California Dream

By Drew Curran
Thumbnail of a commercial featuring the author.

A man I just met one minute beforehand lifted me up into an aisle chair to board a plane. The man said, “what seat is he sitting in?” My mother showed him my boarding pass for the second time, to which he responded, “Oh boy that’s way far back there, it’s going to be narrow.” With this statement my body tensed just a little bit more.

Everything was fine getting into the door of the plane and turning the chair around to roll down the aisle. There were two men helping me. One of the men was nice. His job was to hold my feet up while we went down the aisle. The other man who looked at my boarding pass was kind of prickly and cold. His job was to push the chair. The aisle chair is so uncomfortable for me and I don’t have really good trunk control in any situation. Someone has to hold my head and shoulders so I don’t bump into anything, this is usually a minor fear for me. As I looked down the narrow aisle it was quickly becoming a major one.

There were a few people already on the plane when we boarded, and more and more people were filing down the other aisle. No one could get past us down our aisle. They were all staring at me like they expected something to happen. We proceeded at a brisk pace down the aisle but I wished it was a bit slower. My driver bumped my head on the second seat that we passed and then he did what I told him to do from the beginning and held me by the shoulder so my head would not bump into every seat. However, when we went past the bathroom the aisle narrowed so he had to take his hand off my shoulder. I managed to hold my head up through the bathroom area but then I bumped my shoulder on the first seat after the bathroom. I asked him “could you please hold my shoulder again?” and he did but slowly as if reluctant to touch me. We finally got to the seat and I felt a moment of relief until I had to think about when they would lift me into the plane seat. Luckily everything was fine with that step of the process however it is still humiliating because the other passengers were still staring at me.

I was headed to California to film a commercial, promoting a service for disabled and deaf people to use the telephone. The commercial is for the California Relay Service. What they do for their clients is, when you are a person with a disability and calling someone who is able bodied, you actually call an operator and tell them what you are saying and then they relay your message to whoever you are calling. Then the operator will relay back to you what the person said, if you needed that. When I got to the airport they told me that the process would be smooth and they would have someone assist me and my mother until we got on the plane. We had booked a flight with a major US carrier so we would hopefully have no problems with my chair or my seat location but it’s always nerve-wracking . I meet the people who help transfer me a minute before I am expected to trust them not to drop me, and on every flight it is someone different who works for the airline. With my regular assistants that help me every day, I at least am with them for a couple of days before I trust them to try working with me by themselves.

I am by no means a medically fragile individual, I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who have more severe disabilities than myself. I’ve taken other trips on AMTrak or the Long island rail road, these are very good ways to travel as the trains have a large space for passengers with disabilities. I do not have to get out of my wheelchair at all. I wish that planes would have a designated place for wheelchairs just like trains do. The airlines first said that they couldn’t do this because the batteries in the chair are a security hazard because they could catch on fire. This is easily solved by just disconnecting the batteries or keeping the chair completely off while in flight. The airlines complain that the chairs are too heavy, but this does not make sense because the chair is stored as cargo and the last time I checked my chair does not gain any more weight when it’s in the cabin as opposed to cargo. The real problem is that the airlines don’t want wheelchair spots because this means that they won’t always be able to sell the ticket for that seat to a non-wheelchair user on that plane. I think this is totally Ludacris. There is finally a bill before the US Senate that would make a space for wheelchairs on every flight in the cabin, but they’ve been trying to get this bill passed for years under different names and it still has not become law.

After I got on the plane and everything was set to go to California, they put my chair into cargo and we took off. They usually don’t come with the aisle chair until my chair is safely waiting for me at the door of the plane, but when we landed in LA they came with the aisle chair early. They helped me repeat my humiliating routine and I had to wait in the aisle chair for my chair to come. The baggage handlers came to tell me that they had dropped my chair off the conveyor belt while loading it into cargo. Luckily we knew exactly what to do because this had happened on the same airline when I was much younger. When I finally got my chair back, miraculously all the critical systems on my chair worked and after we filled out the report, I was able to go film my commercial.

