Now is the time for season finales and anxiously awaiting TV networks’ decisions of which shows are continuing, and which are getting the axe.
ABC’s “Speechless” falls into the latter category. ABC execs, you don’t know what a terrible mistake you made, and that makes me doubt you absorbed the lessons the show taught everyone.
“Speechless” is unique in so many ways. There are countless shows in the following categories: medical, legal, crime, first responder, mysteries, science fiction, comic books, reality TV, game shows, sitcoms, and then just plain weird, creepy thrillers.
You know what doesn’t fit into any of those categories? “Speechless.” For those of you not familiar with the show starring Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie, it is about the DiMeos, whose eldest child J.J. has cerebral palsy. Cedric Yarbrough becomes J.J.’s aide and “voice,” as J.J. is non-verbal.
It is the first show I know of that features an actor, Micah Fowler, who actually has the disability or disease his character shares — a simple concept that, in the era of Me Too, #TimesUp, and all the other “hashtag” movements we’ve seen lately is somehow lost on the rest of Hollywood.
The show is a wholesome family show, a rarity in itself, and a realistic portrayal of the challenges a family faces when a member has a disability, but it is not morose or depressing. It strikes just the right balance: it adds levity and humor; it has tender, sensitive, and heartwarming moments; but it is not glamorous and does not romanticize disabilities and diseases.
It tackles serious issues like a mother navigating byzantine, bureaucratic red tape from a public school district to advocate for the care her child needs; two younger siblings feeling left out sometimes, but still wanting to have discussions about what they can do for their older brother as they all come of age; and how someone with a disability feels he is a burden to his family, no matter how supportive they are, just to name a few. Then the next scene will be about typical sibling fights, pranks, teenage crushes, or Maya, Minnie Driver’s character, in full-blown helicopter parenting mode.
“Speechless” educates the public on issues that people without disabilities have no idea about and profoundly affect people with disabilities every single day. Access into any building, like walking up a few steps and opening a door, for example, is something most able-bodied people don’t think twice about. Ditto for public restrooms, other people’s homes, restaurants, various other venues, and especially airplane travel.
The show discourages “inspiration porn” and exposes ableist attitudes, but in a non-sanctimonious fashion that is often light-hearted, yet thought-provoking. J.J. doesn’t want any special treatment and is furious when he wins an award for his passion, film-making, when he finds out it is in a special category for people with disabilities. He wants to win on the merits of his talent, and he’s delighted when he is recognized for his short film by a much smaller organization that had no idea he is in a wheelchair or has cerebral palsy.
The other TV series I’ve seen somehow manage to take subtle or overt political digs in every episode, as if it’s a contest to see how many hot-button issues can be crammed into one 20- or 40-minute slot. “Speechless” is not one of those shows either.
Ultimately, “Speechless” demonstrates what is truly important in all families — unconditional love and sacrifice. It documents joyous milestones, big and small, such as J.J.’s high school graduation and college acceptances, as well a family coming together during tough times and disappointments.
In the United States, the number of special-needs children is increasing, whether it be from more accurate diagnoses, advanced neonatal care, allowing premature babies to survive at a higher rate, and various other factors. “Speechless” gives a voice to all those families, and not just families dealing with cerebral palsy.
My cousin is autistic, and I have witnessed my aunt and uncle come together to do everything they can to care for and protect him — helping him express himself back when doctors did not know much about autism and told them he may never speak, which he has learned with great effort; battling all the bureaucracy with public schools; my aunt stressing over every detail and my uncle being the calming presence; and my youngest cousin including him in everything, and, in many ways, being both the oldest and youngest sibling in their family.
I have a rare neuromuscular disease diagnosed in adulthood that has become disabling, and I now use a wheelchair. I know the endless cycle of doctors’ appointments, hospital visits, tests, treatments, along with medical advocacy, phone calls to doctors’ staff, and medical records-keeping (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg).
I briefly met Fowler and his older sister Kelsey, also an actor, earlier this month at an Abilities Expo, basically a trade show for consumers with a variety of disabilities. They were both lovely, gracious, and down to earth.
Looking around the expo was a little bit heartbreaking, though. Seeing people of all ages with so many disabilities all concentrated in one convention center was a bit of a jarring experience, especially for my parents. The Abilities Expo has plenty of informative sessions and fun activities, such as adaptive sports, and it is great to see all the technological advances being made to assist people with disabilities of all kinds.
For me it is like putting lipstick on a pig. It is not fun to try out power wheelchairs, knowing I’ll get fitted for one as my disease progresses and my custom manual chair will no longer suffice. But “Speechless” validates, educates, encourages, and provides humor to a whole fan base, myself included. Among other influences, it helped me come to terms with the fact that I’m disabled.
Apparently Constance Wu, star of “Fresh Off the Boat” and the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” is not happy ABC renewed her show. She backtracked on Twitter, but everyone has the screenshots of her original tweets.
As an Asian-American and a person with a disability, I say ABC should ditch her show, renew “Speechless,” and put it in a decent time slot instead of Friday night, so it gets higher ratings. That’s on ABC, not on the show.
Unlike most sitcoms, which are mindless fluff, “Speechless” is in a class all by itself, with talented actors, writers, and directors who are making a substantial contribution to society. If ABC is not smart enough to see this, hopefully the plethora of other networks and streaming services will. #SaveSpeechless