Tylia Flores is an author, podcast host, and disability advocate known for Stomping on Cerebral Palsy. I loved talking with Ty about her work in advocacy, activism, and creating books and media that represent people with disabilities. Enjoy excerpts of our conversation, and be sure to follow Ty and say hi!
I’d love to start with more about you and your writing, your podcasting, and how all of that fits in to your daily life.
I’m 26 years old, I have spastic cerebral palsy. I grew up in Florida, but I’m originally from New York. And I grew up in front of the TV, watching Disney Channel, and that sort of influenced my career. But when I was 15 years old, I went through a tragedy, and a year later, I published my first book. But then, years passed, and I didn’t publish any more books until this past year, which, a lot of the time, when I was on my hiatus, discovering what I wanted to write about, I would go toward the Mouse. And I would watch shows like Out of the Box, and Bear and the Big Blue House, and Recess and The Proud Family, and I’m so excited that’s coming back.
But I noticed that there was something missing in some of those shows, which was disability representation. Although Bear in the Big Blue House had one episode and Out of the Box had one episode, there wasn’t a show where there was a main character with a condition or with a disability. So that’s where I felt disconnected with TV, and that’s why I decided to take the career as a writer.
That’s awesome. So do you have aspirations to write for television and film also, and are you working on anything?
Yes, I’m working on a children’s book currently called Larry the Differently Abled Bear. It goes into the story on how he’s disabled because he was born without a roar.
Ty’s brand new book is out now and available for purchase here. She thought about what kinds of characters could tell the story and knew that her message would translate well with animals.
If you look at the success of Arthur, using all animals, and how many years that show has been on. That’s an interesting idea.
Yeah, 25 years. I’m sad it’s ending. It’s been a really good show, and it’s been influential to me, as well. Especially because they started featuring characters with cerebral palsy and autism. So kudos to all the writers at Arthur, and the creator, Marc Brown. He sort of opened up an envelope for people with disabilities to want to talk about their disability, and so did Disney with Miracle in Lane 2.
I listened to your podcast episode on That’s So Matthew, and it was great to hear you discuss Miracle in Lane 2 personally, and what it meant to you.
That movie is fantastic, and I wish Disney Channel would do more… That movie taught you so much in the hour that you sat down and you watched it, even though Frankie Muniz doesn’t have a disability, you can’t tell. Because he portrays the part of Justin so well.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s better for disabled actors to be in these roles. If not, and if it’s still a compelling portrayal [without disabled actors], does that work, too?
If the actor doesn’t have a disability and can portray the part well and do his research on the part of the character that has a disability, and they spend time connecting with others with this disability and hearing their life experiences, then great. But I also think it’s good for us to give actors in Hollywood with disabilities a chance to be on the big screen.
And I would say, even to actually write the stories. To be able to use parts of their life if they want, or to have that background of knowing what someone would actually go through, before it’s put on screen.
Yeah, exactly. A lot of the time, prior to Miracle in Lane 2 and the movie Come as You Are, I would watch a ton of disabled movies. And a lot of times they would make it seem like the person disabled is sick, and they have to die. And it’s like, no. Even at the end of Miracle in Lane 2 it’s a little bit misleading, because they make it seem like Justin dies, and he’s not dead. I actually had to Google what does for a living now, Justin, and he’s a real estate guy.
I think that it’s great that Disney has dived deep into disability and representation. I just wish that they would promote those DCOMs more.
With the DCOMs, I definitely agree with you. They’re still making them, and it would be great to see a variety of stories that center disabled people with lots of different experiences.
Because we’re a part of society, too. I think we’re just now getting to that point. But my question is always, ‘Why did it take us this long?’
Do you ever think that people are afraid that they won’t get it right? Do you think that would hold anybody back?
Yeah, I think that’s the issue with the writers, especially for those that aren’t disabled. They’re afraid to dive in. But they should, because it’s like eating an Uno’s deep-dish pizza after you come back from the parks at Disney. (I’m so upset that they shut the one in Disney Springs down, because that was my place.)
What do you think would be a good guideline for people who feel that way? What’s some good research they should start with, or ways for them to build a network of writers speaking from actual lived experience?
Well, you’ve just got to go out into society and meet ordinary people and connect with organizations that have these people that you can interview. Like the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Autism Matters, the Spina Bifida Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
There’s so many organizations that you can get so many people to tell the stories, and with that, you can combine those stories and make them into one character. Recently, I published a book called Purpose about a young boy with spina bifida, who’s 12. I don’t necessarily have spina bifida, but I have friends that have spina bifida. With their stories and with their life experiences and what I’ve learned through advocacy, I was able to create Austin Branson, who is the main protagonist in this book. Even me, as a writer, sometimes I write about different characters with different disabilities, and even I have to do my research.
