My son is the inspiration for Castor in Disney Junior’s “Firebuds”

Eleven years ago, my wife was in a parking lot with our newborn, packing her things in the trunk of our car, when an elderly man approached. He pointed a finger at our baby, who was born with a unilateral cleft lip and a bilateral cleft palate (which our doctor would describe as “extremely wide” on a medical form), and glared at my wife. He scolded him. Although he didn’t use those words exactly, its meaning was clear: What mistakes did my wife make to do this to her baby?

What this man didn’t know ― and what many may not know ― is that my wife did nothing wrong to cause our son’s illness. We don’t know why some children are born with cleft lip and palate, but we do know that around 1 in 700 babies worldwide are affected. The stigma persists, however, despite it being one of the most common birth defects in the United States.

Our son has had several surgeries to address his palate and cleft, and there are more to come. These procedures left her with a small scar above her lip. But what I want to emphasize here is what I’m stressing about him: there’s nothing wrong with him. He has a condition that requires surgery, but he’s a perfectly healthy boy. He is not alone. This is what drives me to write this article – to help expand our view of authentic representation to include those with a facial difference.

A sea change is happening and Hollywood has been energized to focus on D&I – diversity and inclusion – to authentically represent the prism of cultures, ethnicities, genders, preferences and abilities. I would like to see the facial difference reflected there too. Often, facial differences are a design trope―a sign of naughtiness. If you see someone on screen with a scar on their face, that’s bad news.

I’m a writer and had the good fortune to write about Disney Junior’s “Firebuds”, about children’s first responders and their first aid vehicles. Since the birth of my son, his condition, his positive attitude and his experiences have shown me the value of telling stories with people and characters like him. So, it wasn’t long before I started a story featuring a kid’s car with a “cracked hood.”

When it came time to cast Castor, the car with the slit, I felt it was important for him to be voiced by a kid who actually had a slit. Naturally, I thought of my son. He’s a terrific young actor, I think, but he sounds great for the role as well. Children with a cleft often have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds, and many of them have years of speech therapy.

I couldn’t be more proud of him and how the episode came out. Working with my son to help tell his story has been a highlight of my career. Of my life. “Cleft Hood” is not about clefts per se. Rather, it is a story about taking into account the feelings and experiences of others. Using empathy is essential, not just in how we behave as humans, but in how we portray people in film and television. My hope was to portray someone with a face difference who was lovable, fun, well-loved, and living a full life. Castor has an extra challenge, but he’s like the other kids.

Of course, any character can have a facial difference. But this should not connote wickedness. Such qualities might just as well suggest that someone is strong, brave, determined, cherished, and empathetic. As in the real world, a scar can mean someone can speak or breathe easier, or has had a life-saving procedure. Perhaps the condition gave this character a brighter outlook on life. Perhaps they are resilient and loving not despite their differences, or even not necessarily because of them, but because these qualities are within the reach of every human being.

Although my son’s lip was technically “fixed”, he did not need “fixing”. I wish I could tell that man in the parking lot that my son (and his mother) need love, not condemnation. As writers and creators, and as people participating in society, we can accommodate the representation of facial difference. We can leave 1 in 700 children feeling seen, and we can help the other 699 see that their friend — the one with the little scar on his lip — has just as much to offer the world as they do.

Jeremy Shipp is a writer on “Firebuds”. Previously, Shipp was part of the Emmy-winning writing team on Disney Channel’s “Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure.” With over a decade of experience as an animation writer, his additional credits include “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, “Family Tools”, and “Dinotrux”.

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