Let’s face it: Hollywood struggles with the way it depicts disability in TV shows and movies. Far too often in these productions the character who has a disability is portrayed as either a hero or a dependent victim. It’s also a well-known fact that most of the characters who have a disability are played by actors who do not have a disability. So when a TV comedy comes along that strives to be authentic in its dialogue on disability, it deserves our applause.
Based on its pilot, “Speechless,” a new comedy on ABC, definitely looks promising. The show features the DiMeo family, with mother Maya (Minnie Driver), father Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), and children JJ (Micah Fowler), Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) is the school’s custodian who becomes JJ’s attendant.
JJ DiMeo is a sarcastic and likeable teenager who happens to have cerebral palsy (as does the actor who plays him) and uses a head pointer to spell on his communication board. His mom, Maya, is a driven and righteous advocate for her son who struggles with finding balance in her family life. Jimmy is the peace-maker dad who just rolls with the antics of his family. Dylan and Ray are the siblings who on occasion rebel against the constant attention their brother receives.
The writers of “Speechless” have struck a balance between delivering a powerful message and telling the story with humour. The adventures of the first day of school for JJ and his family completely resonated with me and brought back memories of my own experience. The scenes with the condescending attendant, JJ’s patronizing peers, the garbage entrance to access the school and the insensitivity of some drivers when it comes to accessible parking are all too real. With the show’s deft use of comedy and witty conversations, viewers learn valuable lessons without even realizing it.
So, to “Speechless” creator Scott Silveri, thank you for your insight. The characters of this comedy are realistically flawed and multi-dimensional. JJ’s journey to finding his “voice” is not a story about disability…it’s about life. This time, Hollywood, you got it right – and I’m speechless.