BRICK – Never give up on your dreams, no matter what obstacles or challenges you face in life.
That was the message from Micah Fowler, 20, who grew up in Barnegat and has the featured role in ABC TV’s “Speechless,” which was just picked up for a third season of 22 episodes.
Micah took time out of his shooting schedule in Los Angeles to give a motivational speech at Brick High School to the middle and high school BASE Camp students on self-advocacy and focusing on their abilities, not disability. (BASE – an acronym for Behavioral Academic and Social Education – is a summer camp for special needs students).
Micah is one of the only actors with a disability playing a character with a disability on primetime television. On “Speechless,” he plays JJ DiMeo, a wheelchair-bound teenager with teenage problems, but is non-verbal and speaks through an embarrassing full-time aide.
In real life, Micah has less pronounced cerebral palsy than his TV character, and is able to walk using a walker. He spoke from the stage at the Brick High School auditorium with help from his mother and business manager, Tammy.
Micah got his start in community theater as a child, which gave him the experience to become self-confident, Tammy said.
He started his professional acting career around the age of nine when he appeared on Blues Clues, and then he appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street.
At 15, Micah was cast in his first movie, Jason Reitman’s 2013 movie Labor Day, which starred Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, after auditioning for the role in New York City. The audition was so stressful that he burst into tears afterwards, Tammy recalled.
“Most people go on 150 auditions before they get a role, it’s really a tough business,” she said. “The important thing is, you were seen by that casting director and they might use you for something else.”
She said that her son’s cerebral palsy was the result of a stroke he had in utero while she was pregnant. Speech disorders are common among those with CP, and while it takes time for Micah to speak, he was able to express himself to the audience.
Micah was asked by his agent to submit a “personality tape” for an untitled project, which was a tape of him talking about himself and joking around. A year later, his agent asked for another personality tape for the project which was now given a name: “Speechless.”
A few days later, the casting director sent six scenes to their home in Barnegat, which his family taped and the agent loved. On his 18th birthday, Micah found out he got the role, Tammy said.
“It had been my dream to be an actor. When I got the opportunity to do this show I was so thankful,” he said.
“I am so honored to be a part of this show. I get social media messages every day. People say ‘You have really changed my perspective, thank you for bringing a smile to my son or my daughter,’” Micah said.
“We get a lot of those messages,” Tammy added. “On Tuesday there was one from a boy who said he never say anyone on TV like himself, who has physical disabilities.”
Speechless has made a big difference to people with disabilities because it is changing society’s perception of people who are disabled, she said.
Some people are condescending to those with disabilities, Tammy said. “People have patted Micah on the head and said ‘good boy.’ They get into your personal space, people would talk down to him and society didn’t believe in his potential, so there are a lot of challenges Micah has faced along the way,” she said. “My best advice is speak positive words into these kids’ lives, help them find out who they are.”
“I just want to say, never give up on your dreams, no matter what challenges or obstacles you have,” Micah said.
BASE camp director Brett Novick, who is a school counselor at Osbornville Elementary School, opened the floor to questions from the audience.
One of the children asked if Micah was paralyzed.
Tammy said that her son can feel his limbs, that CP affects motor skills.
Another question was about where the series is shot and how long it takes to shoot an episode. It takes a week to shoot one episode, and every day is different for Micah, Tammy said. He could have a long day where he is in eight scenes, or sometimes his day can be shorter when he is in fewer scenes. The family spends three weeks a month in Los Angeles and one week at their home in Barnegat.
One of the BASE students asked Micah about his future goals. Micah said he would love to be in a Star Wars movie.
Micah is the ambassador of the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation and was recently named #13 in Forbes “Top 30 under 30 class of 2018,” which acknowledges the inspiring work of young entrepreneurs and game changers today.