The Squeaky Wheel slams on the brakes when it comes to “inspiration porn.” The website is disability turned upside down and sideways to give readers a dose of laughter mixed with reality. Oof! It’s satire (not the economy), stupid! Not to be missed are dramatic articles like “Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 32, Buys a Motorcycle and Gets a Cute Pixie Cut.”
Out of idioms, ABILITY’s George Kaplan and Chet Cooper tapped out with the Squeaky Wheel’s brain-parent, Steven Verdile, to find out what’s behind the curtain of this “The Onion” like disability creation.
Chet Cooper: Can you tell us a little about yourself, where did you grow up, where did you go to school and who are you wearing?
Steven Verdile: Sure. I have SMA, spinal muscular atrophy. I grew up in Long Island. I went to St. John’s University, which is in Queens, New York. I got my degree in graphic design. I started interning then, and I’ve been working for that company for the last five years. I’m wearing Squeaky Wheel.
Cooper: How did you come up with the Squeaky Wheel?
Verdile: Basically, the Squeaky Wheel started because I graduated college a few years ago. I work as a graphic designer and I was interested in disability and comedy, and I was just trying to figure out sort of a project where I could bring all those different things together, something that I thought would really play to my strengths. I had a lot to say about disability at college. I had a lot of perspective that I wanted to share. It took me a couple years to figure out what the format would be. I was playing with a lot of other different projects that never saw the light.
But eventually I worked my way to the idea of, “Wait a sec! I think maybe a satirical newspaper is really the right angle for this,” just because I feel like it plays into expectations and subverting expectations. Most non-disabled people’s experience of disability is through news, through media, through television. It’s not something that they’re living, it’s something they’re being fed and that’s being provided to them.
I thought, what a good way to counter that and to feed them the opposite story, to feed people the stories that aren’t going on the news, but are actually happening. And the way to make that funny is to make it satire. That’s how the project came to be.
Cooper: You wrote the articles?
Verdile: It started with me writing probably two or three design articles myself, just sharing them around the Internet in different places, and then eventually grew into the website, social media accounts. And then people started to reach out to write, and it’s taken off for some time. One thing to note is that our team of writers is not local. We’re all over the world. We have two writers from England, writers in California, in Florida, Ohio, Canada. It really is a diverse group geographically as well, which is pretty cool.
The Jealchair Has Arrived by Steven Verdile Let the ills of your genes match our wheels made of jeans with the timeless design of the first-ever Jealchair. You asked for it, and you got it. The new all-denim motorized mobility device has hit the market, allowing trendy wheelchair users to ride in style and dazzle in a flappy contraption of tailored fabric. Sitting at the intersection of fashion and mobility, the $32,000 device is a statement piece that says, “I may not be able to walk, but I am able to have a crush on Vanessa Hudgens in ‘High School Musical.’” It’s for the truckers, it’s for the gays, and it’s for the everyday wheelers who just want to roll the streets looking like a freshly pressed pair of Super Mario’s overalls. The new line of chairs also has models in leopard print, flannel and ugly Christmas sweater, allowing for every disabled individual to express their true identity — as long as their true identity is tacky and aligns with one of those four patterns. Whether you’re looking to cruise the runways of Paris or the narrow lanes of your grandpap’s cornfield, the Jealchair allows you to feel confident while doing it. Did your less cool disabled friend Tiffany steal your boyfriend? Imagine the look on her face when you pull up in a brand new Jealchair with a sparkly, bedazzled base and ripped-headrest premium add-ons. Do people often mistake you for a senior or, even worse, a child? The Jealchair screams, “I grew up in the early 2000s,” so you’ll never have that problem again. Disability is not just a medical diagnosis. It’s a culture, it’s a lifestyle, and now it’s fashion, all because of the #Jealchair.
Cooper: Had you looked at The Onion and others like that as a model?
Verdile: Definitely. The Onion is the model, the goal, the perfect example of how to use satire well on the Internet. It’s hard to do satire on the Internet, mostly because these memes and these short-form video content like TikTok are hard to beat. It’s really engaging. So, to make comedy writing something that people are so interested in –and they have TikTok and all these other really stimulating forms of comedy– To make it work you have to be really clever and smart, and The Onion is a perfect example of that.
I also looked at a lot of other smaller satire magazines, Reductress, Clickhole, one that’s about Broadway called The Broadway Beat that I’ve written some articles for myself. I definitely did look at a lot of other satire magazines.
George Kaplan: Did your time on the Broadway Beat inspire how you run the Squeaky Wheel?
Verdile: I wrote my first Squeaky Wheel article prior to getting involved with the Broadway Beat, although I was already a fan of theirs. And right when I started doing it, I was like, “You know what? I know that their stuff is really good.” I was always really impressed with it. And then I reached out to them and said, “Listen, this is what I’m trying to do. I’m also a big Broadway fan. I’d love to write for you a little bit and see if I can learn from you guys, since you’re such pros.” I was sort of starting my own publication right as I was learning from them, and that overlap helped a lot. Their team is really great, very helpful. They taught me a lot.
Cooper: Did you look at ABILITY Magazine?
