Why I Love ‘Speechless’

I have fallen head over heels for a new show on ABC called ‘Speechless.’ When I describe it as a new 30-minute family comedy, you may think: “so what’s so great about it?” But this show is both hilarious and record breaking because it is about a family that includes a child who lives with significant disabilities.

When I was a teenager I loved the show ‘Life Goes On’ that featured a character with Downs Syndrome. I identified with this kid because he was also a teenager and was trying to cope with being a regular teen while also living with a disability. Finally, I had someone on my TV who represented part of my experience as an outsider because of disability.

It didn’t matter to me that the disability was different; that I have rheumatoid arthritis instead of whatever disability is on TV. What matters is seeing someone going through similar experiences, asking similar questions, and finding their way through life while living with a disability.

Characters portrayed by people with the actual disability are extremely rare. (In fact able-bodied actors often have Oscar statues and accolades piled at their feet because it is believed that just acting out a disability is award-worthy!) In both ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘Speechless’ the characters with disabilities are played by people with the same disabilities to great effect.

‘Speechless’ really resonates because I was a teenager who used a wheelchair due to my rheumatoid arthritis, similar to the eldest child in the show’s family. He has CP and is unable to speak, but his gestures and expressions convey so much. In the opening episode the family moves to a new school that is supposed to be more supportive of his needs and also provide an aide who will “speak” for the character.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned and adjustments need to be made, but hilarity ensues. The mother (played by Minnie Driver) is a fierce warrior, fighting for her son’s equal inclusion. When she confronts the principal about the fact that the wheelchair accessible ramp for the school is also the ramp used for garbage, I was nodding my head while also crying laughing. Somehow they made an ordinary battle I experience all the time into something I laughed at until my stomach hurt.

There are many moments throughout the episodes that deal with balancing (or failing to) the needs of the family with the needs of JJ (the son with a disability). But it also explores these very real issues with laughter. Such as the mother experiencing a serious guilt trip about having inaccessible fun playing paintball while her disabled son is away for the day.

The show doesn’t sugar coat the real exclusion that JJ experiences as a teenager with a disability and follows his quest to be able to make stupid teenage decisions (and suffer the consequences). There are no easy solutions, but it is a true exploration and reveals the emotion of feeling different.

Another aspect I enjoy is how the show pokes fun at ignorance. At first the students and faculty at the school treat JJ like royalty because of his disability. He sarcastically exploits this to his advantage, but we viewers are in on the joke that they are foolishly underestimating him to their detriment.

In another episode, JJ and his aide push the boundaries of his disability under the guise of “inspiration.” People give them free food, baseball tickets, and more because he is out living life with a disability, instead of understanding that he’s a regular person and not an inspiration.

Perhaps the most powerful scenario yet happens when the younger (abled-bodied) son is constantly worried about how he is perceived be his fellow school mates, particularly the girl he has a crush on. When he asks his father why he doesn’t worry about what other people think, the father poignantly explains that other people’s opinions stop mattering when a doctor explains how your son has a serious disability and will face lifelong challenges. To hammer it home, he says: “I get normal seems good, but guess what? We’re not normal. We’re better. We’re bullet proof.” Not only do they capture the difference, but also how living with a disability can make not only the individual, but the family stronger.

Every time I watch the show I laugh, but I also feel like someone is understanding me. It’s a great thing to feel a connection with a story about how living with an illness or disability is simultaneously challenging, hilarious, frustrating, and also just regular life. Watching ‘Speechless’ makes me feel like I have been recognized, that people with disabilities are finally entering the mainstream and don’t need to fake wellness or act like pious saints.

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