That makes all the difference in anything you’re writing about. And it’s really challenging right now, with COVID. Do you feel like your output has increased with your writing, getting ideas, being home more often?
I feel like my writing ideas and my inspiration for wanting to write more about disabilities has increased. I just wish I could go out there and meet more people, that way I could get more stories. ‘Cause you can only write a character based on yourself for so long before you’re like, ‘What in the world? I’ve got to go out and meet people.’
Yeah. I work primarily remotely, and it definitely has its benefits, but as far as creativity is concerned, something about actually getting out and experiencing the world, we’ve all had to sort of alter that. Would you want to speak to specific difficulties of the pandemic and the alteration to lifestyle for disabled people at all?
Yeah, I would. Actually, I find it extremely difficult to be always confined to this virtual world now. Before, I had the resources to go to non-profit organizations (like the YMCA) if I wanted to. The options were always there. Now, it’s like they want to do everything virtual. And that’s hard because I’m a sociable person, and I want to go back to these events.
It’s important to keep everybody safe, but it has been really hard. When you’re getting out in normal times and working with these different organizations, what are some of the projects that you’ve worked on?
For the CP Foundation, I raised money for them every year in the best way I could, through online funding. And I do talk to them about future events that they could do, and things like that, as far as cerebral palsy, and spreading awareness.
I was also a part of the Cerebral Palsy Advocates of North America, where I served as a board member for a few months. And then, for United Cerebral Palsy, I’m trying to put it together where I could go visit my old school and give back to them, but again, it’s in New York City.
So traveling is a little bit more complicated right now.
Yeah. So you really can’t do much, but before COVID, I had all these plans to give back, and I was in talks with the Cerebral Palsy foundation.
Ty grew up in New York and misses being there. It was wonderful to hear more about her childhood and what she’s nostalgic for, including something we definitely have in common, Radio Disney!
I just grew up there, and it was a big part of my childhood. That was actually the first place where I listened to Radio Disney, back in the ‘90s. In my apartment, my mom got a stereo. She’s like, ‘Disney came out with a radio station!’ And she would put it on for me and I would listen to all the DJs. I was like, ‘Wow. I would like to work for Disney one day.’ When we were moving from the Bronx to Florida, she was like, ‘We’re going to live closer to Mickey Mouse!’ When she met my stepdad, we finally got the chance to go to Disney World, and I remember riding the Dumbo ride with my stepdad, and I said, ‘This is a place where I want to tell stories, when I’m older.’
I love that. Radio Disney was such a big part of our lives. Anyone in this generation, I feel like, was impacted by it. Sad that it’s no longer around.
Yes, and it was actually a big influential decision when I decided that I wanted to do broadcasting at 13, 14. I desperately failed and left it behind until I was 21. My favorite DJ was BB Good, I loved her.
Now you’re definitely back into broadcasting and all kinds of different media. I’d say maybe that early time listening to Radio Disney, it’s kind of like everything has come full circle, in a way.
Yeah, and we’ve gotta thank the Mouse. The one show that I find very influential on my life, even though it didn’t feature a character with a disability, was Lizzie McGuire. I always wanted to be her, with the blonde hair and the blue eyes. Have friends like Gordo and Miranda. Have a crush on a guy like Ethan Craft.
I can definitely relate to you there. That was one of my favorite shows growing up. At the intersection of disability and nostalgia, you know a lot about these shows that you grew up with.
I think a lot about how nostalgia works for me. Sometimes I’ll be watching something, and I’ll feel like I can actually almost embody my younger self. Being little and sitting in my parents’ living room watching TV. Do you ever have any special feeling when you’re watching something that was really meaningful to you?
Honestly, I get that same special feeling when I watch Bear in the Big Blue House and puppeteer Noel MacNeal goes up to the screen and goes, ‘You are smelling mighty good. You smell like raspberries today.’ The character Bear was the inspiration for Larry the Bear. Bear in the Big Blue House made me fall in love with bears. So, in a way, when I was creating Larry, I thought about Noel MacNeal.
I was reading your book [about disability and nostalgia on screen]. It’s cool how such a different variety of films and television shows have made an impact on you collectively, and you’re very knowledgeable about all of them. But at the same time, it’d be great to see that there’s even more out there to put on that list.
I’m thinking about writing a Disability Nostalgia part two because there’s so many shows that I missed. I’m so upset that I didn’t include The Proud Family episode “I Love You, Penny Proud.” That features a boy in a wheelchair who has a crush on Penny, and he draws graffiti. I was that kid in middle school. That was voiced by Shia LaBeouf, and that was great. And I related to it so much when I saw that character. Not only because he was in a wheelchair; it was because I did the same thing to a guy.
I think we all did things like that at some point.
