Overlooked: Speechless

Centring disability: ABC’s best cancelled family sitcom
SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY
SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY

“Inspiration porn, what’s that?” asked Kenneth.

“It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people,” answered Ray.

“I blame Tiny Tim,” JJ added.

This humourous and to-the-point explanation comes courtesy of the ABC show ​Speechless. A couple years ago, in my NEW241Y1 — Introduction to Disability Studies course, my professor played this clip. I remembered being drawn to the show out of curiosity. I originally dipped into it with a purely analytical purpose; as a student studying equity and disability, I was intrigued.

What I encountered was a thoughtful, well-written, and genuinely funny show that quickly became one of my favourites. Micah Fowler stars as JJ DiMeo, a teenager with cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal, hence the title of the show.

The series follows his family: his mother Maya (Minnie Driver), father Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), and younger siblings Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy). The series begins with a move to an upscale new town in order to allow JJ to attend a more accessible school.

Cedric Yarbrough plays Kenneth Clements, the school janitor-turned personal aide. Being racialized, Kenneth is able to connect with JJ using their shared experiences of oppression.

The show is for all audiences, as the driving story arcs are common and relatable problems for most families; they just have the added element of disability and access. Something I distinctly love about ​Speechless​ is its depiction of a low-income household: the DiMeo’s make ends meet, but they certainly can’t afford nice things, and their working-class poverty becomes a point of contention throughout the show. The representation of such a common experience is profound for mainstream television.

Speechless​ is in a league of its own; centring a disability narrative has never been done in this way. On the rare occasion a disability does appear in mainstream television or movies, it is often as an afterthought, a threat, or a portrayal of some sort of trope. Characters with disabilities often exist only to aid the journey and build the character of the central figure who doesn’t have a disability. Disability is portrayed as something undesirable, and rarely as a viable, livable reality.

Scott Silveri, the creator of the show, based the story on his own experiences, as his brother has cerebral palsy. It’s also important to note that Fowler is an actor with a disability playing a character with a disability — something relatively unheard of. Fowler is a wheelchair user and has cerebral palsy.

Speechless ​asks the real questions. Will JJ ever be able to live independently? Can he ever have a family of his own? Will he graduate high school and continue along a normative path of education to success? The conversations are uncomfortable at times, and the answers are not always black-and-white, but this is exactly why we, as viewers, must challenge our beliefs and grow toward uncertainty.

Even though we are in the midst of a cultural awakening, much too often disability oppression is left out of our activism. Speechless is a breath of fresh air and exactly what we need right now. And it’s actually funny — trust me!

Everyone should be watching Speechless.

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