arts & music

Speechless: Wishing for Disability Representation

by Meghan — July 19, 2019
The case of Speechless in single file on an Abby Road background

TV shows showcasing characters and performers with disabilities, like Speechless, aren’t easy to find and they keep getting cancelled.

When was the first time you saw yourself or something similar to your life experiences represented in a book, television show or movie? The only people who didn’t have to stop and think that through are straight, able bodied, white men. Let that sink in for a second.

The first time I felt I found something I could identify with, even if it was in only a slight way, was in the television show Friday Night Lights. I would make sense for me to identify with Jason Street, the small town Texas high school quarterback whose dreams are derailed by a spinal cord injury. But no – I identified with Herc – the smart-assed guy who’s also injured, and becomes Jason’s mentor of sorts.

I related to him because he moved like me. He moved through the world with an attitude similar to mine. He physically moved like a quadriplegic. So much so, that when I Googled Kevin Rankin and discovered he was able-bodied, I was shocked and a little disappointed, because I had been so happy to believe, “Finally they’ve hired a disabled actor!!!!”

Wrong. Don’t misunderstand, I love the show, it’s one of my all time favorites but they miss the mark sometimes.

Then, when Speechless came along I was ecstatic.

Speechless is a family comedy focusing on the DiMeo family. The central character, a teenage boy named J.J., (Micah Fowler), is a non-verbal wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. His mother is Maya, father Jimmy, sister Dylan, and brother Ray. Each episode generally deals with J.J.’s life and how the family handles the challenges of his disability; often in the most humorous way possible. Oh, and by the way, they just cancelled it after only 3 seasons.

I totally identify with the mother-child dynamic. Maya, played by Minnie Driver, is basically a British version of my own mother. I also enjoy the sibling dynamics because of how well-written and honest it is. There are a few times the show even made me cry. But one of the scenes that sticks out for me is when J.J., the oldest of the siblings, sees that someone is faking interest in his sister simply to use her. So he consistently interferes and interrupts them thus earning his sister’s ire.

All the same, by the end of the episode she tells him he was right.

J.J. says something using his sight board, along the lines of “I may not ever be like other brothers but I try in my own way to protect you.” Somewhere at least one of my sisters is agreeing that we’ve had almost that exact conversation. The show is so honest and funny, despite the episodes being somewhat formulaic in the way sitcoms often are, it never feels patronizing or forced.

There are so many moments in my own life I saw reflected back through a different lens in the show. I could go on, and on, but here’s the thing… I shouldn’t be thirty-five years old before I see an honest interpretation and representation of my own life experiences.

Speechless is a show about disability, acted by someone with that same disability. It’s written by people who have personal experiences with disability, as well having disabled writing staff and contributors. That’s groundbreaking and so very important. The only other show that I know of that have their bases that well-covered is Netflix’s original show Special.

Shows containing disabled characters make up less than ten percent of the viewing landscape. And only five percent of those characters are portrayed by people with an actual disability. I’m bad at math but I know whatever that number averages out to is really fucking small.

And that’s sad.

Here’s why proper representation is essential…

We tell kids they can be “anything they want to be” (and that’s great) but in order to achieve their dreams, it really helps to see someone like you doing it first. (That is, unless you’re my niece, Lara, who wanted to be a mermaid from age 2–4).

Representation is also a key factor in feeling less alone in our experiences. It helps to be able to look and go… “Hey, I’ve been there.”

Representation is integral because in the past ninety one years Marlee Matlin is the only deaf woman to win an Oscar [watch her win Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God back in 1986]. Lionel Barrymore and Robert Donat won on the men’s side of things but their disabilities did not play a direct part in their roles the way Matlin’s deafness did.

On the other side of the coin, if I’m being honest, I hate the headlines when able-bodied performers win awards for playing the role of someone disabled. It bothers me when everyone raves about how nuanced and groundbreaking their performances are. It’s like inspiration porn–in reverse.

Disabled actors, writers, and directors do indeed exist and there would be plenty more if the media platforms opened up and became more inclusive. We’re making progress in the right direction, for sure, but we still have a long path to forge.

Do you watch any shows showcasing characters and performers with disabilities? Here are my recommendations for some shows that get representation right, or at least try really hard.

Speechless – ABC

Friday Night Lights – NBC

The Good Doctor – ABC

Call The Midwife – BBC

Switched At Birth – ABC

Happy viewing friends!

(image from ABC’s show Speechless)

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