Image by George Hodan
Public transit buses in Chicago are rolling billboards. The entire exterior of the bus gets wrapped with a skin touting an energy drink, say, or a personal injury lawyer.
A bus whipped around the corner the other day and plastered on the side were pictures of characters from the new television sitcom Speechless. One of those characters is a teenager in a motorized wheelchair with a communication device mounted to the front of the chair. And here’s an amazing fact: that character is actually played by a teenager who really does use a motorized wheelchair. His name is Micah Fowler.
That’s a big deal. A study released in July by the Ruderman Family Foundation concluded that, “Although people with disabilities make up nearly 20 percent of our population, they are still significantly underrepresented on television.” The study found that on the most popular broadcast and streamed television shows, only six characters, or 2.2 percent, had obvious disabilities. And only two of those characters were played by actors with disabilities.
So as the bus passed I said to myself that the coming of a show like Speechless should be a welcome thing. But then again maybe not. It could be another case of what I call The Jeffersons syndrome. This is, when a new show comes along that has characters and actors that are something other than the standard white, straight, nondisabled, twenty-somethings. There’s a lot of buzz, but in the end the new show is just another dumb TV show.
Do shows like these do anything to improve the cultural status of the people being represented? Maybe so. I don’t know. But I think it’s probably a lateral move at best. The main message I get from shows that suffer from The Jeffersons syndrome is you don’t have to be white, straight, nondisabled, and twenty-something to produce bad art.
So I watched the first episode of Speechless hoping that it would offer something new besides a creative casting twist. Minnie Driver plays Maya Dimeo, the strong-willed mother of three. Fowler plays her son, JJ. The family has moved into yet another new home. Maya moves them around a lot, in her exasperating search for a school district that offers the right services and supports for JJ.
The premise is rich with story possibilities. There’s the constant battle disabled students and their families have to fight for access to quality education. There’s the sibling conflicts that arise when the disabled sibling gets extra attention. There’s the discomfort others feel when personally interacting with a disabled person for the first time.
Episode one touches on all this. The family doesn’t have much money, which is a good artistic choice. It wouldn’t be a very authentic portrayal of living with a disability if it didn’t depict the grueling financial struggles, such as finding ways to pay for the kind of expensive equipment JJ needs. I hope future episodes will do that.
JJ doesn’t speak. He communicates by pointing to words and phrases with a light attached to a headband he wears. This is a good artistic choice, too. It makes the point that everyone has a voice, even if they can’t speak.
Speechless is a prime time family comedy so the tone is rather cutesy and some of the broad humor made me wince. But episode one demonstrated an eagerness to tell true stories about living with a disability from an authentic perspective, at least to the extent that the artistic constraints of the prime time family comedy genre will permit.
That’s a good step forward.
Mike Ervin is a writer and disability rights activist living in Chicago. He blogs at Smart Ass Cripple, "expressing pain through sarcasm since 2010."