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 career counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E). Deaf, with C-PTSD and TBI, she’s also a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.