The producers and guests of a new TV show about artists across Canada who identify as disabled say they hope the show changes people’s misconceptions about the lives of people with disabilities.

Disrupt debuted its first episode on AMI this week. The first season of the show includes four episodes.

Ryan Delehanty works with AMI in the Atlantic region and developed the concept for the show. He connected with Rachel Bower, a documentary filmmaker, who also works on CBC’s Land and Sea and a documentary called The Noodle Group for CBC Gem.

“Ryan reached out to me because I had worked with him on a few Our Community documentaries, which is a lovely and watchable documentary series on AMI,” Bower said in an email to the Halifax Examiner.

“Ryan also knew I would be interested because I founded and I’m on the board of a charity for artists with disabilities [JRG Society for the Arts].”

Bower, Delehanty, and artist curator April Hubbard met last summer to work on the show concept and what they wanted to achieve with the program. That included having mentorships for filmmakers who identified with disabilities.

“We had paid roles for these mentorships,” Bower said. “Two camera assistants, two assistant directors, a sound assistant, a set decorator assistant, as well as a post production assistant.”

Once the show got the green light, a team that included Bower, Hubbard, Lisa Rose Snow, and production manager Lynn Matheson got to work finding the artists across Canada. The first episode features a musician, a poet, a comedian, a filmmaker and a choir of performers who are deaf. The show’s title, Disrupt, is a play on the word disability, but Bower said the name “could mean in the sense of interrupting/disrupting what we assume to be the status quo.”

A white man with red hair and red close-cropped beard wearing a white baseball hat and white hoodie stands in front of a colourful screen with the text that says Disrupt.
Taylor Olson, host and director with Disrupt. Credit: Disrupt

Nova Scotia actor and filmmaker Taylor Olson signed on as the host and director, and cowriter for some of the show’s segments.

“A lot of these artists haven’t had this kind of platform, like a national broadcaster,” Olson said in a phone interview with the Examiner on Thursday. “A lot of the art forms aren’t usually in formats that are easily accessible that way. It’s pretty exciting to bring these artists’ voices to the screen.”

‘I am the same as you’

Mike Dow is one of the artists featured on the first episode. Dow grew up in Amherst, but now lives in Moncton. He’s a hip-hop artist who first discovered his talent in high school.

“Originally I was into country music because that’s what my parents listened to,” Dow said in a phone interview with the Examiner on Thursday. “I was kind of a sheltered kid. I didn’t get out and around. But then when I got into high school, people would trade tapes, because that’s what we had back then, and so I got a rap tape. I put it in and was completely blown away and said, ‘Wow, this is it?’”

That tape was Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die.” 

“After that moment, I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” Dow said.

Dow said he started freestyling at parties and became known for his rapping. He goes by MDB Mike Dow Baby, a name inspired by lyrics in Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It.”

Eventually, Dow started writing his own songs once he found a place to record when he moved to Moncton, where he met a member of the rap group The Dark Poets. 

“He showed me my first studio,” Dow said. “After that, I bought my own. And the rest is history.”

Since then, Dow has released four albums.

A white man dressed in a baseball hat, black t-shirt, grey cargo shorts, and workboots stands with his arms crossed in front of a wall of graffiti with a red rose.
Mike Dow aka MDB. Credit: Contributed by Mike Dow aka MDB.

Dow is legally blind. He lost his vision when he was two years old after doctors discovered a cyst on his optic nerve.

“There wasn’t a great chance of me surviving the surgery, but I did and I’m here and I’ve got some sight back,” Dow said. “Originally, I was fully blind but they managed to restore some vision.”

Dow learned about Disrupt when a friend who used to work with AMI connected him with Delehanty. Dow sent along a few of his videos and the show’s producers chose one to feature, a song Dow wrote called “Blind Man.”

“I dealt with a lot of bullies and people who thought that because I couldn’t see I wasn’t deserving to be in the communities, especially the hip-hop community at first,” Dow said. “A lot of people supported me but there was a person who really went after me because of my disability. He kind of inspired [that song].”

