Speechless is a new ABC sitcom. There’s a mom, a dad, and three kids. But one of the kids, JJ, has cerebral palsy–like me! Like 764,000 children and adults right now. And the actor who plays him, Micah Fowler, actually has CP.
Prior to RJ Mitte playing Walter Jr. in Breaking Bad on the cable network AMC from 2008-2013, the only show with a recurring character who has CP onscreen and in real life was actor/writer/comedian Geri Jewell in The Facts of Life in the 1980s. Speechless is on a mainstream TV network, and that’s huge.
It’s also pretty big that the character JJ is nonverbal. The whole family handles and talks about disability in ways that ring true for me (and no doubt many other people) and in ways people without disabilities may not have thought about before. JJ communicates through the use of an augmentative alternative communication device: in his case, he wears a headband with a laser pointer attached and looks at a board with words, phrases, and letters on it. A person (family, his school aide, or classmates) sees where the laser points and reads aloud what JJ is saying. Each episode title is written in this way, such as “NE-NEW a-I-AIDE.”
So many things about the execution of this show are done well. There’s lots of humor, a little bit of an edge, and a real effort at authentically representing one kind of disability experience. When 16-year-old JJ starts his first day at a new school, his fierce advocate mom (played very well by Minnie Driver) tangles with the administration over the lack of ramp access, which reminded me of my own mother’s efforts to see that my needs were met at school. JJ meets his first-ever aide, but is dismayed that her chipper voice and disposition are so at odds with his thoughts and feelings. He connects with the janitor, Kenneth, who becomes his new aide and is a much better fit. There’s a scene where he demands that Kenneth ask him “real questions,” and one of the things Kenneth wonders is, “Do I have to do bathroom stuff [for you]?” The answer is yes, and Kenneth takes it in stride. There’s even a scene where he lifts JJ out of his wheelchair to help him in the school bathroom, and acknowledges the awkwardness of the new situation, trying to put him at ease.
There are skillful twists on standard-issue sitcom moments that are set apart because they deal with JJ’s disability. For example, when middle child Ray feels that the family revolves around JJ and his own needs aren’t considered, his mom has The Special Conversation with him about how she loves him too, and apologizes–but their talk happens on a ride at a fair, punctuated by plunging downward and then raising up again. The youngest child, Dylan, is a track star, and I loved the way one of her subplots used what another show might have done badly. An adult tells her, “I get it. You run because your brother can’t. It’s like you’re running for both of you,” and Dylan is stunned to think that she may not be running because she loves to run. Instead of a talk with her parents that absolves her of guilt and leads her to rediscover that love of running thanks to the intervention of Mom or Dad, Dylan voices her fear and finds out the other girls and the coach can also come up with troubling motivations for why they do what they do if they only look hard enough.
I especially enjoyed the most recent episode, “I-N-S-INSPIRATIONS,” in which Kenneth and JJ set out to give JJ a day of increased independence and fun, doing whatever JJ wants, without his mom, dad, or siblings there. His mom struggles with giving up control and worrying about JJ’s safety out of her sight. Unable to come up with a family activity that doesn’t have to consider accessibility for once, she tries to get everyone else to widen the bathroom door to accommodate JJ’s chair, but Dad, Ray, and Dylan want to play paintball. Meanwhile, people see JJ and Kenneth together and let them cut in line, buy them food, give them free tickets to a Dodgers game, and more, saying, “You’re inspirations.”
At first, JJ and Kenneth both milk the situation, grinning at strangers and finding themselves receiving free stuff and attention. But soon, it takes away from the list of things JJ set out to do, and Kenneth is so amazed by the perks that he accidentally leaves JJ’s communication board behind. JJ has no way to tell him until Kenneth discovers it’s missing, and JJ is angry. “You took my voice,” Kenneth reads aloud when JJ is finally reunited with the board. “You don’t get to do that.” I like that these lines refer to both the communication board and Kenneth’s disregard for the purpose of the day.
I so appreciate that the show in general and this episode specifically addresses how many strangers consider people with disabilities inspirational. Although people can inspire each other regardless of whether or not disability enters the equation, the word is very often linked to disability. Personally, the idea of inspiration is more meaningful if it comes from a friend or loved one who knows me and knows whether I actually struggled or, like JJ and Kenneth ordering hot dogs, was just out living life and enjoying myself. When strangers say another stranger with a disability is an inspiration, they often say it from the point of view of imagining that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy life if they had a disability. The truth is that lots of people adapt to an astonishing number of life circumstances. I definitely wasn’t expecting one of my deeply held beliefs in a network TV comedy.
The episode’s treatment of the family’s day without JJ is also profound. They are surprised to love the strategy and thrill of paintball. Dylan shrieks, “BEST DAY EVER!”, then looks horrified to have implied that not including JJ in the day was easier, and therefore better. This is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. Life with a disability requires a lot of planning, and not having to consider the accessibility of something is easier, even if Dylan didn’t mean she wanted to exclude JJ.
Finally, I loved Kenneth’s effort to make up for leaving the invaluable board in the stadium parking lot. A security guard retrieves JJ’s backpack, with the board inside it, and then says, “You guys sure make a cute team. You know, you’re real insp–” “Yeah, we’re done with that,” interrupts Kenneth. He promises that the rest of the day will be “no inspirations, all you,” and helps JJ experience driving the van. “Happy Independence Day!” Kenneth calls out to JJ, whose face explodes with joy.
Even though the degree of cerebral palsy I have is different than JJ, I can relate to so much. I have waited so long for a series like this. Watching his posture, the positioning of his hand, his smile, I was joyful, too. The show isn’t perfect, but it plays with the standard sitcom elements and shows disability as part of family life. I’m excited to see what comes next.