Essays · Movies · TV

Why Speechless Might Be One of the Most Vital Sitcoms Out Now

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2016

A disabled critic shares thoughts on a show that puts a disabled character front and center.

In the days leading up to the premiere of ABC’s new sitcom, Speechless, I was asked by several friends to give my thoughts on the series. Why? Because I’m one of the few disabled writers they know and this seemed “right up [my] alley.” I’ve written about films from a disabled perspective, and given my thoughts on why I always hate when people use pop culture as a means of “understanding” me.

So it’s no surprise that I was completely uninterested in watching Speechless ‐ it doesn’t help that I don’t watch much television to begin with. But, on a whim I decided to give Speechless a try. I’ve wasted more hours of my life on bad cinema; what’s 25 minutes? Color me shocked that Speechless actually captures the humor of disability and, in many ways, mimicked my own family experiences.

Speechless tells the story of the DiMeo family moving to a new school to better aid the wheelchair bound JJ (Micah Fowler). Outside of the move, DiMeo family matriarch Maya (Minnie Driver) is a tiger mother who everyone’s been “warned about” and youngest son Ray (Mason Cook) grapples with moving to a new place and his brother’s issues.

Portraying disability as “comedic” takes a deft hand. People should laugh at the disability, not the person WITH the disability. Mix this formula poorly and you look like a bully picking low-hanging fruit. Speechless goes right out of the gate with humor that many disabled people can relate to: handicapped parking. Maya, whose car comes with a license that says “She Nuts,” tears into a handicapped space as an old woman berates her for not “having a handicapped placard.” Cut to Maya and JJ riding down the wheelchair ramp as Maya coolly says “What did you say about not walking?”

Speechless hits on the little moments of catharsis that I relate to. I’ve parked in many a space, but because I don’t rock a big handicapped van many people immediately assume I’m parking in the space for my health ‐ and that’s with a handicapped plaque. It isn’t until they actually see the disability, in the flesh so to speak, that the smile can creep on my face as they realize how quick to judgement they are.

Minnie Driver’s Maya is a lot like my mom, and I say that with all the love in the world. Maya’s written as fiercely devoted to giving JJ a normal life and much of the time that labels her a troublemaker. JJ’s school gives off a smarmy, false sense of “inclusivity” only to have the lone handicap ramp on the back of the building where the trash is taken out. Maya understandably loses her mind, attacking the teacher for being so callous and unconcerned about her son having the same access as everyone else. I spent many years in school with my mother advocating for me to make sure I went on field trips, had access to the bathroom, and other elements that many able-bodied people don’t think of (or do the bare minimum in order to hit state laws). There’s no denying Maya’s love for all her children and the character is another in ABC’s trio of mothers willing to go to the ends of the Earth for their kids.

What A Movie Like Hush Means For Disabled Representation

Unlike other shows, Speechless wants to look at how JJ and his entire family deal with life, both involving his disability and in general. Younger brother Ray is sick of moving and dealing with his mother’s domineering fits to get JJ what he wants, much of which comes at the expense of him and his mother having a relationship of their own. My siblings have mentioned a time or two feeling like my life was theirs, and Raymond’s argument has validity. JJ ends up doing his brother a solid at the end, as a means of strengthening the relationship he knows will always be fraught with tension due to his disability.

Let’s talk about Micah Fowler’s JJ. For starters, kudos for getting an actual disabled actor for the character. When it comes to pop culture, “Cripping up” is easily one of my biggest pet peeves and 95% of disabled portrayals fall on this. JJ isn’t the pious disabled kid who is babied. He’s a smart-ass who picks on his brother, has his flustered aide tell off a teacher who dubs him an “inspiration,” and seeks a life no different from anyone else. Just because he’s non-verbal and rocks a motorized wheelchair his family doesn’t treat him differently (joking about who gets to wait in the car while they go out) nor does he feel limitations within himself. Though every disability yields a different set of circumstances, it’s rare to find a story that doesn’t focus purely on how “trying” living with a disability is (coughMeBeforeYoucough).

Some criticism against the show has been lobbed about the subplot involving JJ’s aides and how they deal with him, which is the entire point. When I attended school an aide was required for me and there’s definitely a relationship that needs to develop between a disabled student and the person responsible for them. JJ’s first aide is a perky woman who reads up on “Urban Dictionary” but otherwise can’t relate to him. JJ is a young boy who just wants someone to “sound cool,” since they’re essentially his voice. I’ve had aides who understood their limitations with me ‐ allowing me to do what I wanted without hovering— and others who went so far as to criticize my thoughts and beliefs. Trust me, the humor of JJ’s aide being picked on for sound like a Disney character is nothing!

There’s plenty of humor to mine from disability, barring someone lives with the experiences. Eva Sweeney, a woman actually living with cerebral palsy, is a paid consultant on the show which is vital for Speechless to remain authentic to its characters.

The pilot gives me hope that, maybe, disability can be captured in a way that isn’t maudlin or saccharine. Disabled people have a sense of humor, you just haven’t seen it yet, till now.

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Writer, critic, podcaster. You can find my work nearly everywhere. Creator and host of Citizen Dame.