The Story of SBSK from Founder Chris Ulmer’s Perspective
SBSK has grown into one of the largest disability platforms in the world, with over two billion views across social media. It is a space where disabled and neurodiverse people of all backgrounds share their story. This was not my original intention, however. SBSK started as a classroom project when I was a teacher of children with various disabilities; including autism, traumatic brain injury, speech apraxia, and agenesis of the corpus callosum.
My students dressed as me for Halloween 2015.
During my three years of working with the same seven students, they made extreme progress both academically and socially. At the beginning of my tenure I accepted my students just as they were and treated them with the respect and dignity they deserved. They responded by providing me the trust that is needed to guide an individual to their full potential.
We also had a lot of fun outside of the classroom! (Spring 2014)
My students, their families, and I collaborated to begin Special Books by Special Kids in our third year together. SBSK was originally intended to be a classroom project that would empower my students to become self-advocates and storytellers. The initial avenue to accomplish this goal was that my students would write books about what life was like from their perspective. We soon realized that no publishers were interested in the book my students created together. For this reason, we began filming videos to spread awareness of our classroom project.
In 2020 I revisited one of my former students and he explained what that time was like from his perspective.
For the next few months, we published short videos on our Facebook page so that people in our local community could view my student’s advocacy. At that time there was no end goal in mind, we were simply having fun while my students learned pivotal skills to succeed in the digital age.
In December of 2015, while my students were away at lunch, I unexpectedly received a phone call from someone working at ABC News. This person did not tell me her role at ABC News and our conversation lasted only several minutes. A few days later a story about our classroom’s morning routine aired on ABC World News and was broadcasted around the world. This video was then uploaded to ABC’s Facebook page and became one of the most viewed videos of 2015, with hundreds of millions of views within a week across social media.
After this video went viral, the Special Books by Special Kids Facebook page went from thousands of followers to 150,000 in only a few days. Suddenly people from around the world were listening to my student’s advocacy. Along with this newfound viral attention, I started receiving emails from disabled people of all ages. Many wrote to share experiences of their time in school. Included in these messages was often an inquiry exploring my interest in interviewing the person sending the email. At first, I was filled with reservation about interviewing people other than my students. I had no experience with interviewing. I was a teacher!
After a few weeks I finally worked up the courage to interview somebody other than my students. I didn’t really know what I was doing but it was raw. It was organic. It was real.
In the winter of 2016, I interviewed people across Florida over the weekends. On the weekdays I was a teacher. SBSK evolved into a hybrid of advocacy that included my students and new friends outside of the classroom. By May of 2016 our Facebook page grew to have 400,000 followers. Every day I was receiving countless messages from people living with disabilities and neurodiversity who wanted to share their story on SBSK.
It was at that time that I realized SBSK could be a platform that grew to have a tremendous impact on the world. But I would need the time to pursue it without the constraints created by another full-time job. At the end of the 2015-2016 school year I left the classroom and took the giant leap of faith to work on SBSK full-time.
I’m happy to share that I am still good friends with the students and their families that were in my classroom.
My former student and I as co-keynote speakers at the National Autism Conference. (2017)
In the Summer of 2016, I started traveling around the USA interviewing disabled children and adults of all diagnoses. Over the years we have featured hundreds of individuals and their stories. The stories have grown to be more in-depth as I have evolved as an interviewer and filmmaker.
Today SBSK videos have surpassed 2 billion views and reached over 130 different countries. Although our content has spread around the world, our mission remains the same. It is our goal through SBSK to allow people the platform to share their truths, while acknowledging that each person’s story is different and valid. We believe that everybody has a story that is worthy of being heard from them directly.
Even though it is years since I have left the classroom, with every interview I still ask myself one question: Will this piece of content create a more inclusive world for the children I taught?