Verdile: I looked at tons and tons of disability press and disability news. I’ve known ABILITY Magazine since I was a kid. I was familiar with the voice and the presence of ABILITY Magazine. I will say that largely the content that inspired the Squeaky Wheel the most in terms of how disability is talked about is the really mass media, like the least common denominator, I would say, which is usually more like a Buzzfeed or a Guardian or something that’s being read by so many people. So, it has to talk about disability at such a high generic level that it becomes easy to learn their language and their scripts, and then you can play with them once you understand the way they’re using it for inspiration and things like that.
Kaplan: What did it feel like to have the Squeaky Wheel mentioned by USA Today in their crossword alongside The Onion?
Verdile: That was super-surprising, I guess is the right word. I didn’t expect that. I had no heads up or anything like that. One of our writers had texted me and said, “Did you do this? Did you send this into them?” I said, “No, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” They sent me a photo of the crossword puzzle. I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool!” And later I went through our followers, and I realized that one of our followers is the crossword maker for USA Today.
Cooper: It doesn’t look like you’re monetizing it yet. I was just thinking about the sustainability.
Verdile: I can tell you that within the writers’ team, sustainability is something that has been brought up a lot in the last few months. As I mentioned, when started, it was just me, and very quickly I realized that I didn’t want it to be my voice. I wanted it to be a collective voice because I can’t speak for other disabilities, other genders, other races. I wanted as much diversity within the voice as we could get, and that’s when I started to seek volunteers who were interested in writing. As you mentioned, we are not monetized, so as of now, everything is volunteer, and that does make it sort of hard to keep people engaged with the writing on a regular basis.
One of our challenging principles and something that I don’t plan on changing is that we don’t really commit to any hard deadlines or schedules. That means that some weeks we don’t have any stories to share. Some weeks we might have four or five. It really depends on how things are going. We do try to plan stuff out as best as we can, but especially dealing with a team where every single person has a disability, every single person has a full life outside of Squeaky Wheel that often implies some sort of job or school with major responsibilities. I don’t want this to be a distraction for anyone. But fortunately, the people who write for us are doing an excellent job and they’re excited. Our hope is that soon, hopefully, next year or so, we’ll start experimenting with some different ways to monetize, and that way we can compensate everyone’s contributions.
Cooper: Who’s maintaining the site and the graphics? Are you doing that?
Verdile: Yes. With my background, my education is in graphic design, I do all the social media. I do the website; I occasionally write here and there. For the most part, we have enough talented writers that I’m not writing super-regularly myself anymore, unless I get an idea that I’m really passionate about. But I’m doing all the other stuff for now, the web stuff, the social media stuff, all the graphics. But again, as we’re expanding, we’re seeing people reach out who want to help out in different ways. Hopefully, at some point, we’ll have other team members helping us with those things as well.
Cooper: What is your day job?
Verdile: I work as a graphic designer for a television company. I work largely in TV and media. Fortunately, I get to do a lot of disability advocacy work in the TV and film industry as well. That’s a lot of how I learned so much about disability representation and how things are viewed in the media and how we can make it better.
Kaplan: What’s your favorite part about doing satire?
Verdile: It lined up good with the skill set that I have and the way of creating that I was already comfortable with. It was just a matter of different projects starting, failing, getting confused, and then over time, probably after about two or three years of different venues I had been working on, I started on the Squeaky Wheel. And then it came very smoothly from day one. I think it’s a good format for this sort of disability humor because part of what satire relies on is the surface value headline of, “This is what this means literally,” and the secondary thing of, “This is the deeper meaning that it has to a very specific group of people, or to hopefully all readers.” I think that, for the disability community as a whole, a lot of times we feel like we see the news and it means something different to us than it means to other people.
Cooper: Have you had any negative feedback from any of the stories so far?
Verdile: Very, very little, but it does happen. I would say it comes in two forms. The first is that you get people who just aren’t really familiar either with disability culture or with satire, and the articles might feel a little bit mean or they might feel like they’re mocking disabled people. And they’ll comment about that. And the other things that we get a lot of times is that the disability community is one that wants to be super-inclusive, and that of course is what we want to do as well. So, we’ve gotten a lot of comments like, “This part of your website isn’t as accessible as it could be,” things like that, where they want our content to be the perfect example for what inclusivity means. What’s great is that we take that to heart, and when people make comments like, “This article is mean,” “This article is offensive,” there are usually people who are very quick to defend us who are supporters of Squeaky Wheel. I have made it a point that I don’t reply to comments, ever.
Cooper: Whenever you’re dealing with the public, it’s amazing what happens when you’re trying to do your best, and, of course, when you’re doing something as subjective as humor, you get all kinds of stuff.
Verdile: And we’re talking about some really sensitive things for people, things that can be dark, things that can be very vulnerable. It doesn’t surprise me that some people are upset. We know we can’t please a hundred percent of our audience, but we’re confident in what we say. As a writing team, we run everything by each other before anything gets published to flag any jokes that might be a little bit over the line or things that we think might be sensitive for people. We do our best, and we hope that people who are reading understand that we’re not perfect, we just doing our best to make them laugh.