About a month earlier, I got the opportunity to have one of my dreams come true when I got an audition for a paid filmmaking experience. I auditioned to act in a commercial for the State of California Relay Service for the Disabled and Deaf. How I got to do this was I saw an ad on one of the Facebook Disability Groups that I belong to. The ad was for a casting call. They said it was in LA and it said how much they would pay you, but not many more details. Since I have speech difficulties, it’s very important to me to do my best on something a lot of people will see. So I spent about an hour working on the audition video, which was the hardest part of my whole process for the commercial. I sent the video to a woman named Anna and she liked it a lot, so about two weeks later, they hired me. I was truly over the moon when I read the email that said they would love to work with me. This was my first audition ever for a paid gig, which I know rarely happens to anybody.

Anna wrote back and was very vague on details so I looked up her company and got a little nervous because they didn’t look like they were very reputable. They looked like they were an event company. Some of the events that they put together included painting people blue who were almost naked for a corporate retreat and they had something they titled ”A Cabaret Show”, which I’m still not sure what that was about. I promptly emailed Anna back and asked her what the project was actually for. That is when she told me it was for the State of California Relay Service. I consented to do the project once I was satisfied that it was legitimate.

On the morning of the shoot, I was very nervous but determined to see where this experience would take me. When we got to the set, it looked like a warehouse. Inside there were many black curtains and little rooms almost like dressing rooms. There were two little houses, like the munchkin houses from the Wizard of Oz. One house was for makeup and wardrobe, the other house had the Director’s Office in it. When I went to makeup and wardrobe, of course the two women were very nice and I was surprised at how much they were willing to physically help me. They applied a little makeup like lip gloss and highlighter on my face. They gave me a tee shirt and cardigan to wear.

Next I finally met Anna, who was very nice and really cool. Anna was the person who was actually going to read the other person’s lines while we were filming. The commercial was going to be filmed in a split screen with me on one side and the person I am calling on the other side. I was surprised that people actually say the things that comedy movies say on a movie set. When I wasn’t in the room, they actually called me talent.

The director’s name was Alex, I had only met him briefly before, when I was coming into the set. I was shocked at how many people worked on the commercial. From what I had heard, a commercial usually only had four or five people working on it but this was like a short film. They had about four or five camera and sound operators who happen to be deaf. I couldn’t communicate with them because they only spoke in ASL but luckily the director and Anna spoke a little ASL, enough to get by.

When I was filming, I was sitting at a desk with a phone and other materials on it, like I was planning a family reunion. Part of the commercial is that I am calling my cousin who is helping me plan the family reunion and we’re trying to get the seating chart just right, but my grandma now wants to sit closer to the desserts. There was a little plant on the table. Every take the director would add another plant so by the third or fourth take, everybody started saying ”Drew really likes plants” and that got into a whole discussion about weed and you can imagine how that went.

As you can probably tell, I had a really good time shooting the commercial. By the end, the Director said that I knew my lines better than anybody else. The assistant director jokingly asked me if I wanted a martini because, in this business, they call the last take the Martini Shot. I politely declined but they probably would have had someone go get me a martini if I wanted one. There was one thing I was disappointed about: no one actually knew how to use the service we were filming the commercial for. Alex actually asked me if I knew how to use the service. I said no and as far as I knew we didn’t have this service yet in New York.

When I went to return the costume, the wardrobe lady said I could keep it. I didn’t expect that and I was very grateful for it because I looked good in it. The Director told me that the commercial will be out soon. They did say, when I was leaving the set, that if they have any other projects that were right for me they will contact me. I liked acting so much that I plan to go to other auditions. One of the reasons that I liked it is because it’s the only career that I can think of that people actually help you do your job. When I was filming the commercial, whenever I needed something moved, someone would do it for me, and other tasks like that. This is why I think acting is such a good career for someone with a disability like me.

Three months later my mother came running into the room which startled me. She said “sorry but look!” as she shoved an iPad in my face. She was thrilled to show me that my commercial had finally debuted on YouTube. I love the way it came out, the first time I watched it I wasn’t even paying attention because I was so excited that I finally had something to show everyone to prove that I actually did it. I was so excited because my acting career isn’t just a faraway dream for me anymore. I am actually in the process of pursuing it and hopefully on the way begins the kind of life I have always wanted for myself.

You can see how the commercial came out on YouTube.

14 October, 2022