“Firebuds” weaves disability and health topics into many of its storylines, and characters with disabilities are featured in several episodes. Disney’s commitment to disability inclusion is also evident in the casting of actors with disabilities to voice select “Firebuds” characters.
ABILITY Magazine caught up with Sammi Haney who voices “Piper” and Henry Shipp, the voice of “Castor” on “Firebuds.” In separate conversations, Sammi and Henry each shared their experiences on “Firebuds,” and what they hope young viewers will learn from the show.
First up, is our conversation with Sammi Haney, a young actress from San Antonio, Texas. Sammi was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta Type III (Brittle Bone Disease) and is a wheelchair user.
Jennifer Goga: Hi Sammi! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. How are you doing?
Sammi Haney: Hello! I’m doing great.
Goga: Sammi, would you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Sammi: OK. My name is Sammi Haney and I live in San Antonio, Texas. I do the voice of ‘Piper” on the Disney show, “Firebuds.” I also acted on “Raising Dion,” a TV show for Netflix.
Goga: How did you get involved in acting?
Sammi: My mom saw a Facebook post about a casting call for “Raising Dion.” She thought it sounded like me, so we tried it.
Goga: Did your mom just have a feeling you’d be good at it?
Sammi: I guess the casting call description kind of sounded like me, so we decided to try it out. And I got the part.
Goga: OK. Tell me a little bit about the “Raising Dion” experience. You played the role of Esperanza, a good friend of the main character, Dion, right?
Sammi: Mm-hmm. It was really fun. I made a lot of friends there. I got to do a lot of stuff, see a lot of pretty cool things.
Matt Haney (Sammi’s father): Sammi, do you want to tell Jennifer about the fun you had at the Emmys?
Sammi: Oh, yeah. I got nominated for an Emmy for “Raising Dion,” and it was super fun. I got to meet a bunch of people. I met the girls from the “The Babysitters Club.” That was pretty awesome, because I’m a big fan of that show. I also met—a comedy guy? Dad, who was the guy we met?
Matt: The guy who did Snuffaluffagus? Oh, you mean the host, Jack McBrayer? He’s a comedian. He has his own TV show, too.
Sammi: Yeah, we got to meet Jack McBrayer and also the guy who voices Snuffaluffagus.
Matt: Sammi was nominated for a Children’s and Family Emmy for her role in season two of “Raising Dion.”
Goga: Was it a big fancy awards show-type thing?
Sammi: Yeah, it was fancy. They had all kinds of food and stuff.
Goga: It was in LA, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, I think. Is that right?
Sammi: Yes, I think that’s it. I’m not good at names.
Goga: Did you get to dress up and everything for the awards show, too?
Goga: Sammi, what was it like working on the “Firebuds” show?
Sammi: It was really fun. I got to go to go to a local studio and do it.
So, I didn’t even have to leave San Antonio.
Goga: That was convenient.
Sammi: Yes. I’d go into a soundproof booth, and I had headphones that I put on, and there’s a mic and a table with the script on it. Then I say my lines different times in different ways so they can get a really good one. There’s a control thing where there’s a bunch of buttons, and a person controls the buttons and stuff. I don’t know how to explain it. (laughs)
Goga: You’re doing a very good job of explaining it. I can imagine. Was your mom or dad with you? Were you by yourself with your big headphones on sitting in the booth?
Sammi: It was kind of like two rooms conjoined. My mom and dad and the audio guy were in one room, and I was in the other room with just a door. When I open the door, I can go into the sound booth and out of the sound booth and into the room where my parents are.
Goga: Can you tell me a little bit about your character on the show?
Sammi: My character “Piper” is a talking wheelchair. The wheelchair user character is “Jazzy.”. We’re the friends of Bo, the main character. Bo’s vehicle friend is a fire truck, and there are some other kids with different first aid vehicles—
Matt: First responders?
Sammi: —first responder vehicles. We go on adventures and do different stuff.
Goga: You’ve already been in a few episodes, right?
Goga: Can you tell me maybe one of the stories you were in, what was happening?
Sammi: There’s an episode called “Big Tread.” It’s about a camping trip and one of the kids tells a scary story and my character “Piper” gets scared and runs off. And then “Jazzy” goes after me and we kind of get lost. Then the other kids come after us, but we’re on this bridge and I’m too scared to get off the bridge because I think it is breaking. So, the other kids have to save me.