Cooper: I know you’re relatively young. Do you remember National Lampoon?
Verdile: Yes. I love National Lampoon. I’m a comedy nerd. I watch a lot of stand-up and old comedy films. I grew up on a lot of that stuff.
Cooper: They offended everyone with their satire. It’s amazing at your age that you would know about them. It’s fallen off the radar for most people.
Verdile: There’s a good National Lampoon documentary that came out, I’ll say, a year ago. I forgot what it’s called. It’s on Netflix.
Cooper: Right. Just as the documentary ended I came into the picture. I took it over in the early ’90s.
Verdile: National Lampoon?
Cooper: I published it for a few years.
Verdile: Oh, super-cool!
Cooper: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be part of this interview. I appreciate what you’re doing. You’ve done a great job.
Verdile: If you don’t mind my asking, is your background in publishing? Have you been with ABILITY Magazine for a long time?
Cooper: For a while. I started ABILITY Magazine.
Verdile: You started it! Oh, my gosh, that’s very cool.
Cooper: Do you have any stories of things you never expected it to turn out the way it did?
Verdile: I didn’t expect so quickly that people would understand what we were doing. I was very concerned from day one that I was like, “I’m going to launch this, and people are going to tell me, ‘You’re crazy, this is nonsense.’” And immediately I started seeing people sharing it and saying, “Oh, this is like The Disability Onion,” things of that nature, where I was like, “Perfect. They get what I was going for right off the bat.” So that was exciting.
And since then, it’s just been a lot of really kind words and positive feedback from a lot of people in disability culture who I’ve looked up to and the other writers have looked up to for a long time. And to see that not only are we doing work that the community approves of, but that we’re doing work that is a little innovative is exciting. I didn’t really think of it as something innovative when I started it. I thought it was just something funny.
I thought it would be sort of a one-and-done, I’ll write 20 or so stories and that would be it, and it would be over. I didn’t realize that this is something that if you handle it correctly and make the right decisions and think about it carefully, maybe could be sustained and could become a voice within the community that might have been missing.
Cooper: I love the idea. It takes a lot of energy to do it the way you did it.
Verdile: The next hurdles that we’re working on are figuring out how to monetize and how to keep going. It is hard, like you said, but we’re motivated and the reactions we’ve had have given us more motivation that it is something people want. We’re going to do everything we can to keep giving it.
Cooper: Monetization typically is subscription and advertising. Are you thinking of both or something more?
Verdile: Our plan is to open up subscriptions on a very voluntary donation basis. I don’t want the content ever to be behind a paywall. I know, even for myself, it takes a lot for me to spend money on magazine subscriptions. There are a couple I subscribe to because I really want to support them, but I know people have limited funds and I don’t want us to be something that they can’t access.
Kaplan: Is there any other project you see emerging under the Squeaky Wheel in the future, a different way to tackle content?
Verdile: Something in the immediate future that I’m hopeful about is merchandise and apparel. There’s a lot of disability merch out there, and it’s usually the inspiration-y type of “Disabled and Proud,” things like that, which are cool, and they have their use. But we’re trying to find something a little more unique and more our voice. I’ve designed some shirts and some hats and some fun things that hopefully will be coming out into the world my guess is probably around September. And also, all the profits, any money we make from selling merch can be used to pay our writers, which is the next goal for me.
Kaplan: It would be awesome to have merch.
Verdile: Yeah, I think people like it. I’ve shown some people the designs, and everyone wants their hands on it. Hopefully, it goes well.
Cooper: With your team and your creative capabilities, I think swag is definitely something to do. And you know how to do all that, creating a shopping cart? That’s something you could build out yourself?
Verdile: It’s something that I’m spending my weekends trying to learn. I’ve never run a business. I’ve never run anything of this scale. I’m learning as I’m going. I purposely set the website up in a way that is very easy to manage. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to perfect it because I know we have some momentum, so I’m trying to keep it moving while our readers have energy, while our writers have momentum, and while I have the intention myself to keep pushing on it.
Cooper: Hopefully you find a silk screener or whatever products, clothing or whatever you’re going to do that’s connected to disability.
Verdile: I reached out to one company that I knew had an owner who is disabled who makes clothing, but I never heard back from them.
Cooper: Oh, that’s too bad.
Verdile: So right now, I’m still looking.
Cooper: That would be great if you could do that.
Verdile: So far, everyone who has helped with anything so far has been people with disabilities. I want to keep that as—that might not be true a hundred percent of the time for everything, but as much as we can, certainly we will.
Cooper: Yeah. We’ve done that as well for the past 30 years. It’s very doable, but sometimes it takes a little bit more time to find the right talent.
Verdile: It’s reflected in your content. When it comes from the authentic disability, it going to be authentic and interesting. I’m always amazed that our writers are so diverse and that we’re able to be a consistent voice. I think we’ve had probably around 15 different people write articles for us so far, most of them writing probably three to five stories on average that we’ve published. It really is special and something I’m always impressed by, that everyone can capture our tone and that our team is able to be so diverse and to have such a consistent voice. It all feels like it was written by the same person.