“Speechless” Disrupts Polite Conversation About Disability

Minnie Driver and her TV family, Mason Cook, Micah Fowler, and Kyla Kenedy, on ABC's "Speechless."

One of the most notable developments of The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards was the plea made by both Laverne Cox and Jeffrey Tambor for the recognition and appreciation of transgender talent. The recent controversy over the casting of Matt Bomer as a transwoman in the film Anything seems to have brought mainstream attention to the objections raised against cisgender actors playing transgender roles.

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This question of who gets to tell whose stories and who gets to embody them was a worthwhile one to contemplate while diving into the endless premieres of the new fall TV season following the Emmy ceremony. And it highlighted a model for inclusivity that calls for those with creative and economic power to create opportunities for talented people to act in and tell their own stories and allow marginalized people to direct the conversations about how they want to be represented.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The show’s casting is revolutionary.[/pullquote]Those conversations are not limited to the question of transgender representation. Last week saw the premiere of Speechless on Disney’s ABC network, which has gotten press attention for having the role of teenager JJ DiMeo played by Micah Fowler, a wheelchair-bound actor with cerebral palsy. It’s not only the casting but also that the show is a comedy that makes Speechless seem revolutionary. In an article titled “How ‘Speechless’ Understands Families Like Mine,” Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times expressed relief at finding that Speechless wouldn’t be a drama in which JJ (and his family) experienced disability as endless pain and suffering.

Instead, the DiMeos are written as a loving family with a specific set of challenges. Interviews with executive producer and series creator Scott Silveri have emphasized that he is drawing from his own experience growing up with a special-needs brother and that other members of the writer’s room have similar backgrounds.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]They’re a loving family with specific challenges.[/pullquote]Speechless’s first episode didn’t just avoid being maudlin — it was seriously funny. Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) and her husband, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), tell their three kids, JJ (Fowler), Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy), that they are moving to the “worst house in the best school district.” Maya has found a school that offers a one-to-one classroom aid for JJ. This means that 16-year-old JJ, who is nonverbal and communicates with a numbers-and-letters board, will finally have someone to act as his “voice” full-time. It also means that Ray and Dylan will be uprooted, something they have experienced multiple times as their parents attempt to find the best situation for JJ.

Fowler’s JJ is a sharply funny teenager with no patience for the adults who treat him as an inspiration instead of a person. One of the best gags of the pilot is the way he torments the first aide assigned to him by the school district, a goofy woman with a high voice (a game Dina Spybey-Waters) who refuses to vocalize JJ’s sarcastic quips and curses. The performance seems effortless, but Fowler, who in actuality speaks and has greater mobility than JJ, emphasizes the physical challenges of the role. Because of his restrained motion, Fowler points out, “All of my acting choices have to come through my expressions alone.”

As a longtime fan of Minnie Driver and one of the few people who stuck with About a Boy (to the end!), it’s great to see her in this role. She has a talent for playing the sorts of mothers mocked as uncool by contemporary culture. Her warm, witty presence resists cliché, and she plays Maya as a blend of tireless optimism and self-righteousness. The show lets her be right but allows others to react with justifiable annoyance at her willingness to bulldoze and condescend.

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This results in amusing confrontations with middle son Ray, who wants his needs to come first, and with Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), the African-American janitor who becomes JJ’s aide. After enduring one of Maya’s theatrical tirades (she uses garbage as props), Kenneth says, “Look, miss, I enjoy your Blind Side energy. And speaking as the black man in Newport, a person who gets pulled over twice before he pulls out of the parking lot, the irony of being called intolerant is not lost on me.” It’s not papered over that Kenneth, unlike the white adults at the school who make a lot of noise about diversity and then require JJ to use the trash ramp when entering the school, has experiences with being marginalized that Maya is happy to ignore in making her point.

Speechless is also unusual in its willingness to confront the way in which money (or the lack of it) makes a material difference in the life that can be offered to JJ. Ostensibly middle-class, the DiMeo family needs access to the wealthy school district in order to offer JJ the possibility of a “normal” life. While the crumbling house and its inhospitable location next to a highway give Bowie’s Jimmy a lot of great opportunities for wryly amused asides, even more effective is a scene late in the premiere showing all three DiMeo children sharing one bedroom.

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Earlier this spring, the film Me Before You was protested by disability advocates for both casting an able-bodied actor (Sam Claflin) in the role of a quadriplegic and then ending with that character’s suicide, suggesting that life as a disabled person was not worth living. What makes a show like Speechless such a positive step forward is that it stands as a complete rebuke to stories like Me Before You, which casts the differently abled as tragic figures without acknowledging their right to be seen as people.

Liz’s List: What to Watch/Follow/Listen To/Read

Watch John Green’s YouTube video “Failing to Follow Up The Fault in Our Stars,” where he discusses why he hasn’t published another novel in the five years since his YA bestseller The Fault in Our Stars.

Follow comedian and actress Sarah Benincasa, author of a popular recent essay responding to a man who wrote to ask her why she had gained weight.

Listen to the Bad With Money podcast episode “Tokens For Your Tokens.” Host, comedian, and nonfinancial expert Gaby Dunn discusses making money as an artist with Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay.

Read Sarah Blackwood’s defense of Ma Ingalls’s parenting at The Hairpin.