The 18-year-old actor, who has cerebral palsy — a disorder characterized by the loss of motor function that can be caused by brain damage at birth — is breaking new ground by depicting the neurological disorder on screen.
“Actors with disabilities face typecasting and a lack of auditioning opportunities, but I don’t let [it] define me,” he says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I see those things as challenges and not barriers.”
Fowler isn’t new to the acting circuit. He started pursuing the art at 5 years old and went on to appear on children’s television shows like Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues and in the film Labor Day, all the while not letting his disability define him. Then the New Jersey native’s career took a major, “groundbreaking” turn on his last birthday.
“I found out I booked the role of JJ on my 18th birthday,” the actor says of scoring one of the leading roles on ABC’s new comedy Speechless. “Best birthday present ever!”
Though his character JJ Dimeo lives with the same medical condition, Fowler differs in that he is able to communicate verbally with effort, and the actor admits it’s difficult showing JJ’s personality without talking.
“I have to compensate physically by being extremely expressive with my facial expressions and body movements,” he admits. “Sometimes I’ve just wanted to blurt out what I am saying and feeling!”
When he’s not making history with his performance, Fowler also works as an ambassador for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.
“I am proud to be an ambassador,” he says. “It is exciting for me to work with CPF to educate and help create more awareness about cerebral palsy. I love that after each episode of Speechless, the CP Foundations website posts great content and short informational videos (from specialist around the world) with information about cerebral palsy. So the next time you watch Speechless, take 10 minutes to check out their post for the night.”
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Though starring in a hit TV series is a great gig, Fowler hopes that his role on the show will continue to shed light on human differences and encourage viewers to look beyond limitations.
“When following your dreams, don’t set limits,” he says. “Chase them even when it looks impossible. You control your own destiny by believing in yourself.”
Speechless airs Wednesdays (8:30 p.m. ET) on ABC.