Growing up with a disability is hard enough, but it’s often complicated by how popular culture presents what those challenges are assumed to be. Often, movies and TV series do little more than frame a disabled character as the central conflict, the problem to be surmounted by the time the credits roll. As a child, the lack of representation never bothered me, maybe because I knew Hollywood’s role as the dream factory was at cross-purposes with the desire to showcase what a person with osteogenesis imperfecta, my condition, deals with. As I’ve aged, though, the lack of representation—or, worse, misrepresentation—has begun to anger me. It seemed doubtful any film or TV series would be interested in capturing the disabled experience. That is, until ABC debuted a little sitcom called Speechless.
I had my reservations about Speechless, the story of a low-income family struggling with life and their eldest son JJ’s (Micah Fowler) cerebral palsy. I’m a Disney fan, but was there any chance a sitcom wouldn’t use disability for yucks? It wasn’t until the pilot episode, in which the matriarch, Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver), berates her son’s principal for asking he use a side entrance to get into the school, that something happened: I smiled. I laughed. Dare I say it? I related to that experience. In my 20 years of watching movies and TV, I’d never said, “This understands me so well.” Speechless was different.
What Speechless does is utilize the problems of the typical American family, like wanting to have fun on a reduced budget or going to camp, and infuses them with the slight tweaks and adaptations disabled families make. The pilot, for example? The “first day of school” plot is nothing new, but the simple conflict of access at school makes all the difference. JJ has to pass by the trashcans to get into the building, and though that wasn’t my particular experience growing up, I related to how tone-deaf schools often are about something as simple as “just use the side door.” For 98% of audiences, that’s nothing inconvenient, but it leaves that same audience wondering how often they take access for granted.
Speechless caters to all audiences, and beautifully balances out its disability-focused plots with its main arc, which charts the DiMeos’ day-to-day lives. Too often, disability narratives present fully functional adults who have everything figured out, usually complimented by an unknown but endless source of money. The DiMeos aren’t like that: Their house isn’t a mansion, but it works for their needs—mainly to give JJ access to a good school. They can’t afford fancy vacations or a new car. They have annoying extended family members. The humor comes from their ability to adapt, and the history that inheres in that adaptation. The DiMeos don’t stop living once an episode ends: Their experiences continue, in modified form, in the real-life narratives of disabled families going through the same thing.
The desire to use a show like this for “educational” purposes is high, and while Speechless does that, it does so in a way that never makes JJ a gimmick. The Season One episode “H-e-r-Hero” discusses “Tiny Tim syndrome,” wherein disabled people are used to help able-bodied people feel better about themselves. The concept is brought up after a random student declares JJ a hero in a speech. This is a hot-button topic that many able-bodied people tend to get irritated about, and the show contextualizes it in a great way. It’s not that we don’t like the term “inspirational”—it’s when it’s applied to elevate us to a saintly status, usually as a means of generating pity in an able-bodied audience and acting as a reminder for them to appreciate their health, that it becomes irksome.
The meaning of words also comes across in “R-u-n-Runaway,” in which JJ’s little brother, Ray (Mason Cook), goes looking for his brother. He attempts to describe JJ as an average kid with brown hair, but it isn’t until he mentions “in a wheelchair” that anyone thinks they’ve seen him or not. This leads to a discussion about whether one should immediately see a disability as a descriptor. I asked myself this question. My parents raised me no different from my own siblings—much like how JJ is written—and I’d be the last person to use “in a wheelchair” as the first phrase to describe myself, creating further layers to how disabled people are perceived, and how they perceive themselves.
But on top of that, there are specific disabled elements that are almost never mentioned in popular culture. The episodes “C-h-o-Choir” and “H-e-r-Hero” follow the DiMeos as they struggle with their insurance company to replace their car and get JJ a new wheelchair, respectively. The latter is something that will please anyone who’s struggled with the insurance industry over medical equipment like wheelchairs. If all I had to do to get my new wheelchair secured was to throw a track meet, like the DiMeos’ daughter, Dylan (Kyla Kennedy), does, I would. The fact that the writers are aware of the hoops disabled families go through, yet still find the humor in it—and transcend labeling it a “disabled challenge”—is so refreshing.
JJ’s character is fascinating, both for how individualized his experience is and its role within the wider narrative of looking at disabled people as just people. Dating in disabled narratives is often the crux of film and TV plots, and comes after much yelling and screaming, usually with the able-bodied person questioning whether it’s worthwhile to take on this presumed burden. “D-a-t-e-Date?” follows JJ as he attempts to court a girl temporarily in a wheelchair. Often, the impetus is on the able-bodied person, but Speehcless shifts the storyline from the able-bodied deciding to love a disabled person to the disabled person grappling with the knowledge that his intended is going to be able-bodied again soon. Here, relatability and disability converge: JJ’s story of liking someone who isn’t necessarily into him creating is universal, but the episode simultaneously shows how often able-bodied people don’t see the disabled as people with sexual needs and desires.
JJ also isn’t above being a jerk, far from the saintly portrayals of most disabled figures. “C-h-Cheater!” deals with the fallout of him wanting to cheat on a test, and how the disabled are given a free pass because it’s assumed they can’t achieve academically. I’ll confess, I cheated a time or two in school and was rightfully called on it by a teacher, but the inherent fear of being perceived as rude to the disabled creates further infantilization and the belief that the disabled don’t need to try as hard as others. Ray’s own speech in “H-e-r-Hero” frames JJ as no different than others when it comes to being the older sibling, down to bullying his brother and sister from time to time. Speechless isn’t afraid to say that disabled people have flaws and that, yes, we can be as insensitive as everyone else. An episode like “I-n-s-Inspirations” sees JJ and his aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), use JJ’s disability as a means of getting free stuff—which, to the able-bodied people I spoke to, can feel like it reinforces stereotypes about disabled people. But Speechless handles the subject with nuance: Is it so bad for someone with JJ’s limitations to enjoy a free coffee every now and then?
Speechless has also focused much attention on a topic never properly discussed in cinema and television: the disabled need for independence. Films and TV series often avoid this topic by telling stories of able-bodied characters whose independence is threatened by disability, with the implication that being disabled and being independent are mutually exclusive. Season One’s last four episodes all examine JJ’s need for independence, starting with the simple desire to get from A to B without waiting for someone’s else’s availability. Dylan and Ray soon ask if they’ll be responsible for JJ’s well-being after their parents die, and it isn’t until Maya sees a disabled man like JJ driving a car, having a girlfriend and being productive that she believes JJ can do it. These moments are painfully relevant to anyone growing up disabled. My mother is the most supportive person I know, but even she took a lot of convincing from me that I would be able to live by myself. It wasn’t that she didn’t think I could, but as the show reiterates, it’s the chronic, systemic mentality of the able-bodied that disabled people need protection. As with privilege in all its forms, even the most encouraging parent has to deal with their own able-bodied bias—and yet, this arc also touches upon the anxiety shared by all parents when their children inevitably grow up.
Speechless makes me laugh, and even more often, it makes me think—about how others see me and how I see myself. I hate the need to “educate” others about disability, and hopefully Speechless goes on to remind audiences that there should be no distinctions when it comes to how to treat a disabled person. I’ve been fortunate to hear from many friends that they never thought to think about certain things until Speechless presented it to them, and that’s why it’s a TV series that everyone should be watching.
Season Two of Speechless premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.