ABC’s “Speechless” Tactfully Handles Disability

ABC’s new show Speechless follows the same vein as its other family-based programs (Modern Family, black-ish), and is full of typical ABC diversity. What is new about Speechless, though, is that this time diversity comes in the form of J.J. DiMeo, a 16-year-old who has cerebral palsy, resulting in him being both mute and in a wheelchair. The key plotline is his mother, Maya (portrayed by a thankfully still English Minnie Driver) trying to give J.J. a voice––to hire someone to speak for him. To do so, she moves the family across counties.

Refreshingly, J.J. is played by actor Mitch Fowler, who actually has cerebral palsy. This hasn't been seen in mainstream television since Breaking Bad’s Walt Jr., played by R.J. Mitte, who has a more mild form of cerebral palsy, using crutches rather than a wheelchair like J.J.

Speechless’s strength lies in showing how often inclusivity is inherently ableist. The school Maya moves her children to for J.J.’s benefit is full of rich, white, able-bodied people celebrating how inclusive they are––but they don't have a proper wheelchair ramp. The staff and students both tend to herald J.J. as a “brave” student, simply for existing and living his life. The portrayal appears annoying to the audience to just barely give a sense of how irritating it can be for J.J. A memorable moment comes when J.J. arrives at his new classroom full of peers giving him a standing ovation. The teacher suddenly realises that “the ovation is insensitive!” However, this is played as a laugh toward the students and the teacher, not at J.J.––a welcome change to previous jabs at ableist humour. 

The show manages to give a good overview of every key character: Jimmy, the loving yet lazy father, Maya, the caring and committed mother, J.J. who just wants to be like everyone else, girl-and-space-obsessed Ray (his escapades usually do not end well), and Dylan, who shares her mother’s rage and tell-it-like-it-is mentality. Another important character is Kenneth, the self-appointed “only black man in Newport”. He works as a landscaper/janitor at the school and is introduced to oppose Maya's overly protective nature. 

By the end of the episode, Kenneth is a friend to J.J., a relationship that will likely cause conflict throughout the course of the series. Character introductions like this are always a good start to a new TV show, as they manage to give a glimpse of all the main players without making the episode feel overcrowded with exposition. It is especially great given that the episode could so easily ignore many of the other characters in favour of focusing on J.J. and his disability.

To me, Speechless only has one major fault: before watching the pilot, I felt as though I’d already seen half of the half-hour episode through online trailers. It is a genuinely enjoyable show that has managed to take a story about a disabled boy and make it less about his disability and more about the reactions of other people to his disability. ABC has managed to make the show funny without the disability being the butt of the joke.

**I would like to note that I am a white, able-bodied person, so my opinions on this show may differ from others.

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