Oscar nominations come out. (Update: It got one!)

… even the cultural juggernaut Hamilton had room for some special needs stories.

Yeah, I’m obsessed with Hamilton, and whenever I see a story that brings my Hamilton love together with my life as the parent of children with special needs, I’m doubly excited. So the story of a nonverbal child who sings along to Hamilton tunes (see video) caught my eye. So did the mention in interviews that Christopher Jackson, who played George Washington in the show’s original cast, has a son with autism. And the interviews revealing that the show’s orchestrater, Alex Lacamoire, has had hearing loss since childhood. And the Digital Ham4Ham with the New York Deaf Theatre and Hamilton cast members performing “Cabinet Battle #2.” This means I can count the endless hours I spend watching Hamilton-related videos as research, right?

What news stories will you remember from 2016?

These are the stories I remember from the year we just made it through. Are there other stories that will be at the top of your list? Share them, good or bad, in the comments.

Terri Mauro

Written on December 29, 2016 by:

Terri Mauro is a former blog manager for Friendship Circle and Parenting Special Needs guide for She is the author of 50 Ways to Support Your Child's Special Education and The Everything Parents Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder. You can read more of her work on her website Mothers With Attitude and listen to her every weekday on the Parenting Roundabout Podcast. Terri has two children with special needs adopted from Russia in 1994.