And Penny had a beautiful message. She’s like, ‘I’m not with you because you’re in a wheelchair. That’s not why I’m breaking up with you; I’m breaking up with you because you’re a jerk.’ I was like, Yes! Break the barriers for teenagers that have that same experience. Because when I was growing up in middle school, a lot of the times, the guys would agree to hang out with me and say they liked me because I was in a wheelchair. And they didn’t know how to reject me, because of my disability.
And you’re saying, ‘Just treat me normally.’ Right?
Yeah. The same way Penny treated [the guy who liked her.] That was great, and I wish I would have appreciated it more when I was little. Now as an adult, I say, ‘Can we play this in middle school sex education classes?’
Ty and I enjoyed talking more about Disney Channel and Playhouse Disney shows. She mentioned Stanley as a favorite Playhouse Disney show, and Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven had a very specific purpose as she was growing up:
Disney Channel gave me an escape from my reality after doctor’s appointments, and going through surgeries. I could just turn on Disney Channel and feel so connected to the TV, and I wanted to figure out how those characters came to life. And how the writers wrote those characters. And I figured it out: life experiences.
I think for many of them, life experience but also a lot of imagination. You have a psychic, a wizard…
That’s So Raven was cool. I always wish I was her. She was the first African-American I connected with on TV. Because, my mom is Puerto Rican and my biological father is African-American. But growing up, I never had the experience of his culture. He wasn’t in my life because he didn’t want a child with a disability.
I know, but I have my stepdad, and that’s awesome. So, growing up and watching That’s So Raven got me connected to a culture that I never would have gotten connected to if it wasn’t for this show. To see how an African-American family would act versus a Latina family, and it was great. I felt complete, I didn’t feel empty.
You have so many cool connecting points here, to be able to speak from so many different experiences. That show is a great example; I think Raven was ahead of its time.
That’s So Raven had an episode where a lady discriminates against Raven and wouldn’t hire a Black person, and that was the first form of how to be an advocate that I saw on TV as an African-American. So in a way, that episode changed my whole life. Not only am I an Afro-American Latina; I have this disability, and this could happen to me, too, so I have to speak up. I’m not going to have my friends dress up in different clothing, but it was a great lesson.
That episode has resurfaced in a big way in the last couple of years, and I’m glad because I think it does teach a big lesson.
We go home after school or on the weekends, and so many people our age have this shared experience of these shows being such a source of comfort, especially in your situation with hospitals and doctors’ appointments. Something light, and happy to look forward to but that can also teach important lessons.
I think that’s the one reason why I want to get into TV and representation. Not just for the disability community but for the Afro-Latina community. I want girls to know, especially young little girls that have insecurities about their skin color or their hair being curly or needing a perm to say, ‘Hey it’s okay. We have nappy hair but we can still be something like these characters on TV.’
I’m so glad Ty spoke with about mental health, as well. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, I’d encourage you to contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.
People tell me all the time, ‘You shouldn’t write about your disability. You shouldn’t write about the fact that you have mental illness!’ And it’s like, why not? People need to know about this. This is a problem. And the same thing with TV. Going back to disability and representation, I think mental health also falls in that category. And the perfect representation I’ve seen of mental health is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. They’re banning the movie from being shown in schools, and they’re banning the book because they’re saying it’s too graphic. So there goes the representation for that.
And the same thing with certain disability movies. Parents don’t want to show their kids Margarita with a Straw because there’s sexual content in it. But that’s what happens when you become an adult with a disability, specifically, cerebral palsy. It’s a movie based out of India. The protagonist is a girl named Laila and she has cerebral palsy. And she’s going through a stage in her life where she’s trying to find herself as a person. And I think that happens with anybody. But when you have a disability, it’s like having an extra layer of your grandma’s lasagna that you just don’t know what to do with it.
I think, when it comes to disability and representation, if I can give any film writer advice, it’s, just don’t do your research online. Take the time out to talk to these people. I feel like the problem is, people are like, ‘Oh, I did my research.’ I’m like, ‘Where did you do your research, online?’ That’s the number one problem. That’s why you have all these misconceptions. I wind up becoming like a snob because I have to correct them, and I don’t like it.
What are some actionable resources or support that we could give so that people have a little more to help them through situations?
I feel like, honestly, there’s a lot of communities on Facebook now that talk about mental health. But outside of that, there’s not enough. There’s not enough resources for it. My thing is, we have to fight to make sure people with disabilities get mental health assistance. Even for those who don’t have disabilities, we need to fight more. Because I definitely see a disconnect in representation, and I see a disconnect in the real-world society, and with these doctors and psychiatrists. And the representation toward mental health in movies is totally wrong.
I think it’s pretty disappointing, to be honest with you, that we’re in 2022 and we’re still stuck with writing these characters that are stigmatized, in a sense. We are ordinary people, but we just go through different battles every day.
