This essay was published on Offbeat Families: “Speechless” is a show about someone with a disability…and it’s not completely fucking that up!”
As a mom of a child with Down syndrome, I’m always looking for something new and good that relates to our family on TV. As a deaf mom who has long been a disability rights activist, I’ve found that to be pretty damn hard to find.
“Speechless” is a new TV show that seems to fit the bill. It’s a show about a family. There is the brainy middle child, the athletic youngest, and the eldest, who has Cerebral Palsy. The dad is laid back and the mom is an energizer-bunny. I suppose you could even say it’s a sit-com,because it is funny, and it’s situational.
And it’s not completely fucking up.
It’s amazing – Speechless is the first TV show in which the central character has a disability, and all of the story lines flow around him. Many of the story lines are also based on issues that we really have in the disability community.
When I first saw it, I was taken aback by the mom (played by Minnie Driver, whom I last saw, incidentally, singing about 10 feet away from me at the Black and White Ball in San Francisco). She’s fully-charged “special needs mum”; all push, prod, pull. I squirmed a little. And then I recognized her – she’s the “special needs warrior mom” on Facebook! The one who posts memes about how she’s a bear (or tiger, or some other such fierce animal) who will absolutely DO EVERYTHING FOR HER KID WITH SPECIAL NEEDS (sorry about the all-caps; I felt they added the right flavor to that).
You know who I’m talking about, right?!!!
Once I got that, and didn’t take it to mean that the show was saying (however obliquely) that I (a fellow mom of a kid with a disability) should be like that, I relaxed and enjoyed her character a lot more.
Moving on, Episode 3, which I watched last week. Tons of spoilers here, so either watch it first or come on back when you have. It’s chock full of good stuff:
Home Access: JJ can’t get through his bathroom door easily. Of course that speaks to building code, and the fact that most buildings are using Universal Design. (Okay, maybe I’m totally inferring the Universal Design piece. But I still got that link in there!).
Mom, The Martyr: Mom lives for JJ and his “special needs” (and you know how I feel about that word, gah). She just can’t stop hovering over him, can’t have fun doing things that are not related to him or his access, his inclusion, his education, his life. Mom is revolving her entire self around JJ! And it’s affecting everyone!
Siblings: The siblings don’t do stuff that isn’t accessible, and they don’t really know each other because they don’t engage in stuff just the two of them.
Inspiration: I cried, laughing over this part. JJ’s aide gets going with how far he can push the “inspiration” button.
Others Deciding: This was my favorite part. The aide took control of JJ’s day, going whole hog over “inspiration” and having fun doing things he could never do without a handy wheelchair-using kid by his side. JJ finally nips it by saying something like, “this day was supposed to be about ME and what I wanted. You took away my voice. You don’t get to do that.”
Speechless is completely brilliant.
I love how all of these real issues are brought forth. I mean, this stuff is REAL. People with disabilities do get trampled over by people without disabilities who are deciding what’s best for us based on what they want. “Special needs moms” are all over the internets. Inspiration and it’s sister, Inspiration Porn are living it up in America and access feels more like an ongoing question than a legal right.
For a show to tackle all this, and make us laugh while it’s doing it? Fucking brilliant.
Meriah Nichols is a counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one on the spectrum). Deaf, and neurodiverse herself, she’s a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.
I haven’t seen the show yet, so I won’t read through your entire post, but I’m certainly intrigued by the premise and will be checking it out. I will say, however, that as the mother of a child with cognitive disability, the scene I saw in a preview of Minnie Driver’s character saying of her son ‘he’s all there upstairs’ made me cringe inwardly. I feel like that kind of thinking sets up a hierachy of disability wherein those with physical disabilities can justify their ‘worthiness’ by distancing themselves from cognitive disability. Maybe realistic, but not great. But like I said, I’ll check it out before I draw any actual conclusions. Thanks for covering this Meriah!
Yeah, made me cringe too. But Like I was saying to Tricia on FB, for me that’s kind of part of the whole thing – I don’t get the feeling that they are saying that’s a good way to be, an ideal family. I get the feeling that they are portraying what is typical within this framework, and I can totally see a lot of moms saying that. I know even in our Ds community, it almost feels like moms kind of push how incidental Ds in their child’s life, or how well they talk, how “high functioning” they are, etc. You know what I mean? Have you seen that too? I don’t like it, but I know people do it. It’s real. It’s there. Just like I’m sure moms of kids with CP would push that their kid isn’t delayed or has an iD, you know?
I *totally* know what you mean! I’ve seen it, for sure. I know everyone has to find thier own way forward, but that whole effusive ‘my child can read, my child does this and that’, almost as though some parents are tripping over themselves to prove their kids are ‘normal’ too…for me it almost seems like it belies the opposite sentiment. (Otherwise why the need to point it out?) Like, what? I should make an effort to show the world that my kid is an actual human being *just like everyone else*? I would have thought that was self evident. It’s also what bugs me about the ‘more alike than different’ discourse – to me it feels kind of insulting that one would even have to point that out – yes, my child is a unique individual with abilities and challenges just like everyone else. Because she *is* everyone else, not some ‘Other’, ya know?? Saying that, I think I’m also more ok embracing a kind of radical alterity than some parents, and disability contributes something important in that space too. We ARE all different, and that’s a good thing. That’s probably why the whole ‘high functioning’/’more alike than different’ stuff bugs me so much – it seems to buy into the very trope its pushing against – namely, that sameness is preferable to and more valuable than difference. It’s a kind of normative thinking that serves no one, in my opinion.
Sorry for the rant! But that felt good! 🙂
So yeah, as for the show: I see what you’re getting at that maybe they’re trying to offer a realist portrayal. And even though I worry that this nuance may be lost on those not touched by disability, that they may just accept such views as a naturalized ‘fact’, I remain intrigued. I’ll watch the first few episodes with an open mind!
Ooooh, yeah….that made me cringe, too, Sadie.
Glad I wasn’t the only one!
As a young man with CP, I don’t think that JJ portrays differently abled individuals accurately.
Micah Fowler (the actor who portrays JJ) HAS CP. For once, they hired an actor with the disability that he is portraying.
How so? Where do you think he misses the mark?
such a good, funny, & heart warming show.
Speechless is such a good, funny, & heart warming show.