I’ve been hearing a bit about this new TV show Speechless over the last few weeks. The big news was that it featured a disabled, non-verbal character with a significant physical disability, JJ Dimeo, who is played by an actor with disabilities, Micah Fowler. That’s all I knew until this morning, when I saw this trailer, but the disability casting was a good sign all by itself.
I enjoyed the trailer, and I’m optimistic about the show, but I am worried about a few things.
First, I hope the show lasts long enough to explore disability themes beyond the basics. I mean, how much of a novelty is it, really, to show a non-verbal kid in a wheelchair … most likely disabled from birth … who has a real personality and sense of humor? That will probably be a revelation for most viewers, but once they process that, what’s next? It will be crucial for JJ to develop and change as a character. If he arrives fully formed but playing the same gag over and over, while everyone around him changes and grows because of him, then the show will just be spiffed-up formula, and boring as hell.
Second, I worry about how the show handles the depiction of the mother, specifically. Based on the trailer, she’s could wind up being a stereotype, albeit one that isn’t as well known outside disability circles. She’s the Special Needs Mother From Hell who fights so fiercely for her disabled kid that she alienates everyone around her and neglects the rest of her family. There is a bit of truth in the stereotype, but again, it’s almost a cliche already, and I hope they don’t make the main theme of the show. We love mothers,. (and fathers), who fight hard for their kids' rights, but there's a big risk that mainstream audiences will just find her obnoxious, and basically miss the point, unless there's some nuance to her. It's also a short trip even in real life from strong, effective advocate to self-absorbed mouthpiece who forgets who he or she is actually fighting for. I kind of want JJ’s mother to be mostly great, with only occasional relapses into counter-productive yelling.
Finally, I hope they bring in plenty of stories about things other than disability, and that other characters develop and grow outside of JJ’s influence. By the same token, I’d like to see JJ have interests and things going on that have nothing to do with his disability. It’s going to take a light touch to make this work, and that’s rare. Disability is usually ignored on TV completely, or else it’s obsessed over to the point of cliche and burnout. I hope that doesn’t happen to this show.
On the plus side, I love Minnie Driver, and I think her British accent might add just enough quirky other-ness to make her more of an individual than the role might otherwise dictate. I also like the fact that the two brothers, one disabled, the other not, really look like brothers. It also looks like the show will accurately depict the real-life practical and attitudinal barriers disabled people deal with all the time, like access ramps by the dumpsters and cutie-voiced, condescending “helpers.” And of course, the show has authenticity going for it. I hope Micah Fowler gets to have some influence over how disability is depicted on the show, beyond his playing the role.
I really want this thing to work. Either way, I’ll definitely review the Pilot this fall for the Disability.TV Podcast.
One more note: I wish the promo materials and media coverage of this new show would stop referring to JJ's disabilities as “Special Needs.” I hope the show itself doesn’t take that route. Better yet, I’d love it if they made fun of the term, since I am certain the school administrators will use it.