On ABC’s ‘Speechless,’ a Student With a Disability Is the Sitcom Star

By Mark Walsh — September 19, 2016 3 min read
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ABC this week adds another show to its stable of family-based situation comedies that frequently feature story lines set at school.

Joining the 1980s-set “The Goldbergs,” the 1990s-set “Fresh Off the Boat,” and contemporary-set “The Middle,” “Modern Family,” “black-ish,” and “The Real O’Neals” is the contemporary-set “Speechless.”

If you’ve been anywhere near a television in the past month, you’ve seen a promo or two for the heavily hyped show about a family that includes a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who uses an alternative-communications device.

“Speechless,” debuting this Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern/7:30 p.m. Central, is about the DiMeo family, which has moved around multiple times seeking the best educational opportunities for 16-year-old J.J. He is played by Micah Fowler, who himself has cerebral palsy, though not as serious as that portrayed by his character, who uses a light pointer and letter and vocabulary board to communicate and a wheelchair.

This alone has been viewed as a milestone moment for television, which has featured other characters with disabilities (such as Artie, who used a wheelchair on “Glee,” but was played by a non-disabled actor, Kevin McHale) but few played by actors with disabilities.

And in an essay In The New York Times on Sunday, Neil Genzlinger pointed out that some 25 years ago, ABC featured a character with Down syndrome in the drama “Life Goes On,” played by an actor with Down syndrome.

“That show, though, was a drama, which is what ‘outsiders’ might expect: Disability equals struggle equals nothing but pain and misery,” wrote Genzlinger, an arts and entertainment writer for the Times who pointed out that his own household has a nonverbal child and is full for anticipation for “Speechless.”

Genzlinger interviews the show’s creator, Scott Silveri, who grew up in a home with a nonverbal brother with cerebral palsy.

“It’s a story that I’ve been wanting to tell for as long as I’ve been writing,” Silveri told The Times. “I was really interested in doing a family show and exploring how one family member with a disability affects everybody else and turns them into the specific kind of weirdos that they become.”

(I’m sorry for borrowing so much from Genzlinger’s story. I would have been happy to interview Silveri myself, but ABC didn’t respond to my entreaty.)

If you have seen those promos, you’ve seen quite a few of the best jokes from the pilot episode that I was able to preview. (And be warned: This 3-minute trailer is practically the whole pilot in condensed form.)

J.J. has an assertive mother, Maya (Minnie Driver); an unassuming father, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), and two younger siblings—sister Dylan (Kyla Kennedy) and brother Ray (Mason Cook).

The family has moved around quite a bit, and has now settled into a rundown house somewhere in California because of the help J.J. will get from the local center for people with disabilities (the “New Generations Center”) and the school district.

The center provides the communications aide for J.J., an overly enthusiastic woman about whom the student types out with his pointer, “Mom, I hate this lady’s voice.”

Mom Maya takes on the school because administrators’ idea of acceptable access for people with disabilities is the ramp near the garbage containers behind the school. The principal, Dr. Miller (Marin Hinkle) trembles before Maya as she tries to do the right thing.

When J.J. enters his classroom for the first time, the teacher and students are overly obliging, which mystifies J.J. “Oh god, the ovation is insensitive,” says the teacher.

Only school aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) seems to be able to deal with Maya’s demands. He tells her that the school’s administrators “had a meeting about how to handle you.” He notes that someone checked around with J.J.'s previous school. Maya then ticks off the names of about eight such previous schools.

J.J. is looking for the chance to be cool, to be sarcastic, to be mischievous—and to meet girls. In other words, he is striving to be a normal high school student. And the rest of the family are not mere bit players. Little brother Ray, in particular, feels neglected by the family’s focus on J.J.

While the pilot is promising, I want to see where the show goes with J.J. and his disability, with the family dynamics, and especially, with the school. Only after a few episodes will we know whether the DiMeo family will likely be sticking around its new community and school for a while.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.