PBS to air special Tuesday night

Posted: Monday, August 19, 2002

Soldotna may be famous for fishing, but this week, the town will gain new notoriety as the home of the Millers, an exceptional family featured in a documentary on PBS.

"Normal For Us: The Miller Twins" is the story of Fritz and Cindy Miller and their five children, two of whom are quadriplegic twin girls.

Mariya and Michelle, now 14, were diagnosed with Type II Spinal Muscular Atrophy in 1989. For many, the disease, in which muscles degenerate limiting movement and complicating organ processes, often means full-time care and constant illness.

But the extraordinary efforts of Fritz and Cindy -- from a tailor-made accessible home to innovative homemade power wheelchairs to undying perseverance and dedication -- have helped give the girls independence, confidence and a surprisingly "normal" lifestyle.

Film crews spent five years visiting the Miller family to document the journey from the twins' birth through the heartbreaking diagnosis and the determined redesign of the home, power wheelchair and definition of normal to the girls' 13th year.

The documentary first came about when Cindy and Fritz, looking for an animal to suit the girls' needs, sent home movies to a company in Oregon which specializes in horses for people with disabilities. The company had been a subject of an Oregon Public Broadcasting special and business owners sent the Millers' tapes to the filmmakers.

Initially, Fritz said, OPB was interested in following up on the horse's uses for people in wheelchairs -- and the story just grew.

"At first, they didn't know what they wanted the movie to be about," Fritz said.

The film crews first visited the family in 1997 -- and made about six more trips north until the summer of 2001. They would spend four days to a week with the family, following every move with lights, cameras and microphones.

"Some people like to be on stage," Cindy said. "But they had to work to get some of us on camera."

Though the filming process was laborious and sometimes uncomfortable, the family said they believe its important to share their story -- and their special wheelchair design.

"We feel we've created something other people can use," Fritz said.

The film also is an attempt to raise awareness. The family has spent years facing both a lack of public accessibility for wheelchair users and a wealth of misunderstanding and ignorance from the public. They hope that by telling their story, they can increase society's understanding of disabilities.

"There's our family, our chair, the way we do disability, but I think the driving thrust of this movie is to help the public become more aware of people with disabilities," Fritz said. "Disability is a normal part of the human experience, but a lot of people don't accept that. They think it has nothing to do with them, but it's everywhere, it's part of living in society."

And while watching themselves on television may be a little awkward for the girls, they are pleased with the final product.

"It's cool, to some extent," Mariya said.

"At first we were like, no, but now it's kind of grown on us," Michelle added. "Everybody wants to be on TV. We actually get to be."

And, she added, "It's to help people."

The film, co-produced by OPB and Morgan Video Productions, runs about 56 minutes. It is scheduled to air on 80 percent of all Public Broadcasting Station channels across the country.

On the Kenai Peninsula, it will air at 10 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.

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