That’s like me, at the age of 23, I finally broke down and admitted to myself that I had a problem, and I’ve been going to mental health therapy for the first time in quite some time, since COVID. Since I was able to find the resources to help me, I’ve been going there. But lately it’s been a struggle because my therapist, they put her all over the state of Florida, and she’s only in the office for a certain time in the month. So I could be doing good for one month, and then the next month, fall off the wagon. That’s what I feel like TV needs to represent. They need to also explain that people with mental health issues are ordinary people.
A huge part of what you do is advocacy, and activism. So, when it comes to all of the different areas of your life and community, whether it’s entertainment or making daily life situations better, you have your Stomping on CP mantra. How does that apply to all of your goals, and how did you come up with your approach uniquely to advocacy?
8 years ago, after publishing my first book, which has nothing to do with cerebral palsy, I started to connect with others in the community. I started to build this brand, and I realized, if I can write about this situation and it got me through grief, then maybe I can take the same passion that I had through my grief and help other people. 8 years later, I’m known as Stomping on CP. But how I take that in my everyday life is, I educate people. And I’m not trying to spread “inspirational porn” or anything like that. I’m trying to educate.
So what I do is, if I come across somebody and they’re staring at me in public, I don’t give them a bad attitude. I just say, ‘Hi. My name’s Tylia Flores, and I can talk just like you, so ask me anything.’ And usually they’re just shocked out of their minds. I just take that approach, and if I can’t explain something, I just write about it. I publish it somewhere 9 times out of 10. I’m just like, ‘This was my life experience. This happened to me. I’m gonna write about it, I’m gonna talk about it, and I’m gonna use it as an educational tool.’
That’s amazing. What are some of the positive and/or productive conversations you’ve been able to have with people about that?
I think the most positive thing that I’ve been able to do is bring raise awareness to disability and mental illness as a whole, and bring awareness to my family about it, too. And bring awareness to cerebral palsy altogether.
Tonight, I was talking to my publisher, and prior to her connecting with me, she knew ziggly-squat about disability. She didn’t know the dialogue, she didn’t know anything. I was telling her about this interview, and she was like, ‘You’ve made me into something that I never thought I would be. Thank you for being my teacher through the literature you’ve sent us in the past year.’ And that was just extremely touching, because when I’m writing, I don’t feel as if it’s something that I’m going to get praised for. I just do it because I love it. I love creating characters that are relatable, just like Disney Channel did, and they’re still doing that, even Nickelodeon. I feel like the main show that had influence, which happened to turn into a Disney show, was Doug. I always wanted to create a show like Doug, that featured a character with a disability going through life and getting herself into sticky situations.
Another show that was very influential was Pelswick on Nickelodeon, that was a Canadian show that only lasted two seasons. The animation is a little… but if you watch the show, you’ll learn so much about disability. It features a young boy named Pelswick; he uses a wheelchair. And he explores life with his friends, and sadly, the creator of the show died. But it was a really good show. And Nickelodeon didn’t care about it because it only lasted two seasons. I feel like it could have been the next Hey Arnold if they would have just paid more attention.
Television has inspired Ty as a writer. She watched Zoey 101 and considered creating a story about diverse characters in a boarding school environment:
But then I realized a disabled kid going to boarding school wouldn’t make sense, ’cause all their doctors are at home, and it would be hard for the insurance to transfer. So I scrapped that idea.
That’s a really good point. Do you think there’s a way forward, where someone could have a caretaker to help?
But even that’s hard, because what if the parents aren’t rich? So, that puts the show at a stigma. ‘Well, I’m disabled, too, but only a rich parent could send me to boarding school.’
To end with some positive inspiration, we talked about Radio Disney and the impact that that had. Do you have a couple of favorite songs, either from way back when or now, that put you in a good mood?
From Disney, “Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride,” “You’re Welcome” from Moana, and “Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan.
If I had to relate to any Disney character that’s animated, it would be Stitch. Stitch is like a wild, cuddly, hyper – I have ADHD, too, so I can understand Stitch’s wild side. He’s hyper, he gets into situations, but he’s lovable to Lilo. ‘Ohana is forever, so you have to deal with me!’
So that’s a favorite animated movie and character; what’s one of your go-to live-action movies when you want a pick-me-up?
The DCOM The Thirteenth Year, because I always thought it was cool that they had this boy that was a merman, and Halloweentown. I’m so excited for Hocus Pocus.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary If I Die Tomorrow. It’s on Netflix. I’m a huge fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Documentaries are always my go-to, too, when I need inspiration. I would say a few Disney ones, but there’s so many. Like the ones about Walt Disney [and behind-the-scenes theme park segments].
Favorite Disney park? MGM Studios, & Favorite Disney ride? The Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.
I’d like to thank Tylia for joining me in this conversation. It was wonderful to interview you, Ty! Thanks for your openness in talking about your work and everyday life! I appreciate you.