Hollywood’s portrayal of people with special-needs has always been rife with problems. Movies like Me Before You and The Theory of Everything came under fire for casting able-bodied actors in roles of people with disability. No matter how good the performance, there is always an undercurrent that just feels wrong. If we’re trying to tell stories from different perspectives, shouldn’t someone with that actual perspective be involved? ABC decided to do just that with Speechless, a new family sitcom about a mother who just wants a better life for her son with cerebral palsy. While family-based comedies aren’t hard to find, Speechless feels like something new, starting with the casting of an actor with disabilities.
Produced by Friends‘ Scott Silveri, based on his own relationship with his brother who has cerebral palsy, Speechless tackles the issues that face its central family, the DiMeos, in a smart and funny way, by exploring the relationships at its center. Minnie Driver’s Maya, the matriarch of the family, is a fierce advocate for her 16-year-old son JJ (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and is nonverbal. She’s moved her family a number of times in order to get JJ into the right educational system. The constant changes are a strain on her other two children, Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kennedy), and her husband, Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), serves as the steady half of their marriage.
As they are thrust into a new, upscale school district on the promise of a better education for JJ, they find that it’s an odd mix of patronizing and inadequate. Sure, having access to a personal aide to speak for JJ should be a blessing, but having both the staff and teachers treat him like he’s an angel is too much for the kid. He’s as sarcastic, surly, and funny as any other teenager, because that’s precisely what he is: a teenager. At the same time that everyone is telling him that he’s so brave, though, the only entrance into the school that can accommodate his wheelchair is the garbage ramp at the back of school.