According to the census bureau, nearly one in five people have a disability. But despite the fact that people with disabilities make up almost 20 percent of the U.S. population, a 2016 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation states that 95 percent of characters in television with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors.
So, when AMC-backed streaming service Sundance Now picked up "The Chances" – a show written by, and starring, deaf people, the announcement was not only groundbreaking, but also historic.
"The Chances" centers around two best friends, Kate, played by Shoshannah Stern, and Michael, played by Josh Feldman, who are supporting each other as Kate is acclimating to being newly engaged, and as Michael is attempting to get over his ex-boyfriend.
"Not many of my friends have seen the show, since it hasn't been released yet, but the few close friends I've shown it to have loved it, because it's so rare to see our deaf community portrayed so well on screen," said Feldman.
Feldman, who is gay, and Stern have been friends for years and dreamed up the show one day over cocktails.
"It was just an idea Josh and I had one day over happy hour. It basically wrote itself, and then we tried bringing the idea to some production companies. When that didn't work out, we decided we'd just go ahead and shoot it all by ourselves with a skeleton crew," said Stern.
With a budget of $250, Feldman and Stern put a pilot together and uploaded it to YouTube. Shortly after, they were discovered by Super Deluxe, a studio based out of Los Angeles, which ensured Feldman and Stern were both properly accommodated for during shooting.
"They made sure that we always had interpreters," said Stern. "We also communicated via emails and text rather than phone calls. If we call them, we usually do it over relay. They also hired an ASL master who was responsible for overseeing all the sign language used in the show."
"The Chances" debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in the short form episodic showcase to great reviews. Though, Feldman noted, the series has changed a lot from what was shown at the festival.
"It'll be a different animal. It's almost like we have a bigger playground with a half-hour show, versus a five- to seven-minute webisode. So I'm excited about exploring bigger issues and taking our time with more character development," said Feldman.
While the show's two protagonists are deaf, Stern said that the deaf experience comes after the story, and Kate does not represent a specific type of deaf person.
"I would say that there are so many different kinds of deaf people in the world, and that there's no one way to be deaf," said Stern. "We wrote her with the hopes that she represents who and what she is as a character."
Stern is deaf from birth and attended Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. – the only deaf liberal arts university in the world. She booked her first acting gig with Warner Bros. in college, and has been seen in "Weeds," "Lie to Me," "Jericho," and "Super Natural."
Feldman is also deaf from birth and attended Gallaudet. He has written for several online publications and won a Young Playwrights Award from Arena Stage in Washington.
Belo Cipriani is a disability advocate, a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of "Blind: A Memoir" and "Midday Dreams," the spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine – a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com.