In 2011, Jeremy Shipp and his wife welcomed their son Henry, who was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Navigating their child through surgeries to repair the split in his upper lip and the roof of his mouth was a "learning curve" for Shipp, who says the experience "opened my eyes" to the lack of representation for people with facial differences.
"I started to see that people with facial differences very often in TV shows and movies are portrayed as villainous, and that kind of made me feel bad, having my son around," Shipp tells Yahoo Life. "He's just such a joyful, happy kid."
As a writer on the Disney Junior cartoon Firebuds, Shipp had the opportunity to improve that representation. After getting approval from Henry, now a fifth-grader, Shipp pitched a story introducing a new car character, Castor, who has a "cleft hood." The resulting Firebuds episode, titled "Cleft Hood," will premiere Friday.
"I really wanted to do a story that honored him and that showed a character that looked a little bit like him, that was positive and happy, had friends and was happy-go-lucky," Shipp says. And while the popular cartoon has a starry voice cast that includes Lou Diamond Phillips, Melissa Rauch and Yvette Nicole Brown, Shipp looked closer to home for casting Castor: Henry does the honors.
The 11-year-old's favorite childhood doll also made it into the episode. The character of Castor carries "Anya," a stuffed car with its own cleft lip; the real Anya was ordered online by Shipp's wife long ago so that their son would have a doll that looked like him, and has been a treasured keepsake ever since.
In "Cleft Hood," Castor isn't teased or treated differently because of his facial difference. "There is certainly a version that one could make of this show where someone is asking, 'why does he look like that, what's going on there?'" says Shipp, who opted instead to focus more on the mental and emotional aspects of having the condition and missing out on certain moments while undergoing medical procedures. Shipp credits the show's Emmy-winning creator and executive producer Craig Gerber with suggesting he add a therapist character who could introduce the concept of empathy to the other characters, in a kid-friendly way, to help them and the viewers at home connect with Castor when he runs off just before his final surgery.
Shipp has seen firsthand the "ingrained weariness" Henry and others with a cleft lip and/or palate tend to have around hospital visits, something he suspects can be traced back to their being whisked off for an operation as babies. Henry has had four surgeries over the years — and potentially more, as they wait to see how his mouth responds — and while he understands that each procedure will help him breathe and talk more easily, Shipp says he still has "avoidant" urges and a sense of missing out during his hospital stay and recovery.
At the same time, Henry — who also undergoes speech therapy to help him speak at the front, and not the back, of his mouth — has been raised to take his cleft lip and palate in stride.
"We've been counseled and we've made it a point to just talk about his cleft naturally to destigmatize it," Shipp says. "It's a natural thing of life. So he has no problems talking about it."
Along with the Henry-inspired "Cleft Hood" episode, Firebuds will also be introducing a wheelchair car character, Gliderbella, voiced by Broadway star Ali Stroker in its April 7 show, which will center on the main character Jazzy (Lauren "Lolo" Spencer), who has spina bifida. The cartoon consults with the disability rights organization RespectAbility on its episodes, and has also won praise for featuring diverse characters from multi-racial and LGBTQ families. Shipp hopes his episode will help kids like Henry feel similarly seen.
"He's never said, 'where are the cleft lip kids?'" the TV writer says. "But I certainly have noticed, and, you know, do my part to change it."
The Firebuds "Cleft Hood" episode airs Friday, March 10 on Disney Junior, and will be available to stream on Disney+ shortly thereafter.
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