Brow Beat

Why ABC’s Speechless Feels Like Such a Revolutionary Depiction of Disabled People



Early in the pilot of the new ABC comedy Speechless, Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) finds out that her son J.J.’s new school has a less-than-stellar entrance for students in wheelchairs. She is, shall we say, displeased. The ensuing monologue paints her as a hard-charging, relentlessly fierce advocate for J.J. (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around and a light board to communicate but is otherwise a typical smart-assed teen.

The creators of Speechless have made this scene work very, very hard: not just to situate J.J. within his larger family dynamic but also to avoid a particularly unsavory comparison to another Hollywood depiction of a relentlessly dedicated mother who will stop at nothing to advocate for her son.

That is: In the midst of Maya’s impassioned rant, which includes a tossed-off suggestion that a school employee should be accused of a “hate crime” for using the word crippled, said employee, Kenneth (Cedric Yarborough from Reno 911!), delivers what might be the most self-aware line this television season: “I enjoy your Blind Side energy,” he says. “But speaking as the black person in Newport, a person who gets pulled over twice on his way out of the parking lot, the irony of being called intolerant is not lost on me.” (I assume the irony of the show’s conscience being its sole black character is also not supposed to be lost on us.) Later in the episode, Kenneth greets J.J. as “Blind Side junior.”

Creator Scott Silveri has done something clever here. In self-mocking his own show’s indomitable advocate-mother, he’s headed off unflattering comparisons to the film that won Sandra Bullock her Oscar and scenes like this, wherein the “mainstream” (read: wealthy and white) savior swoops in with a gun in her purse and stands up to the big, scary black people:

This scene is possibly the most offensive in a very offensive film. In reinforcing the Donald Trumpian dystopic vision of an obliterated black “war zone” and in deifying the brave white lady who tromps in to save the day, this moment is perfectly characteristic of what made The Blind Side so immensely popular with white viewers. In identifying them with Bullock’s character, it made them feel great about their role in American race relations by casting them as the hero.

You can see why Silveri, who grew up with a disabled older brother, was so cautious about transposing the “abled savior” role onto Driver—and the soaring, feel-good abled heroics onto his audience—that he wrote that caution into the show. (Using, in so many levels of irony I’ve lost count, a somewhat clumsy intersection with race.)

Yes, Speechless, four episodes in and already reeling in the critical acclaim, offers a hell of a lot to unpack for a half-hour comedy. It’s the first major network program to present a nonverbal disabled character as a protagonist; it casts a disabled actor in J.J.’s role, thus avoiding the cringe-worthy and self-congratulatory approach of a My Left Foot or The Theory of Everything. Indeed, Hollywood is terribly fond of the able-bodied actors who play disabled characters and prone to hand them gold statues for their brave portrayals; one of the most brilliant episodes of Ricky Gervais’ Extras has a self-parodic Kate Winslet lamenting, wildly inappropriately, that in order to finally win her Oscar, she’s got to play a nun during the Holocaust—or, failing that, “a mental.”

Speechless upends and lambastes many of these showbiz tropes at once, all while being clever, well-written, wonderfully acted, and deliberately wary of Very Special Messaging. In its careful avoidance of Blind-Siding, it has the potential to be not just a very good show but a groundbreaking one that, as this New York Times piece puts it, steadfastly avoids depicting disabled characters as “objects of pity or as catalysts that allow able-bodied characters to learn an obvious lesson or feel better about themselves.”

The most important test for Speechless, however, is how it plays with viewers with disabilities. It doesn’t matter how clever or self-aware a show starring a nonverbal kid with cerebral palsy is if people with disabilities find it offensive. So far, online reactions are mixed to positive. Several of the adulatory reviews that contribute to the show’s 98 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes are by writers affected by disability. Alyssa Fiske writes on Uproxx: “I grew up with a younger brother with severe cerebral palsy, among other health issues, and there were moments that I felt like I was watching my own family, albeit with better lighting and a quippy script.” And here’s vlogger Robyn Lambird, who also has cerebral palsy, saying she thinks the pilot episode “really hit the nail on the head.”

Other viewers offer a more mixed take, such as Amy Sequenzia, a nonspeaking autistic writer and activist with cerebral palsy who publishes widely on autism and disability. Sequenzia made several public Facebook posts about the show worth reading in their entirety and also emailed with me briefly about it. She told me she was happy not to see Speechless go the way of “inspiration porn” (Radio, Rain Man, etc.). Indeed, the show directly mocks the use of disabled people as inspiration objects, as, in episode four, J.J. and Kenneth knowingly exploit the many inspiration pornographers they encounter to get as much free stuff as possible.

Sequenzia is also happy that the creators cast Fowler, in the part of J.J., but several moments on the show so far have caused her concern—chiefly, Maya’s insistence on distinguishing J.J.’s disability as physical. “It is the ‘Our Minds Are Fine’ group distancing themselves from intellectually (and cognitively) disabled people,” she explains.

Sequenzia’s concern is echoed by David Perry, a professor of English who reviewed the pilot of Speechless for the Atlantic. “I can say that as a parent of a disabled child, watching Driver navigate the school system on full tilt is both hilarious and cathartic,” he tells me, but he’s also wary of the “potential hazards ahead,” including what he calls the “embrace of disability hierarchies” that Sequenzia was talking about.

Further hazards include navigating J.J.’s sexuality, also a major plot point of the second episode: Kenneth asks him about his preferred extracurricular activities; he uses his laser pointer to zero in on several girls’ rear ends. He also installs himself as the “manager” of the cheerleading team “even though that’s not technically a thing.” About this I spoke with Christopher Shinn, a playwright who lost part of one leg to Ewing’s sarcoma and has written about disability and Hollywood. “I’m glad the disabled character in this show is sexual,” he tells me, “but it sounds like the show is trying to get audiences to identify with him in a superficial ‘normal teenage boy’ way rather than investigating how his sexuality actually functions in a discriminatory and exclusionary society made up of able-bodied people.”

Still, though, what most defines the show up to this point is the so-far impressive depth of the characters, as well as its own winking self-awareness, again placed cleverly in the voice of the supporting characters. On J.J.’s first day at his new school, for example, his jumpy teacher (the always-delightful Jonathan Slavin), directs the students into a standing ovation, before frantically backtracking after realizing it’s “insensitive.” And when a student whose “cousin is deaf, so he gets it,” produces a “J.J. for President” sign, the teen has his incongruously chirpy aide respond with “Eat … a … bag … of—” It’s a decidedly un-PC sentiment for sure but an understandable rebuff to inspiration pornographers and one that perfectly illustrates the bold course this show has decided to take.