“I want to explain to everybody that I am the same as you. I just can’t see as well as you. You don’t have to treat me differently.”

One song, one sign at a time

The NL Deaf Choir was also featured on the first episode of Disrupt. Paula Coggins is one of the members of the choir, which got its start in 2019. At that time, Renee Phair Healey, a registered psychologist who is also the director of programs at the NL Association of the Deaf, suggested a group do a flash mob as part of International Week of the Deaf, which takes place the last week of each September.

That group of members, which included Coggins and who are all deaf, recorded a video of a song called This Is Me with ASL interpretation. That performance was a hit.

“I thought it was a one-time thing,” Coggins said in a Zoom interview with the Examiner on Thursday. “We did the flash mob and that was it. From then, we got requests all the time for more performances and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

Besides Coggins, the choir includes Myles Murphy, Jen Viguers, Joyce Howell, Joy Philpott, Linda Healey, and artistic director Leigh Ann Ryan. Ryan listens to the music and then signs the lyrics, while the other choir members sign along.

A group of women dressed in long bright blue dresses stand with two other women dressed in black outfits and a man in a black shirt and black pants with a blue tie. They areall standing on a wooden altar in a church with red carpet with a fine white print. The
The NL Deaf Choir. Credit: Contributed by The NL Deaf Choir.

The choir often performs with the Shallaway Youth Choir, which will sing the songs while the members of the NL Deaf Choir interpret the songs with ASL. The result is a beautiful performance in which some audience members also sign along with, too.

The NL Deaf Choir has performed shows across Newfoundland and Labrador, including in schools and at the airport. Last year, they were invited to take part in a choral festival in Toronto. Some of the members of the NL Deaf Choir was also featured in a performance of the musical Come From Away in Gander. Coggins said having the choir appear on Disrupt is a chance to teach others about deaf language and culture and see how it all translate with music.

“My favourite part really is when you take the lyrics and translate them into ASL, trying to make a written language into a visual language, with your body movements, your expressions, and choice of signs,” said Coggins, who also performs on her own with the Holy Heart Youth Choir.

The producers of Disrupt learned about the NL Deaf Choir and reached out. One of the choir’s performances with the Shallaway Youth Choir is featured on the first episode of Disrupt.

“We’re getting a lot of comments and requests for performances,” Coggins said of the response to the show. “I want to let people know that deaf people can do anything. The only difference is we can’t hear. We have our language, but we’re like everyone else.”

Signing on for a second season

Bower said working on Disrupt felt like “walking into a museum and seeing canvases with art that you never even imagined and that wakens your mind and soul.”

“I want Disrupt to continue and see more shows like this because there are a lot of incredible creators out there that we often don’t get a chance to put on a platform like AMI, for people to easily access and view,” Bower said.

Bower said there will be a second season of Disrupt with six new episodes, which will air later this fall. Olson will again be the director and host and Matheson will be the team’s production manager.

“Most of our team will be filmmakers with disabilities and we will once again have mentees in all the key assistant roles,” Bower said. “In fact, the post-production mentee worked out so well that we are hiring her as post supervisor and assistant editor.”

Olson said he hopes all viewers are inspired by the show.

“I hope for folks who are feeling like they want to create art and they have a voice and they’re feeling stuck or have no avenue or feeling, ‘Oh, not me, I could never do it,’ that it inspires them to go and create their art and try to find a platform and have the confidence to do it,” Olson said.

“What I would love for people to take away from it is that there are so many great artists out there who may be facing different disabilities, but have unique and special voices that, for the most part, we really haven’t heard before.”

Dow said he was “honoured” to be included on first episode of Disrupt and said he’d like the show to change misconceptions about people with disabilities.

“Not a lot of people get opportunities like this, so it means the world to me. And that they put me on the first episode, really blows me away. I’m so proud. People are loving it,” Dow said.

“People have preconceived notions of what a person with disability looks like and acts like. I want Disrupt to completely blow that out of the water. Just take us for who we are and just let us be. You have to accept us for who we are.”

A white woman with chin length auburn hair and blue eyes, wearing a bright blue sweater

Suzanne Rent

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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