Goga: Oh, that sounds like a good story. What do you want little kids who are watching to learn from the episodes you’ve been in?
Sammi: I hope they learn about inclusivity and that people with disabilities aren’t really that different from people without disabilities.
Goga: That’s a great lesson.
Sammi: And I hope they learn that you should not treat people with disabilities differently and stuff. Also, if a person with a disability is watching the show, I hope they can relate and see that there are other people with disabilities on shows.
Goga: Good point. Have you gotten to meet the actress who plays “Jazzy?”
Sammi: I know her a little bit.
Matt: When “Raising Dion” season one came out, Lolo Spencer, who plays Jazzy on “Firebuds,” posted a maybe 10-minute video celebrating Esperanza’s character and the show as a whole. She was pumping Sammi up and congratulating her on how much she loved her role.
Goga: Oh, that’s great.
Matt: So, we started following Lolo on social media, so that’s how we know her. We enjoy her posts and like to see what she’s doing. Lolo will comment on Sammi’s posts and whatnot. They haven’t met in person, but they’ve met on social media. And that happened before either of them was cast for “Firebuds.” So, it was really cool that Sammi and Lolo were put together on the “Firebuds” show.
Sammi: Yes, that was neat.
Goga: What a nice coincidence
Matt: Yes, totally.
Goga: This might be a question for your dad, Sammi. Matt, how did you find out about abilityEntertainment? I know Sammi has had a profile on the abilityE platform for a few years now. And, in the early stages of production that’s how Disney found Sammi for an audition.
Matt: I don’t remember exactly how we came across the abilityE website, but I do remember that right away we thought, “Sammi needs to get a profile on there, definitely.” We immediately saw the value in it.
Goga: And Sammi’s abilityE profile paid off for the “Firebuds” role. I’m not sure if you’re aware that Disney casting reached out to abilityE for help finding a young actress who uses a wheelchair to audition. Disney asked if we could provide them with abilityE members who met the profile for the character they were casting, and Sammi’s was one of the profiles that we did provide to them.
Matt: Oh, cool.
Goga: So, our abilityE team was thrilled to play a small part in the Disney casting process. But Sammi obviously did all the rest with her sassy, fun personality and acting skills, right? You’re the one who landed the role.
Sammi: Thank you!
Goga: And there are more episodes to come on “Firebuds.” . Who knows? Maybe there will be even more roles. Sammi, do you want to continue acting?
Sammi: Yes, I do!
Goga: Do you have anything else in the pipeline that you can talk about?
Sammi: Not acting, but I do have a book coming out—
Goga: Oh, wow!
Sammi: —called “Savvy Sammi.” It’s about me—it’s sort of like a series of books, and it includes different people with disabilities as superheroes. And I’m one of them. I’m a superhero, and I have to—well, I’m not going to go too far into it, because I want people to actually read the book. (laughter)
Matt: Yeah, in her book Sammi has to save a bunch of animals. The title is “Savvy Sammi,” and it’s available to buy on Amazon.
Goga: What do you see yourself doing when you get older, Sammi? Do you want to continue acting, or is there something else you’d like to try?
Sammi: I think I’ll go into animal care and stuff like that when I’m older.
Goga: I want to ask your dad, or you can answer, too, Sammi. I wanted to hear about the DisabilityShirts.com project you have. How did that come about?
Matt: When Sammi got the “Esperanza” role, it kind of inspired me a little bit. When she was born, I wanted to start a t-shirt line building awareness around disability, but I thought it’d be too hard to do, and that the learning curve would be too much for me. I know how to do graphic design for print, but I didn’t know anything about building a website.
But after I saw Sammi jump in and do acting, I thought, “Well, if she can jump in and be on a Netflix show, then I should just jump in and start this disability shirts thing I’ve always wanted to do but never did.” So, I just started making designs and showing them to Sammi, and she’d be like, “No, I don’t like that one, we’re not using that one.” And I’d be like, “OK, OK.” She was kind of the one who decided whether the idea was good and whether it looked like something she would wear.
Sammi: And I helped with the sayings.
Matt: Yes, I would just brainstorm ideas with Sammi and my wife. Sammi always has the final approval. Sammi helped me realize that sometimes you have to jump in with both feet and see if it works and not be afraid to fail.
Goga: And how is that going?
Matt: It’s not really something that we make money on. The profit margins are so small, t. But it’s just something we’re doing for the sake of trying to be more of an advocate and give people stuff they can wear to raise awareness.
