FREQ #11: Teal Sherer Talks

Interview by Laura Hudson

art by Dina Abou Karam

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Teal Sherer’s acting resume, which includes roles in film, theater and television, also boasts several special skills that few actors possess — including wheelies. An actor and producer in her own right, Sherer is an outspoken advocate for other actors with disabilities in the entertainment industry, where the roles offered to them are far and few between, and often defined by their disability rather than their talent. She’s also worked to lead the way, by creating the exact sort of nuanced role she wants to see in her comedy web series My Gimpy Life, which takes a lightly fictionalized look at her own experiences with living and working in Hollywood as a person in a wheelchair. FREQ talked to Sherer about the making of My Gimpy Life, “inspiration porn” and how Hollywood needs to change its approach to disability.

FREQ: What first got you interested in working in entertainment and how did you break into the industry?

TEAL SHERER: While I was in college in Atlanta, I took theatre classes and worked on several school productions with a professor who was very passionate about using theatre as a power for social change, and this resonated with me. During this time, I also started dancing with Full Radius Dance, a physically integrated dance company that is made up of both dancers with and without disabilities. It was through performance that I learned to embrace my disability.

After I graduated, I was cast as a local hire in the HBO film Warm Springs, written by Margaret Nagle. I had a wonderful scene with Kenneth Branagh, Cynthia Nixon, Kathy Bates, and Felicia Day. I also got to work with Kenneth Branagh behind-the-scenes to help him prepare for his role as Franklin D. Roosevelt. I showed him how I walked with leg braces and how I swam with only the use of my upper body. The whole experience gave me the confidence I needed to move to Los Angeles.

FREQ: How did your web series My Gimpy Life come about, and what sort of reactions have you gotten to it from viewers with and without disabilities?

TS: My Gimpy Life came about from my desire to see more people like myself represented in the media. As an actor, it’s easy to feel like you have very little control and I was very much inspired by Felicia Day and her web series The Guild. Felicia didn’t wait around for someone else to give her an opportunity, she created her own.

People with disabilities have been so supportive of My Gimpy Life. They appreciate the authenticity, the humor, and seeing a character they identify with. People without disabilities are sometimes shocked by the things that happen to my character. For example, they can’t believe a guy just comes up to her and asks her if she can have sex, which has happened to me in real life. They like that the show is entertaining, but also that it also opens their eyes to a different perspective. One thing I never expected is that My Gimpy Life would be used academically, but it is a part of college and other higher education curriculums across the world.

photo by Daniel Reichert

FREQ: What different or additional challenges do women with disabilities face because of their gender?

TS: Throughout the world, in particularly in low and middle-income countries, women with disabilities often face double discrimination based on their gender and disability. They are at higher risk for abuse and violence, and are even less likely to have access to healthcare, education and employment than men with disabilities or non-disabled women.

FREQ: My Gimpy Life deals with a lot of the everyday ignorance and lack of consideration you often have to deal with. What are some of the most frustrating misconceptions or stereotypes you encounter?

TS: I absolutely hate it when people feel sorry for me and think that it must be so miserable being in a wheelchair. Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges that come along with having a disability but I happen to really like my life.

FREQ: How can the entertainment industry and other fields do more to make room for people with disabilities? What are the biggest barriers?

TS: I’d like to see the entertainment industry cast actors with disabilities in [traditionally] non-disabled roles, like the scientist, mother, politician, etc. We are multi-faceted, complex people, and shouldn’t always have to play the “disabled person.” Another barrier is physical accessibility. There have been acting classes I’ve wanted to take, theatre companies I’ve wanted to work with, and casting director offices I needed to access, but couldn’t, because I can’t walk up stairs.

photo by Andrea Farmer Photography

FREQ: You’ve talked about “inspiration porn,” where disabled people are used as feel-good symbols of overcoming adversity. What makes that so frustrating to see, and what should people creating media with disabled characters keep in mind if they want to avoid this pitfall?

TS: If you haven’t listened to Stella Young’s TED Talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” I totally recommend it. Stella was a comedian, activist, journalist and wheelchair user. She pointed out that the whole idea that we’re inspiring is grounded in the assumption that the people with disabilities have terrible lives, and that it takes some extra kind of pluck or courage to live them. In “inspiration porn,” people with disabilities are basically being turned into objects to make non-disabled people feel better about themselves. People creating media with disabled characters should keep my favorite quote by Stella in mind:

“I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people.”

FREQ: Outside of My Gimpy Life, are there are there any resources, media or organizations that you would recommend for people trying to educate themselves about disability issues?

TS: The ADA Legacy Project is a great resource. Its mission is to preserve the history of the disability rights movement, celebrate its milestones, and educate. They’ve started a wonderful national communications initiative, DisBeat, which coordinates and promotes proactive messaging on disability rights issues throughout the country.

photo by Daniel Reichert

FREQ: Do you have any projects in the works you want to shout out, or anything you want to talk about that we haven’t touched on?

TS: I had a little boy two years ago, so he’s been my biggest project. I’m also recurring in a smart and funny STARZ series called Survivor’s Remorse that tackles important issues like race, class, sex and politics. My fingers are crossed that I’ll be back for Season 4.

We can hardly believe it. At the end of November, we set out to raise $8,000 towards our 2017 programming. But, because of people like you, we raised over two times that amount. Our first end-of-year appeal, and in just a few weeks, we doubled our goal!

Thank you so much for your generosity, for your support, and for your ongoing commitment to helping us make media more inclusive. We’re ready to make 2017 our best year yet, with even more videos, more writing, more programming and new projects.

And, we couldn’t do it without you.