Wednesday night I had the pleasure of watching the premiere of ABC’s new comedy Speechless. You’ve probably seen the previews, but if you haven’t, the show is about a family who moves to a new school district. A big reason for the move is that middle son J.J. has cerebral palsy, and the new school will give him new opportunities. For instance, he’ll have an aide with him to act as his “voice,” so he won’t have to be in self-contained special ed.
I was eager to see this show from the beginning, though not so much because of J.J. as his mom Maya, played by Minnie Driver. Maya reminds me a lot of my own mom. Mom wasn’t as extreme as Maya; for example, she never told off strangers in a parking lot (to my knowledge). But she did do everything she could to make sure I was treated as a person. “We’ve never done this” was not an excuse and “Here’s what I think should happen” was replaced with, “No, you don’t understand me. Here’s what’s going to happen.”
So, was Speechless as refreshing as I expected it to be, and is it worth watching? Does it portray disabilities positively? Well in many ways, I’m glad to say yes.
Speechless is, first and foremost, real. Maya and her family live with cerebral palsy every day through J.J. Sometimes this means J.J. gets a lot of extra attention or that his needs are placed above his siblings’. In one scene, oldest son Ray gets angry with Maya because she’s ready to move the family–again. Ray wants to stay at his new school because it has a planetarium and astronomy club, and a girl who just might like him. When Mom tries to shoot down the idea, Ray understandably says, “Right. It’s something I want, so who cares?” This is something real siblings of people with disabilities go through. But refreshingly, Ray doesn’t blame J.J. for all his troubles or say, “I wish he weren’t here.” Refreshingly, Mom apologizes and agrees to give the new district another chance–while simultaneously explaining that J.J.’s needs will sometimes mean he comes first. It’s not a mark of parental favoritism; that’s just the way things are for this family. Finally, a representation of disability that is honest about what everyone needs or wants.
Even more encouraging, J.J. is a real person, and he’s hilarious. When a couple of strangers stare at him in a parking lot, what does he do? He gives them the finger. (Not condoning the finger; just saying it’s a real response). When he meets an aide who speaks in a “fairy godmother” type voice, J.J. immediately says, “I hate this lady’s voice.” He jokes around with his siblings. He finds a person he would prefer to be his aide, school gardener Kenneth. He is clearly bright, witty, and a pleasure to watch. Actually though, J.J. wasn’t the element of Speechless that had me laughing hardest. That honor went to the tongue-in-cheek humor.
J.J.’s new school is marketed as highly inclusive, accepting, and loving. So much so, in fact, that when J.J. enters the classroom, the teacher has everybody stand up and clap. Why? Because he entered the classroom! He’s such an inspiration! “We’ve never had a student that was taller sitting down than any of us will ever be standing up,” the teacher gushes. Without even knowing him, J.J.’s new classmates nominate him for student council president. J.J. calls them on it, and he’s not impressed at all the inspirational glut. I laughed so hard at that. “Well, it’s about time,” I thought. “About time somebody said ‘take that’ to people who traffic in inspiration porn*!” I only wish J.J. had used his speech board to tell his teacher something like, “Keep clapping, I might do a trick!”
However, the new school is not as prepared to accept students with disabilities as they think they are. According to Dr. Miller, the esteemed principal, the only “disabled egress” is a wheelchair ramp beside the trash cans at the back of the school. Everybody uses it, wheelchair or not. It is routinely blocked. And did I mention, it’s next to the trash? “Are you trash or a person?” Maya challenges Dr. Miller. She proceeds to give a hilarious lesson on “trash vs. person,” and says, “You’re going to build a ramp in front…you’re going to make this school accessible.” Go, Mom!
Now, is this show perfect? No. For instance, I wondered briefly why J.J. was using a word board and an aide as his voice, when assistive technology is available. I can forgive that though, since in real life many people with disabilities use word boards instead of speech technology.
As noted, Maya sometimes comes across as abrasive in advocating for her son. I love how bold she is, but I have to wonder if she’s mistrusting able-bodied people a bit too much. Again, I love a parent who is a bold, unapologetic advocate–I had two of them. But is tearing down people and making them feel “less than,” the best way to advocate? Probably not. I’ll be interested to see where this goes in future episodes, whether Maya learns to balance advocacy and diplomacy, and how well J.J. and others learn to advocate for themselves.
Finally, I was a little taken aback when at the end of the pilot, J.J. accepts that nomination for student council president. It’s played for humor, and it comes after J.J. seems to have accepted his new environment and made at least one friend in Kenneth. However, I question whether that just gave the inspiration porn traffickers what they wanted. Does it still send the message that PWDs are placed in positions of power because they are inspiring and nothing else? I don’t know; there’s only been one episode. I’ll keep an eye on it and keep you posted.
My final verdict? Speechless is worth the watch, and I think it will challenge the way disabilities are viewed, if the powers that be in TV Land allow it to. Tune in when you can. 🙂
*Inspiration porn = A term, used humorously or derogatorily, to describe media that holds PWDs up as brave, special, saintly, or inspirational for doing everyday things.