We do get pretty consistent orders, and we have repeat customers, who come back again and again. But it’s not like it’s a booming business. It’s a slow thing. We try to add some new designs and keep it fresh. It’s been a good experience, just getting feedback from people on the shirts is a really positive thing.
Goga: You have some cool designs, like “Diversity is Fire.” Sammi, good job on your creative input.
Sammi: It’s mostly Dad who comes up with it, I just get the final say.
Goga: Well thanks to both of you for all that you’re doing to raise awareness and advocate for people with disabilities.
ABILITY Magazine also spoke with Henry and his father Jeremy Shipp about their involvement with ”Firebuds.” Henry was born with a cleft lip and palate and has had four surgeries to date. Jeremy, a Disney Junior writer, drew inspiration from his son for the “Cleft Hood” episode. It features a vehicle character named “Castor” who is reluctant about surgery, preferring instead to go to a fair with his friends. Henry voices “Castor” in the show, which includes lively songs that entertain while teaching a valuable lesson.
Jennifer Goga: Hi Henry and Jeremy, it’s good to talk to both of you. You’re in California, right?
Henry Shipp: Yes, we’re in Burbank.
Goga: Jeremy, can you give me some background on “Firebuds” and the “Cleft Hood” episode with Henry?
Jeremy Shipp: Well, I am a writer on “Firebuds,” On the show, we seek inspiration everywhere. We are frequently looking for the vehicle equivalent of an issue that kids and people deal with in their everyday lives. And my son Henry’s good attitude, his good cheer have been an inspiration for a while. So, I pitched an idea about a car with a cleft hood. I was encouraged by my story editor at the time, and creator, Craig Gerber, instantly said yes to the episode.
We worked for a while on the episode, and when it came time to cast the young vehicle named Castor, who has the cleft hood, I suggested Henry. I know he’s a good actor, but he also has a good sound to his voice. He’s worked hard in speech therapy to be able to form certain sounds at the front of his mouth, and I wanted an actor who had that cleft experience to voice the role of Castor.
Goga: Absolutely. It’s so valuable to cast people who are authentic in their role—they have lived the experience of the character.
Jeremy: We’re a bit removed, we writers, from the casting process. For my part, I asked Henry, “Would you be willing to audition?” And he said yes, so we worked on our audition and we sent it in and waited for a while, and he got the part.
Goga: Were you nervous for the audition, Henry?
Henry: I was a little bit nervous. I hadn’t done anything like this before.
Goga: Was it fun?
Henry: It was pretty fun. Everyone was really, really nice. I only had to take a few takes per line.
Jeremy: We worked hard on it. We read through the lines beforehand. They remarked that they were impressed. He came in with a take for each line, an approach. He didn’t do a cold read.
Goga: Nice. Henry did you physically go into a studio?
Jeremy: It was the highlight of my career sitting in that booth with Henry as he did his lines.
Goga: Henry, do your friends know that you’re a star?
Henry: (Shrugs and looks at his dad)
Jeremy: He’s been pretty good keeping the secret, because we weren’t allowed to talk about this yet, but now we can talk about it.
Henry: We can?
Jeremy: (laughs) Yeah, absolutely.
Goga: (laughs) You look happy you can finally tell your friends, Henry. Do you think you would like to do something like this again?
Henry: Well, (pause) yes, but my voice has been changing, so I don’t know if I’ll get the part of Castor again.
Goga: Well, there are other roles out there. Do you feel people treat you differently because of your cleft?
Henry: Not at all.
Goga: What message do you want kids watching this episode to get?
Henry: I really want them to feel like they’re not alone.
Jeremy: One of the things that I am proud of Henry for, and proud of the kids around here is that the existence of Henry’s cleft was always taken in stride. We talk about it all the time, no problem. And his friends also take it in stride.
He’s got a small scar here (pointing to Henry’s lip), and a little bit of a fistula on the roof of his mouth still that we will probably have worked on down the line. But Henry takes everything in stride.
I think the germ of the idea for the “Cleft Hood” episode was, when Henry was younger and he had some surgeries. I think he understood, at some level, that surgery would be helpful to him, but he didn’t really want to go. (laughs) That’s where the idea for the story came from.
Goga: Henry, how many surgeries have you had?
Jeremy: Two of them before he was one.
Goga: So maybe you don’t remember those early ones?
