"Speechless" is a show about someone with a disability… and it's not completely fucking that up!


Guest post by Meriah Nichols
The cast of the ABC's Speechless: Three children, mom, dad, and the aide (who is a man)
The cast of the ABC's Speechless: Three children, mom, dad, and the aide (who is a man)

As a mom of a child with Down syndrome, I'm always looking for something new and good that relates to our family on TV. As a deaf mom who has long been a disability rights activist, I've found that to be pretty damn hard to find.

"Speechless" is a new TV show on ABC that seems to fit the bill. It's a show about a family. The dad is laid back and the mom is an Energizer Bunny. There is the brainy middle child, the athletic youngest, and the eldest, JJ, who has Cerebral Palsy.

And it's not completely fucking that up.

It's amazing to see that Speechless is the first TV show in which the central character has a disability, and all of the story lines flow around him.  Many of the story lines are also based on issues that we really have in the disability community.

When I first saw it, I was taken aback by the mom (played by Minnie Driver, whom I last saw, incidentally, singing about 10 feet away from me at the Black and White Ball in San Francisco). She's a fully-charged "special needs mum"; all push, prod, pull. I squirmed a little. And then I recognized her — she's the "special needs warrior mom" on Facebook! The one who posts memes about how she's a bear (or tiger, or some other such fierce animal) who will absolutely DO EVERYTHING FOR HER KID WITH SPECIAL NEEDS.

You know who I'm talking about, right?!

Once I got that, and didn't take it to mean that the show was saying (however obliquely) that I (a fellow mom of a kid with a disability) should be like that, I relaxed and enjoyed her character a lot more.

Episode three, which I watched last week, is chock-full of good stuff. (WARNING: Tons of spoilers here, so either watch it first and come on back when you have, or revel in the spoilers.)

Home Access:

JJ can't get through his bathroom door easily. Of course that speaks to the building code, and the fact that most buildings are using Universal Design. (Okay, maybe I'm totally inferring the Universal Design piece.)

Mom as The Martyr:

Mom lives for JJ and his "special needs" (and you should know how I feel about that phrasegah). She just can't stop hovering over him, can't have fun doing things that are not related to him or his access, his inclusion, his education, his life. Mom is revolving her entire self around JJ, and it's affecting everyone!

Siblings:

The siblings don't do stuff that isn't accessible, and they don't really know each other because they don't engage in stuff just the two of them.

Others deciding:

This was my favorite part… The aide took control of JJ's day, going whole hog over how far he can push the "inspiration" button. And having fun doing things he could never do without "a handy wheelchair-using kid" by his side. JJ finally nips it by saying something like, "this day was supposed to be about ME and what I wanted. You took away my voice. You don't get to do that."

Speechless is completely brilliant

I love how all of these real issues are brought forth. I mean, this stuff is REAL. People with disabilities do get trampled over by people without disabilities who are deciding what's best for us based on what they want. "Special needs moms" are all over the internets. Inspiration, and it's sister Inspiration Porn are living it up in America, and access feels more like an ongoing question than a legal right.

For a show to tackle all this, and make us laugh while it's doing it? Fucking brilliant.

Have you watched Speechless? What did you think about it? And have you also found other shows that accurately portray people with disabilities?

  1. There is also a reality show called, "Born This Way." While it is a reality show and of course they are going to make some of the "reality" not what would happen to them in an everyday situation. I think it still gives a good insight of a group of Downs people and what they deal with every day.

  2. Thanks for the heads up about this show! I watched the trailer on Youtube and it looks hilarious. It sounds like it just started airing, so is it available online on ABC's website only, I'm guessing? I'm at work so I can't check around but we don't have cable at home and never hooked up whatever widget is needed for the non-cable channels.

    • It is on A & E. It is on its 2nd season (well it just finished its 2nd season about a month ago). You can probably find it on the A & E website or if you have Comcast, you can find it On Demand.

      I like the show as it is honest about the way the parents feel about their kids. One young lady named Elena is bi-racial (white father I think from UK and a Japanese mother). Her mother is very honest in the show that she still has trouble interacting with her daughter (even though her daughter is 28/29 years old) due to what say says is her Japanese background.

      Another person on the show named Sean, I have to admit I really don't like. I think his parents are very overbearing (to me). He is an only child and I think some of their nervousness about him going in the real world (He is 24/25) I think they brought upon themselves. The other people on the show have siblings (I think Elena does too), which I think helps.

      The other parents on the show I think are great with interacting with their kids.

      I feel bad for one of the people named Steve. He has Mosaic DS (which I had never heard of before the show). He is higher functioning and does not have much of the stereotypical look of DS. It is interesting to see him struggle being a in-between. If I had had met him I would have figured he had some sort of learning difficulty. I would have never placed him as DS.

  3. I've never heard of it, is the show a Netflix production? I'm definitely interested. I grew up in a home where disability was no stranger. My uncle was born deaf and I am going deaf slowly beginning in my twenties. Being raised in a home where being disabled didn't make you any different than the rest of us provides a different perspective on the world and the way the world collectively and in a very generalized way mistreats those who are different in any form. My grandmother was a single mother to five children, my uncle being the second born and my mother the eldest. In the late fifties the deaf had a really raw deal. As an adult I went on to work with others with disabilities including but in no way limited to cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and others. That being said I am super interested in watching this new series and seeing how they present this type of lifestyle with all of its hurdles from the both the perception of the parents, siblings and most importantly the disabled character. Thanks for a great article.

  4. Have you watched Switched At Birth? It's on ABC Family (now Freeform, and I think the past seasons can be found online)

    It's a bit of a teenage soap opera, but one of the two main characters is deaf and goes to a deaf school and a lot of the show deals with what it's like being deaf.

    Whenever a deaf person speaks, it's sign only (with subtitles) so it's definitely an actually watch show, not a have on in the background show.

  5. I haven't watched the show yet, but I love that they actually cast someone with CP to play the role of JJ! Having a character with a disability is so rare to begin with that I'm glad they recognized how much reprentation matters when they made their casting decision.

  6. I've been loving this show. The characters are genuinely funny, and delightfully human. I'm not someone who has had the opportunity to meet anyone with Cerebral Palsy, so it's refreshing to hear how well it's being received in communities it represents, and that it's reach is extending beyond that. Thanks for writing about it!

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