How one advocate pushes docuseries to next level

CBC Gem's PUSH is set to return for a second season on Jan. 14 and Zachary Weeks has worked behind the scenes to ensure all the marketing for the docuseries is at the forefront for digital accessibility. It's a detail that's often overlooked, he said, but something that's part of his larger work to "move the needle" on accessibility in Edmonton.

Weeks said attention to detail is what makes PUSH unique and powerful. "It's truly a show that follows through on what it preaches in terms of the disability slogan that many of us have come to know in the community of, 'Nothing about us without us,'" Weeks told Taproot. "It's fresh and really exciting to see that sort of authentic representation being performed."

The show extends its ethos of representation beyond the screen by hiring production staff like Weeks, who is an advocate and a wheelchair user and has been a consultant for PUSH since it started. Although the show focuses on people who use mobility aids, Weeks said the production hires staff with a variety of disabilities to help diversify its perspective.

"There's a variety of people with a variety of different types of disability, which really helps to inform the creative moving forward in terms of having authentic representation," he said. "You're making sure that you know the show is true to form in terms of the type of stuff that we deal with on a day-to-day basis."

As a media consultant, Weeks's role is to ensure that all the promotional materials for the show have accurate captions, and to craft image and video descriptions with care.

He emphasized that he composes these features in a way that "actually provides value" to viewers, as many organizations fail to include the needed details in these elements. Weeks said the elements also play a role in "making sure we're representing our community with pride and accuracy."

PUSH spotlights Edmonton's Wheelie Peeps, a group of mobility-aid users, and their daily lives as well as the accessibility challenges they face in the city. Season one introduces us to the group's leader, Benveet "Bean" Gill, and other members as they travel, perform, navigate the new waters of motherhood, advocate for their rights, and more. The show is primarily filmed in Edmonton, though characters travelled to the United States in season one, and will travel to Italy in season two.

The second season, which begins releasing episodes as of Jan. 14, will be eight episodes long.

"Hopefully this sets a precedent for other shows, other films, and movies, to keep on carrying the torch for authentic representation," Weeks said.

A man in a blue sweater and blue jeans is sitting in a wheelchair as he speaks to a woman with blonde hair, wearing a blue blazer

Zachary Weeks speaks to Opposition Leader Rachel Notley about the future of Albertans with disabilities at an Alberta NDP Holiday Mixer in December 2023. (Zachary Weeks/LinkedIn)

Weeks heard of the opportunity because he's close with the Wheelie Peeps. He was also an active voice in the advocacy community, and had consulted on memorable projects such as Rogers Place.

"The disability community is very tight, so we all know each other, so when the opportunity came around, Bean Gill reached out to me," he said. "So, given my prior experience with social media and whatnot, and being involved with communications in the nonprofit world they brought me on, and it's been one of the greatest honours of my life."

On-screen, Gill is one of the show's main characters and off-screen, a consulting producer. Prior to her work with PUSH, in 2017 she co-founded ReYu, a non-profit that promotes paralysis recovery through activity-based therapy after becoming paralyzed.

Weeks spoke highly of the of effect her presence on the show. "Now, that's great for the upcoming generation and I just love everything about it. Strong, independent (woman) of colour, you know, doing badass shit, right?"

That strength, as well the quirks of every other character is all authentic, Weeks assured. "I knew the cast before they were the cast, right?" he said. "And I can honestly say, what you see is what you get. Especially with Bean, and obviously Brian, you know, you can't make that up."

PUSH's authentic character storylines include addressing the accessibility and disability rights barriers that the community faces in their daily lives in Edmonton. Weeks said that here, there is still plenty of work to be done, but that things are "moving in the right direction."

"Change is slow, which is infuriating for those that are affected; I respect that, but what I would encourage others to keep in mind… is that we are trying to move the needle, and while we definitely have to be strong in our ask, we have to remember that the people on the other end are human," Weeks said.

Moving forward, he said the community itself needs to stop siloing its efforts and better coordinate to create more change.

"Accessibility has grown so much in terms of what it means, so we need to make sure that we're including not only the different types of disabilities but the people at the core who are affected."

At the provincial level, Weeks wants to see Alberta establish an accessibility act as Alberta and Prince Edward Island are the only two provinces that have yet to take this action, according to Barrier Free Alberta.

Additionally, increases to Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), such as the 4.25% bump that beneficiaries received this year, are a good start but not nearly as much as they need to be, especially during a housing crisis, Weeks said.

"We have all these folks, unfortunately, that are forced to live in tents, and people with disabilities are one AISH payment away from being in that category if they aren't already."

Weeks was not always as active in the disability community and his advocacy work as he is now. In fact, he avoided it for years.

"Honestly, growing up I didn't like myself because I was disabled — it was essentially a giant pity party," he said. "One day… it sort of hit me: maybe I was born this way for a reason, maybe I was born to stand out… as soon as I embraced who I was authentically it was like a switch, it was weird. Things started lining up, and I found my passion."

Since then, he has focused on using his position to spark change and provide a voice to the community, hoping youth might become inspired like he was.

"I'm very fortunate to live the life I do and just very blessed and grateful for the opportunities that come my way," Weeks said. "And hopefully it shows kids growing up that you can likely do anything you want, it just has to be a little bit out of the box."

That shared sentiment and the way it gets represented is why PUSH has been such a good fit for Weeks, and he hopes it encourages viewers to become allies to the community and voice the issues they notice.

"The show is all about pushing yourself to live your best life, no matter your situation; surround yourself with your people, people that have gone through similar things and can offer mentorship, or guide you through life with a disability," Weeks said.