Jeremy: That’s a great point. I don’t think he remembers them, but I suspect that it’s in there. You weren’t able to form memories at that age, but I suspect that in your head there is a kind of subconscious memory of being taken away from us and brought in to the doctor’s to be operated on. I think that may still be swirling around in there. That’s what I believe.
Goga: Did you at least get a lot of ice cream, Henry?
Henry: Yes. That was all I ate for, like, ten days.
Goga: So there’s an upside there. And you look great!
Jeremy: (laughs) He looks fantastic, I think!
Henry: Thank you!
Goga: Jeremy, you’ve been in the business writing for a while.
Jeremy: That’s right. I’ve been working full-time as a writer for about 13 years. I started at Nickelodeon. My first staff job was on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” I’ve been bouncing around from show to show. I did an ABC sitcom. I worked on “Dinotrux” at Netflix, wrote on “Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure” at Disney, that was my first experience at Disney. I worked in development, and here I am on “Firebuds.”
Goga: At ABILITY Magazine, as you can imagine, we love to highlight stories like this one, how you and Henry are bringing a story like “Cleft Hood” to kids everywhere.
Jeremy: Yes, its so important that kids can see themselves on screen. I really wanted the episode to be about empathy, not just the cleft condition.
Goga: It’s wonderful that Disney understands the importance of stories like this and also that they believe in authentic representation. It’s so nice to hear Henry, who’s personally experienced a cleft, voicing the character. I understand there are other episodes coming up that will feature characters with disabilities.
Jeremy: Yes, “Jazzy” and her wheelchair “Piper” is one of the stories coming up. She has spina bifida. She’s got some wonderful episodes coming up. We really do try to look for all areas that we can shine a light on. Inclusion and diversity are very important in the writers’ room. We talk about our personal experiences, about what’s happening in the world and is there a version that would resonate with our age range?
Goga: That’s so great to hear.
Jeremy: We try to introduce topics digestible for the preschool audience. That’s all very important for us. Even specifically with a cleft hood, my wife, Henry and I were talking moments ago about how often, and this is not unique to me, I’m not the first to say this, how often villains have scars or facial differences. That’s just kind of like a quick design trope to suggest that a character is mean or something like that.
Goga: You’re right.
Jeremy: That doesn’t always have to be the case. So often, storytellers use a scar to illustrate a dark backstory. But that’s not the only way to do it. I think it’s a lot more brave to show our protagonist with a facial difference. Henry’s scar, as hard to see as it is, even still, does not connote villainy at all!
Goga: (laughs) It definitely does not.
Jeremy: He’s had a unique experience, and he’s a wonderful kid.
Goga: I can see that’s true. I understand you and your wife Elizabeth, are involved in the Smile Train non-profit, right?
Jeremy: We have raised money for Smile Train and Henry has raised money for them too. Just last year he sold some baked cookies. I believe he raised, I think—
Henry: Over $300?
Jeremy: I think it was closer to $600. I know you were able to pay the cost of one surgery for a child. Henry set up a little stand out there to sell stuff, and the proceeds went straight to Smile Train.
Goga: Oh, nice. So, Smile Train provides financial support for parents and kids who are going through cleft surgeries.
Goga: That’s great. Will you watch the episode that’s coming up together?
Henry: Yes, definitely! We’re probably going to have a big party.
Goga: A watch party?
Jeremy: I’m hearing about this for the first time right now, but I guess we’d better do it. (laughs)
Goga: (laughs) I think you’d better, especially now that Henry is allowed to talk about his role on the show..
Jeremy: That’s right! He does appreciate the chance to talk about it, to talk about Henry, to talk about his experiences.
Goga: Are you aware of the abilityEntertainment platform, called abilityE.
Jeremy: That was just brought to my attention, and I think it’s fantastic.
Goga: You know, you can post Henry’s profile on it if he wanted.
Jeremy: You know what? We may very well do that.
And we’re now adding behind-the-scenes people. We’re trying to get directors, set decorators, writers, etc. Of course it might mean more competition for you, Jeremy, but—
Jeremy: (laughs) I completely understand and encourage this! What a wonderful thing this is!
Goga: Yes, we’re really proud of it. This is how Disney Animation found the voice over actor for Piper. We think it could become an important tool to help get more people with disabilities working in the entertainment industry. Henry’s experience is a great example of how important it is to have authentic representation.
Jeremy: It is wonderful and thank you so much for sharing your screen so I can see this. Immediately after this I’ll show this to my wife.