Speechless and the TV Representation of Disability
The world of disability activism has been buzzing about the new ABC sitcom Speechless. So, what’s the big deal? While there are certainly shows that have characters with disabilities, there are currently none in which the premise of the show depends on disability as essential to the dynamic in a family sitcom. For the disability community, Speechless could be the show that helps to catapult disability rights into the spotlight.
Using actors with disabilities to play characters with disabilities is huge. No, YUGE! With the #OscarsSoWhite hullabaloo about the literal whitewashing of the achievements of people of color in the film industry, the discussion about diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry is top on many people’s list. Yet, as with many debates on diversity, disability does not often have a seat at the table. The portrayal of people of color by white folk — you know, blackface — has long been considered a faux pas of epic proportions. Additionally, the conversation around Amazon’s Transparent, among others, has raised the issue of “transface” in the LGBTQ community. And, of course, straight actors have been playing gay characters for ages (e.g. Will & Grace and Modern Family).
Yet, the question of actors with disabilities playing anything but a bit role in Hollywood has only recently risen into the mainstream conversation. Aside from the occasional “high-functioning” actor with a fairly normative disability (e.g. Lauren Potter from Glee, Chris Burke from Life Goes On, RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad, or Robert David Hall from CSI), most casting directors choose able-bodied actors to play the disabled roles. In fact, the July 2016 Ruderman White Paper on Employment of Actors with Disabilities in Television found that, of the 2.2% of characters with disabilities portrayed on traditional and streaming platforms, “only 5% of actors who played a character with a disability had a disability.”
This brings me back to my point about blackface and transface: no community wants to be erased, objectified, or misrepresented. While the use of able-bodied actors represents an erasure of disability, the use of actors with a mild, or “socially acceptable,” disability can be equally disruptive. In its attempts to include disability, Hollywood usually offers inoffensive mild or approachable disabilities, such as Asperger’s, Down Syndrome, and partial paralysis. The point here is not to diminish these disabilities; rather, the point is to widen the array of disabilities portrayed on television in a way that pushes boundaries and disrupts the conversations with which we’ve become comfortable. The result is similar to what Black actors like Viola Davis argue about the preference of light-skinned actors over their dark-skinned peers.
This gets me to the casting of Speechless. Micah Fowler actually has cerebral palsy, the same disability as his character, JJ, a non-verbal wheelchair user. While Fowler himself is verbal, the choice of an actor with a disability on a network primetime show is bold (so bold that Buzzfeed is talking about it), and the choice of disability is equally noteworthy. JJ uses a wheelchair, but it’s not the sleek type of wheelchair that we are used to seeing on TV. No, this is a powerchair: it’s big, awkward, and super obvious — no hiding under a table for viewer comfort. Add the laser pointer and the alternative communication device, and you’ve got a disability that makes others uncomfortable, because it calls out the ease of the able-bodied experience. As Neil Genzlinger comments in his piece on the show in the New York Times: “Sure, Artie of Glee was a delight. Now take away his singing ability and his wheelchair dexterity and make him able to communicate only by laboriously aiming a head-mounted laser pointer at a communication board. That’s JJ. That is a difficult character to make appealing.” Communication with a person who is non-verbal takes time, and it involves a shifting of perspective. And this is important. This is what it takes to engage with people with disabilities, who all participate in daily living in various non-normative ways. Disability is disruptive of the “normal” human experience, and the choice in Speechless gets that.
What else Speechless gets is that portraying disability on television isn’t about inspiration; this isn’t disability porn, here to make the able-bodied world feel better about itself. Nor is it about objectification or voyeurism, as seems to be the case with the current obsession with disability driven reality television following the “Little People, Big World” model. While the first episode of Speechless takes its time to set up the concept and characters in the awkward formula recognizable in most pilot episodes, it also shows promise in the portrayal of the intricacies of life with a disability… and being the parent of a child with a disability… and the sibling of someone with a disability… and… and….
In fact, the pilot episode centers on Minnie Driver’s character, Maya, who is JJ’s mother and general ADA warrior. For those without someone with a disability in their life, Maya may seem a bit over the top, but the rest of us probably have stories to tell that fall right in line with the scene where Maya calls out the janitor and the principal over an access ramp that is a classic example of the able-bodied world calling minimal effort “good enough.” I could write a whole blog about the number of times my mom went to bat for me — and this was before the ADA was even a thing — and I particularly recall the principal of my middle school trying to soothe my mom with a patronizing, “Now, Mrs. Allen” after she angrily told them where they could “take that paperwork!” (In her defense, what she really meant was that they could take it to the main district office themselves, because she had a kid in a body cast to educate.) I also shook my head and chuckled at the scene where an older woman challenges Maya’s parking spot because she doesn’t have a handicap placard, only to eat her words when she sees JJ. I’m willing to bet nearly every person with a disability has had this same kind of experience at least once in their life.
The show also recognizes that family life is inherently impacted when someone in the family, particularly a child, has a disability. The entire premise of the pilot is that the family moves to a well-funded district so that JJ can have access to an aide. While most parents of disabled children wish it were as easy as the show suggests to get an aide, it is not unheard of to make such large decisions based on access to healthcare, education, or insurance. My own family moved from a small town to a major city before I started middle school in part because of this very issue. Again, this was before the ADA, so access to robust programming was everything. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I remember my brother being miserable about the move. He was leaving his friends and a place he loved. I don’t know that he ever connected the move to me explicitly, but it’s something I think now about as an adult. Like Maya, a lot of my mother’s attention was taken up by storming the castle. Both my brother and I are proud of my mom for this, but there is no denying that it changes the family dynamic.
If the pilot situates the show, the second episode wanders more solidly into familiar territory for those with a disability, and perhaps more unfamiliar territory for those without. The fact that JJ has a rather severe form of cerebral palsy also means that, thus far, it has been his mom who has been not only his voice, but the one responsible for his daily care: feeding, bathing, and getting to the bathroom. The second episode deals with the reality that Maya must let go of JJ as he ages and let him discover his own voice and take care of himself, via the proxy of his aide, Kenneth, played by Cedric Yarbrough. On the one hand, this episode takes on the emotional charge that many parents feel as their children grow into adulthood; on the other, it also acknowledges the strong bond that can develop between a parent and a child with a disability, no matter the severity of that disability. I found this episode to be particularly poignant, as a full-fledged, married adult who, more often than she would like, still needs her mom to be her caregiver after a surgery.
The difference I saw between the first and second episode was an even larger leap into the new territory of the more disquieting type of disability, the type that challenges our preconceptions, yet also affirms the reality that the disabled experience is still a very human one. As a person with a disability, I hope to see this show succeed and hope that it does for the disability conversation what Will & Grace did for LGBTQ issues: make the issue less threatening and bring it more fully into our consciousness. I also hope that the show does not shy away from more truths about disability: the expense, the time and effort, and sometimes physical — and emotional — pain. I, for one, am going to keep watching to find out.
Amy Allen Sekhar holds a PhD in French literature and is a rogue scholar and disability activist whose primary research focuses on Otherness in French literature, cinema, and culture. She is currently engaged in interdisciplinary research in portrayals of identity and the disabled body, issues relating to disability in academia. She also writes an excellent blog, Lilliputiae, informed by her own rumination on life with a disability.