At first, I wasn’t sure what to think. In my experience, usually when t.v. shows are made about people with disabilities simply living their lives they tend to be sickeningly drippy. Think Tiny Tim meets Superman. Get the picture? Most shows I have seen tend to emphasize the struggle and invite pity instead of a portrayal of empowerment. To me, there is typically not an accurate representation of what living with a disability is actually like either in movies or on television So, when I heard that “Speechless” was going to be a show on ABC this past fall, I expected it to be more of the same.
I was wrong.
The show is about the DiMeo family, consisting of mom and dad and three kids. They live in a house that is falling apart, and on the first show, they make it known that the kids have been in six schools during the previous two years. They are continually searching for the right learning environment for one of their boys. The oldest son, J.J. has cerebral palsy. The actor who plays the character (Micah Fowler) is affected by cerebral palsy as well. His mom, (played by Minnie Driver) is a fierce advocate for her son as well as being known to be incredibly overprotective. She has disagreements with the school’s administration routinely. J.J. has disagreements with his siblings, as all teenagers do, and is sometimes at odds with his parents as he struggles for his own independence.
Some of the episodes have explored topics like being friends with other families that have a family member with a disability, how J.J. balks at “special” treatment and wants to be seen as an equal, and my personal favorite, how demeaning it is when other people engage in “inspiration porn.”
The other thing I truly appreciate about the show is that it examines the affect that J.J.’s disability has on the rest of the family. There was an episode when his siblings were curious about who was going to care for J.J. when they were grown and their parents were gone. Several episodes have touched on how J.J’s siblings resent him sometimes in various ways and how each character works through that. Particularly moving are the scenes where J.J gets to be a protective older brother in his own way; which is not typical because of his disability. But J.J. does everything in his power to let his brother and sister know that he is looking out for them.
In another episode, when J.J.’s brother asked their dad why nothing fazes him, he replied, “Because when a doctor tells you that there is something wrong with your kid and that he is not going to grow up the way you thought he was, and he turns out great anyway, you say ‘okay, what else you got? Bring it.'” That whole comment is paraphrased, but overwhelmingly awesome nonetheless. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the show for me is the way that J.J. stands up for himself. He has no expectation that anyone else is going to fight his battles for him. In one scene, he got mad at his caregiver, Kenny, for taking advantage of all the “perks” J.J got at a professional baseball game. When J.J. had reached his limit with that kind of thing, he let Kenny know in no uncertain terms that he felt like less than a human being, saying to this caregiver through his communication board, “You don’t get to do that.”
In order to keep the show authentic and “unsappy”, the executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation is on the set every week. The cast and creators of the show are incredibly familiar with disability issues in a variety of ways, and still, they are aware enough to understand that they might need some guidance when it comes to some issues. Some of the comedy, the cast admits, might push the line between funny and offensive.
In an interview about the show, Minnie Driver said, “You cannot force people to be inclusive. You cannot force them to be unafraid. You can teach them that (disability) is okay.”
When I first heard about the show, I was convinced it was going to be drippy. I was prepared not to mention it anywhere because I was taught that if I didn’t have anything nice to say I should remain “speechless.”
Instead, I am using my voice to say quite loudly: Bravo!
Sometimes I love being wrong.
My favorite scene from season 1 is below. Season 2 premieres on Wednesday, September 27th on ABC.