‘Speechless’ Uses Humor to Say a Lot About Disabilities

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by Kevin Schaefer |

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ABC TV series, Speechless

Cedric Yarbrough, left, Micah Fowler as JJ, and Jeromy Ramos in an episode from the ABC Television Network series “Speechless.” (ABC/Richard Cartwright)

Kevin Embracing my inner alien
The ABC sitcom Speechless, which premiered in 2016, has been discussed widely among various disability communities since its debut. Beyond the fact that it is about a family whose eldest son has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, the show is not afraid to tackle subjects like the protagonist’s desire to be independent, the “inspiration porn” stereotype, battles with insurance companies, and how living with a disability can affect a person’s family.

What’s really special about all this is that series creator Scott Silveri and the other writers examine these topics through a humorous lens, which is the direct antithesis of the numerous tragic stories about disability in popular media.

Season two of the series premiered this past Wednesday, and in this episode Silveri gave viewers something truly special. In season one, the show did address inter-abled romance through a story arc involving protagonist J.J. (played by Micah Fowler) and a girl from school who he had a crush on. Though the girl didn’t want to be anything more than friends with J.J., the way the writers handled this scene was especially honest and heartfelt. They wanted to make the point that J.J. is a normal high-schooler, and just like every teenager he’s going to face rejection from time to time. I applauded them for letting the girl be honest and not return J.J.’s love out of pity.

In the season two premiere, however, we learn that J.J. met a girl at summer camp who liked him. Though she lived states away, she wanted to see him before going home and wrote him a letter asking if he’d be her first kiss. By the time J.J. had received and read the letter, it was a day late and the girl had already left. However, once the rest of the DiMeo family found out about this, they loaded into their van and headed across the country to find this girl.

If you haven’t watched the show yet, the spontaneity and quirky adventures of the DiMeo family are some of its defining features.

After several setbacks and thinking that they had missed their chance when their van ran out of gas, the tide turned in the last few minutes of the episode when J.J. found the girl at a nearby gas station. He drove his chair toward her, only to find that there was a huge step blocking his path. Reacting quickly, J.J.’s family and his caregiver Kenneth (played by Cedric Yarbrough) carried him up the step and set him on a bench next to the girl. She turned around and was happily surprised to see that he had come all this way to find her. They shared a tender kiss with the sun shining in the background, and it was one of the more beautiful television moments in recent memory.

Seriously, can you recall the last time a character in a wheelchair kissed someone who was able-bodied? Or how about the last time a disabled character was played by a disabled actor or actress?

While Minnie Driver does carry the show in many ways as J.J.’s hilariously spontaneous and charming mother Maya, Micah Fowler brings something wonderfully unique and honest to the show every week in his performance. Though he’s not mute like J.J., Fowler does have cerebral palsy and draws from personal experiences to make his character as believable as possible.

The kiss scene was one of the best and most touching moments in the series yet. It was heartfelt, but not sappy; and the sentimentality of it was brilliantly coupled with the humorous touch of J.J.’s family having to carry him up the step, and then catch him a few moments later as he was about to fall off the bench.

Granted, I don’t love every moment of the series and it is the only show on ABC that I watch (my humor is a little too rough and irreverent for the family-friendly material), but it’s the honesty and quirkiness of it that makes it so much fun to watch. Scott Silveri has stated in interviews that the show is based on his life growing up with a brother who has cerebral palsy, and that much of his personality is reflected by J.J.’s nerdy younger brother Ray (played by Mason Cook).

I’d love to see this show continue for as long as it can, and to follow J.J. through the rest of high school and eventually into college. There isn’t anything else on TV quite like Speechless, and if you haven’t watched it  I highly encourage you to give it a shot.

*Featured image from Disney ABC Press


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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