By Andie Hagemann
Disney Junior’s Firebuds continues its tradition of inclusivity with the introduction of Castor, a vehicular character born with a cleft hood.
In the episode “Cleft Hood,” Axl (voiced by Lily Sanfelippo) takes it upon herself to track a wee-hicle down and convince him to return to the hospital for his cleft hood surgery. But first, Axl must put herself in Castor’s wheels and imagine what he is going through. Writer Jeremy Shipp was inspired to pitch the episode by his son Henry, who was born with a cleft lip and palate. Henry also makes his acting debut, serving as the voice of Castor.
Prior the episode’s network debut, Disney Branded Television hosted a virtual screening and Q&A with Firebuds creator and executive producer Craig Gerber, Jeremy and Henry Shipp, and Lauren Appelbaum from RespectAbility, who advised on the episode, for a conversation about the importance of onscreen representation.
“My son is very inspiring to me, and it’s not because of his condition,” said Jeremy. “He’s inspiring because of his attitude—and [he’s] a pretty positive kid. I wanted to do a story with a character like him.”
“When we wrote the episode, I did not in my wildest dreams think about my son voicing the part,” Jeremy continued. “At the suggestion of the story editor, I had Henry audition for it.”
In the episode, Castor carries a plush toy car with a cleft hood named Anya. The toy was inspired by Henry’s own toy of the same name—a doll with a cleft that was purchased by his mother when he was 2 years old.
“I felt if we’re putting Castor in there, who takes a page out of Henry’s book, then Anya should be in there, too,” said Jeremy. “I sent the designers a picture of Henry and I believe they got his essence. I then sent a picture of Anya, and the animated stuffy is very similar to the doll.”
Since its debut, Firebuds has introduced several disabled characters, including the recurring character Jazzy (voiced by Lauren “Lolo” Spencer), a young Black girl with spina bifida whose “vroom-mate” is a wheelchair car named Piper (voiced by Sammi Haney). Jazzy is the sister of Jayden (voiced by JeCobi Swain), a main character, and there are several episodes that are centered around her in particular.
“The disabled community is a group that I felt has been underrepresented in the past, so we wanted to address that in Firebuds,” said Gerber. “[In addition to creating new characters] to include more diversity, we also have individual episodes like ‘Cleft Hood.’ Our show involves medical first responders and we thought there was a great opportunity to do a story about someone who has medical issues that required hospital stays.”
He continued, “[We hope] kids watching at home with similar challenges can see themselves reflected onscreen and get a sense of sort of empathy from that.”
The team behind Firebuds collaborates with RespectAbility throughout the entire creative process, from ensuring the language is correct in the script to working with animators on depicting the series’ many different disabled characters. “We provided reference videos for the animators [while working on Jazzy],” said Appelbaum. “She doesn’t always stay in her wheelchair car. Sometimes she sits, or she transfers. Some people might incorrectly assume that someone using a wheelchair is either always in the wheelchair or potentially in a bed.”
RespectAbility also works with the Disney Branded Television Publicity team regarding how to properly promote the episode and/or character and share it with different members of the community.
“We create a good working relationship where the feedback can be ongoing and informative on things that we do in a greater way,” said Gerber.
“Cleft Hood” premieres Friday, March 10, at 11:30 a.m. ET/PT on Disney Channel and at 1:25 p.m. ET/PT on Disney Junior. The episode will be available to stream on Disney+ Wednesday, March 15.