The first time I saw a character on television or in the movies that I could somewhat relate to was Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) on Glee. I was ecstatic that there was someone in a wheelchair on primetime television who wasn’t just playing the token disabled person, but had a vital role in the show’s storyline and was treated as part of the gang by his peers. Of course as soon as I found out McHale was an able bodied actor and not actually a real life wheelchair user a part of me was disappointed. Over the years Hollywood has overcome adversity in television and movies with the inclusion of more minorities and gay/lesbian characters casted in prominent roles, but what still seems to be lacking is the representation of the disabled community on the big screen.
There are more than 56 million Americans with disabilities in the US and 95% of disabled roles in movies and television go to able bodied actors. When I was 9-years-old I went on an audition for a popular children’s show and even though I got rave reviews at my read through, the director decided to cast an able bodied actor to play the role because i didn’t look “normal” enough because of my physical disability. Sure since then shows like American Horror Story, Breaking Bad and The Middle have cast actors with actual disabilities like Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and Osteogenesis Imperfecta in prominent roles. Reality TV has even gotten on board as well with shows like TLC’s Little People, Big World and Sundance’s Push Girls, but that’s still such a small percentage of working disabled actors compared to our able bodied counterparts playing the roles meant for us. With the exception of shows like Freeform’s Switched At Birth (a drama that predominantly features deaf and hard of hearing actors) there hasn’t been a show on television that focuses not only on the disability, but the person living with it…until now.
ABC’s new comedy Speechless starring Minnie Driver and Micah Fowler is a story about a family who moves from town to town searching for a school that can provide a full time aid for JJ DiMeo (Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and is non verbal. Maya (Driver) is his overbearing mother fighting for the rights of her son to give him as normal a life as possible. What makes it real is Fowler himself actually has CP and gets around with the use of a walker and wheelchair (however unlike JJ, Micah is able to speak). To add to the authenticity the show’s creator Scott Silveri has loosely based the sitcom off his own life living with his older brother who also has CP, so he gets it. The show shies away from strictly assigning the stereotypical disabled character as an inspiration and instead shows Fowler as a normal 16-year-old boy who’s into girls and likes to curse.
In the opening scene we see the DiMeo’s pull into a handicapped spot only to be yelled at by an older woman complaining there’s no handicapped placard on their van. The joke’s on her when JJ comes down his ramp in his chair and the woman angrily drives off. Across the lot are some snarky teenagers staring at the boy and his family to which JJ responds by flipping them off.
When JJ arrives at his new school we find out that the wheelchair accessible ramp is located in the back of the building and is actually a ramp for janitorial use. Maya becomes infuriated that the school is not accessible which reminded me all too much of my own mother and the battles she had to fight to give me as normal a life as possible while living with a physical disability. Words like “crippled” are used nonchalant by other characters in the show and corrected by Driver as this is felt to be a derogatory term in our community. More accurate and familiar moments come when JJ’s class welcomes him to the room with a standing ovation for being an inspiration just because he’s in a chair. The teacher then introduces a student to JJ saying “Zachary’s cousin is deaf so he gets it.” Yeah. I hear that line about once a week. My favorite was when a girl came up to me at a show and said “I totally get what you’re going through because I was in a wheelchair at Coachella once when I broke my leg.” Um I know you’re trying to sympathize but no you do not get it. JJ feels the same way and thinks it’s ridiculous the school sees him as inspirational and want to make him class president. His response to this, “Eat a bag of dicks.”
Other laugh out loud moments come when school staff run in fear from Mama DiMeo and when the janitor tells her “These people know who you are. They even had a big meeting on how to handle you.” My own mom who was watching with me laughed hysterically because every one of my schools feared her as well, and held numerous meetings of what to do when she came in. Once JJ gets rid of his fairy godmother sounding aid whom he hates, he asks Kenneth the janitor if he’d be his voice since JJ thinks he sounds cool. Kenneth seems to get JJ’s sense of humor and wit immediately, throwing out lines for JJ like “Back off jackass! Do I look like a mailbox to you?!” And while Speechless does a good job at showing the person, not just the disability, it also is nice that the show doesn’t just focus on JJ but the whole DiMeo family and what it’s like living with a special needs individual. JJ and his siblings Dylan (Kyla Kennedy) and Ray (Mason Cook) seem tight and while they are aware of his special needs they seem to treat JJ no differently than any other brother and sister would. The show presents real moments of exhaustion and frustration from Maya and her husband Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) that come from constantly fighting a battle for their child that seems never ending. It also explores how sometimes the siblings of a special needs child can feel left out at times because of all the extra attention the disabled child needs. We see this with Ray as he feels his mom isn’t paying enough attention to him and what he wants. This can happen often with other children in special needs families and it’s important to remember while someone like JJ needs assistance more than his brother and sister, Ray and Dylan need just as much attention from their parents as well. The most heartwarming moment comes at the end of the show when JJ comes to his brother’s aid and gets up on stage at the school fair with the help of his new voice to tell his peers he accepts the nomination for school president so that his brother Ray can stay at their new school. JJ sacrifices his happiness for the happiness of his brother.
If Speechless teaches us anything it’s that people with disabilities are just like everyone else, we have actual feelings, wants and needs just like the rest of mankind. JJ’s character is just another clever and sarcastic teenager into girls that loves his family and hates school; he just happens to be in a wheelchair. This show is important in today’s day and age with the onslaught of open mindedness and individuality this decade’s millennials possess and it hits close to home especially for me because I am part of this community. To be honest I was expecting this show to be like all the others throwing either the “your disability is an inspiration” or “if i was disabled like you I’d kill myself” storyline around Speechless does neither, and I thank Silveri for that.
Just in the last few years people with disabilities have been breaking down the stereotype throughout the entertainment industry. Ali Stroker became the first person in a wheelchair on Broadway in Spring Awakening. Jillian Mercado who has Muscular Dystrophy was offered a modeling gig with Beyonce’s clothing line Formation, and Peter Dinklage whom we all know as Tyrion Lannister (who has a form of Dwarfism) has won both an Emmy and Golden Globe for his work on Game of Thrones. It’s time for Hollywood and the rest of the world to stop looking at us like the freak or treating us like the butt of the joke, but to start respecting us and recognizing our talents despite our limitations. We’re no longer hiding in the shadows but making our voices heard and Micah Fowler is a part of this revolution.
Speechless airs Wednesdays on ABC at 8:30pm EST/PST
Melissa Sanchez is a Illustrator and Graphic Designer from Los Angeles who was born with a rare condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita. It affects the joints and muscles and leaves her in chronic pain on a daily basis. She gets around with the use of a walker and wheelchair. Despite her disability she lives as normal a life as possible; she graduated from USC, has worked at record labels and loves to go to punk concerts often, considering 75% of her time is filled with doctors appts and hospital visits. She’s also obsessed with horror movies and Disneyland.