TV Shows, Pop Culture

Disabled kids are finally getting to tell their own stories on TV, and it’s amazing

ABC's new comedy "Speechless" treats people living with disabilities as real people, who have complex lives and their own stories to tell.

Growing up, I would watch basically anything. I was like a garbage disposal for media except instead of discarding content, I absorbed it. This trend continued with me throughout my life and one of my new obsessions is ABC’s new comedy Speechless. They roped me in with Minnie Driver, but I stayed for the amazing content. Besides being amazing entertainment, Speechless is doing something that many movies or TV shows that have portrayed people living with disabilities have failed to do: they’re creating a normalized picture. It’s easier for people to reject something they have no familiarity with, and through the ubiquity of television, Speechless has given all of us the opportunity to take that step and inform ourselves. On top of the groundbreaking casting of Micah Fowler, a young actor with cerebral palsy, Speechless shows that people with disabilities are more than their disabilities by making the show about the whole picture of their lives.

The very first episode got me hooked with its slightly offbeat humor, odd cast of characters and unapologetic attitude. On the off chance that people with disabilities are portrayed onscreen, they rarely ever get this kind of treatment. Often times these types of characters are treated like ‘unicorns in the mist,’ in that their personas are fanaticized. I remember watching Rain Man, (and admittedly enjoying it because not only do we get Dustin Hoffman, but also peak Tom Cruise) looking at Raymond, who is described as an autistic savant, and looking at the aesthetic of the film, which has that roadtrip vibe where everything that is happening on the road is very removed from life, and knowing that this isn’t something that would generally happen.

While people like Raymond Babbit (Dustin Hoffman) exist, the movie is giving its viewers that ‘movie magic’ experience and therefore while the movie emotionally reaches me I still somehow manage to remain detached from Raymond as a real human being. The Accountant, a new movie which approaches people with disabilities in a similar vein, is once again fantasizing instead of humanizing their experiences. Ben Affleck plays a mathematics savant who does accounting for dangerous criminals.

Speechless is a television, so it’s not total reality, but it’s doing a damn fine job of reaching out because it revolves around all the entire family, tackling how they aren’t just the family of a disabled boy, how Minnie Driver isn’t just playing the mother of a son with cerebral palsy. How the students in the school that J.J. DiMeo (Micah Fowler) are sometimes misguided in their attempts to be inclusive, but nonetheless they treat him with respect. The school population are kind of like surrogates for the audience, stumbling through their first encounter with someone like J.J. and showing us the viewer what we can do.

I grew up for the first half of my life in a school district that specialized in teaching children with mental disabilities, so I came into contact with them a lot, which has influenced how I am able to interact with people like the ones I grew up with. But it shouldn’t take personalized experiences. Children are very much like me in the sense that they easily absorb what is inputted.

Growing up, I would watch and read things for various countries featuring people of all kinds of backgrounds because that was who I was. Not all children get shift through the vast terrain of media as thoroughly as I did because everybody is different. This is why a show like Speechless which is on ABC, a channel that is broadcast to everyone and reaches a larger audience is so special. Speechless manages to guide us without chastising and that is why I will be a loyal viewer from beginning to end.