With longtime friend and the founder of Able Cafe the Podcast - Michael Cooney.
To say Michael has lived an extraordinary life is an understatement. In part, because his personal accomplishments as a filmmaker, writer, and musician are enough to fill a lifetime. But even more so, because he has a larger purpose on this earth that is bigger than himself.
Michael was born with Cerebral Palsy and became one of the first children with a disability to enter the public school system in the 80s, which propelled him to find an incredible inner strength that has stayed with him throughout his life to elevate a community that has been overlooked for too long.
This and so many other reasons are why we are so thrilled to partner with Michael and the Able Cafe as our first official collaboration.
How did you meet Josh, our CEO, and what sparked this collaboration?
Josh and I first met when we were both working for a production company in the Los Angeles area, and we were focused on employing people with disabilities. On the first day that we met, I remember that Josh invited me out to lunch, and it was an instant friendship. There are many things about Josh that I love, but one of them is that he really looks at somebody and sees what's inside them. He can look past any kind of physical difference or what made them seem different and can look inside and see what kind of people they are. He's all about appreciating people for their talents and treating them with respect.
We first became friends about twelve years ago, and we've been working together since then to advance the idea of empowering adults with disabilities. We've also had a very close friendship, and Josh has helped me through some difficult times in my life. So much of who Josh is as a person and who we are as friends went into this collaboration. When you look at what Josh does as a businessman with Melrose Place, it's all about providing a quality product that will encourage people to feel good about themselves. That's why I'm excited about our collaboration with this Tee - because it'll make people feel good about themselves, and it's for a good cause, of course.
You have paved a successful career in nearly every creative industry; how has this helped you navigate the world and how you approach your fight for equality?
I first came out to Los Angeles from the East Coast to go to graduate school, and I earned my masters in Creative Writing. Before that, I worked for ten years in the music industry. After earning my masters, I became a writer, filmmaker, and activist. Working in the entertainment industry for a number of years and also having a masters degree has really helped me in helping others because it's important to see not only myself, but other people with disabilities as what they can do.
I didn't know that I'd be able to achieve all the things that I did in my life, and it really made me feel good about myself and gave me a lot to share with other people with disabilities. If I could do it, in terms of earning a Masters Degree and working in the industry for so long, they can do it, too. I've been proud to be a bit of a role model for people and to inspire people in any way that I can with my writing. It's so important that we feel good about ourselves as a community; I think that's the most important thing. It's important that we feel good about exploring what we can do as people, really discovering what our abilities are, and really discovering what our power is.
That is so much of what Able Cafe the Podcast is - that people share their personal stories. Through sharing our personal stories, we can find common ground and then we can discover our inner power, and that's what Able Cafe is all about. If I can help people with disabilities - and any person - feel good about themselves and discover their inner power, then I'm doing something right.
After reading your story, it sounds like being a trail blazer is woven into your DNA. What sparked your passion to step into a leadership role for your community?
Honestly, I never really set out to be a leader in the disabled community. I was mainstreamed into a typical classroom when I was in sixth grade from a school where everyone was handicapped. At the time, I had plastic braces on my legs that I had to wear everyday to keep them straight. I had to wear really bulky work boots because they were the only thing that would fit over the plastic braces on my legs. I used to dream about finding a good pair of sneakers and cool shoes to wear, and of course, like any kid in sixth grade, I wanted to go to cool parties and find a nice girl to date. It just so happened that in the process of trying to do that as a person with a disability, I had to really advocate for myself and fight for my autonomy as a person.
When you're a person with a disability, everyone wants to tell you what they think you should do with your life. They want to infantilize you to some extent and treat you like you're not an adult, and in some ways less than a person, and all I was trying to do was do the same things that people around me were doing. That meant that I had to stand up for myself and stand up for others because what I was also taught when I was growing up, was if there was someone who needed help, you helped them. It was very basic.
All I wanted was a cute girl and a good pair of shoes, and I always found these people that needed help that were like me in wheelchairs and on crutches and with down syndrome, and I would help them. Then one day I woke up and I was leading a community. It was completely by accident.
What misconceptions and/or stereotypes do you aim to break?
The biggest thing I want to do with Able Cafe the Podcast is show that people with disabilities are just like anybody else. We struggle with things and we want the same things out of life, but we also have tremendous power, tremendous ability, and tremendous creativity - there's not enough of a spotlight on that.
So much of the world sees people with disabilities as less than or other or some subset of society. We want to participate in society, we want a seat at the table, we want to sit beside our friends and family members and community members who are not disabled and have the same opportunities that they have - the same opportunities to screw up and the same opportunities for love and employment and happiness. The biggest misconception I'm trying to break is that we are not helpless. We are not less than you. We're strong. We have power. We have abilities.
What's one of your favorite memories since launching the podcast?
I think my favorite memory since starting Able Cafe the Podcast is the response that I've gotten. It's been overwhelming! We now have 13 episodes that we've done, and the response from the community has been much more than I've ever hoped for. I get messages on a daily basis from people with disabilities and people without disabilities saying things like, "I didn't know what it feels like to have a disability" or "you taught me something" and "that's like me, that's like something that I've been through; I've been through pain, I've been through struggle, I've turned to music and creativity to help me through my pain."
So, in a crazy way, we're building bridges, right now, and we're building small bridges every step of the way. My favorite thing about Able Cafe is the way it has taken off. My friends in the music industry have responded. Mark McGrath from the band Sugar Ray was our very first interview, our very first guest, the very first person who said "yes, I want to do the podcast"... even when there wasn't a podcast yet! I know so many people from my days of working in the music industry who have come out and said, "I want to talk to you about the struggles that I've been through and talk to you about how music helped me". So it's been a great, great response, and I've been blown away by it.
How do you face challenges that the majority of people don't have to face?
It's true that as a person with a disability, I face a lot of challenges that a lot of other people may take for granted. It takes me a lot of time to get out of bed in the morning, and it's physically painful sometimes to do so. Moving around in the world and doing what other people might think are ordinary things is sometimes really difficult for me and causes me physical pain, and I've learned to deal with that. At the same time, I've also learned from doing Able Cafe the Podcast, that everybody has something that they're struggling with; whether you have a disability or not, everybody struggles with pain, self doubt, emotional pain, and sometimes physical pain.
The really cool thing about the podcast is I've been able to talk to people about their pain and share our stories and figure out ways that we got through our pain together and inspire people through creativity and music. I can really build that bridge of understanding and it's really satisfying when you come to that point. It's like, "I've had the same kind of experience that you had, and here's the pain that I'm dealing with." All of us, regardless of our background, are struggling with something. Able Cafe is there to help you through, help you find happiness, and help you find your personal power.
What's your vision for the future?
The way that I see the future is trying to build a movement through Able Cafe the Podcast. A creative movement, an employment movement, a political movement. In the 1980s, I was younger and trying to find my way while being mainstreamed into a standard classroom. David Bowie was around, and the post-punk movement, the new wave era and so much of that was about non-conformity and saying "I'm going to do what I want to do".
That was the moment I often look back on because that's the kind of movement that I'm trying to develop with Able Cafe the Podcast. But, this goes way beyond a podcast; we want to do trainings and workshops and help people start their own businesses and create and put their stuff out to the world. This is just the beginning.
How can we give more opportunity, awareness, and inclusion for the disabled community as a society?
I think the biggest thing we can do as a society to foster inclusion is just understand the stories of people with disabilities. Don't treat them as a subset of society. The people who you know, let them come to the table. If they ask you for a date, date them. If they're looking for a job, give them a chance at employment. All that we want as a community is an opportunity. We don't want a handout. We don't want a guaranteed outcome. We want an opportunity - an opportunity to impress those around us. An opportunity to fail. An opportunity to make mistakes. So all that we're asking for, as a disabled community, is to be treated like anybody else; not less, not more, just the same. We can open our own doors... you don't have to open them for us.
The limited edition, Able Cafe the Podcast Tee.
100% of proceeds go to Able Cafe and the Institute for Maximum Human Potential to spread visibility for the disabled community, increase job opportunities, and promote equality.