I recently wrote about the lack of realistic portrayals of autistic characters in the media This post will be about a t.v. show that does it right in painting a real and honest story of disability. I know I'm a year late to write this review of the television sitcom on ABC called Speechless. Even before the t.v. show launched last year, I was excited to watch Speechless because it would be the first show to consult with the disability community and cast an actual actor with cerebral palsy. For those who are unfamiliar with Speechless, it is taken from the viewpoint of a 16 year old teen boy with cerebral palsy named J.J. Dimeo who uses an electric wheelchair to get around and communicates through a letterboard that is attached to his chair. His family of five moved to a small dilapidated house in an affluent Orange County suburb so he can be mainstreamed in a public school for the first time with an aide. When the aide chosen by the school district was not a fit for J.J., he decides to ask the school janitor to be his support person at school. The show comically explores the ignorance most people have towards disabled individuals like J.J., family dynamics especially when it comes to J.J.'s two younger siblings as well as their domineering mother to self determination in which J.J's mother learns to stand back and let her son make some decisions for himself. When watching the first season, I was shocked about how much I was able to relate to the main character J.J. Dimeo even though I have autism and my disability is not as physically involved like J.J. I have watched so many shows featuring a character with autism and I felt that for the first time I was glad to finally find a t.v. show I can relate to that paint's a more realistic portrait of living with a disability without it being overly dramatic or the main character's disability is the butt of all jokes in which the audience is made to laugh. I will now discuss some of the elements of how I relate to the television sitcom.
The first part I can relate to J.J. the main character was his relationship with his aide or support person. Usually the subject of aides and support people are not discussed in t.v. shows or movies about disabled people. It was nice to see J.J. bond with his aide Kenneth in the show and how he was able to select him as his support person when the first aide assigned to work with him did not turn out well in the pilot episode. In my own experience, I always felt close to my support people whether it was my 1:1 aide in high school or my paid mentor/companion. Although I do have friends, the complex nature and the often inconsistency that occurs in friendships can be overwhelming. With support people, I don't feel that pressure and demand and the consistent nature of the relationship gives me the assurance that I will receive the emotional support on a regular basis. In addition to providing a security blanket, the people who worked with me served as mentors/guiding figures. It was so nice to have additional role models that I can turn to besides my parents. Kenneth serves the same exact role to J.J. throughout the show as he helps him navigate the complex world of high school such as friendships, girls, people making fun of his disability etc. Paid help such as aides are crucial to the lives of disabled people and I always felt that their work is undervalued in our society. In fact support people can become equivalent to a "best friend" because you spend so much time with them. It is nice that Speechless highlights their importance and how they serve as comfort to those individuals who struggle to live in an able bodied society.
Another aspect I can relate to Speechless is the subtle forms of ableism that are present both from the student body at J.J.'s school and strangers out in the community. In the beginning, J.J. was greeted by the students at school who threw a diversity carnival in his honor. Yet, the school was inaccessible for J.J. who uses a wheelchair and the only way he can get into the building was through a garbage ramp. This angers J.J.'s militant mother who gives a lecture to school officials about accessibility. Another example in the show which exposes the irony of the students' inclusion friendly attitude was when the school decided to hold a school dance on campus instead of at the beach because it did not cater to J.J's accessibility needs. The students then turn from embracing and supporting J.J. to blaming him for ruining their fun. This scene shows that young people who are "inclusion friendly" can change their attitude when they are asked to accommodate for people with disabilities. The refusal to accommodate if it causes an inconvenience for people is a common thing that most disabled people deal with in their day to day lives. Growing up and going through mainstream schooling, I have encountered and picked up on some of those attitudes from my peers. Although no one ever bullied me, I picked up this unspoken feeling that my peers avoided me because they did not want to deal with my autism. This was probably due to the fact that it was obvious of how different I was due to the fact of having an adult with me at all times and my meltdowns that I would have sometime in class. Even some of my friends in the past made statements that I conisdered to be ableist. For instance, I used to have a girl friend who thought that having extra help (e.g. 1:1 aide, behavioral therapist) was the reason why I stood out to peers rather than seeing it as an accommodation or a source of comfort. I felt that it was very ableist for her to make that statement because she was basing her opinions on trying to look normal and appearing "cool" in front of peers. I like how Speechless explores the hidden agenda of human beings behind their facade of "inclusion" and diversity.
A third topic that I felt I could relate to in Speechless is J.J.'s strong personality. Throughout the show, the audience can see that J.J. knows what he wants and sometimes tells his overbearing mother to back off and let him make his own decisions. He also has a mischevious and sly sense of humor which comes out in his interactions with his siblings, parents and others. I am like J.J. in that way of knowing what I want. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people use the word "should" with me as if they are telling me that I don't know what I am doing. I also have a very strong sense of humor and can be sarcastic sometimes. In fact my dry sense of humor is one of my most well known qualities. My humor entertained some of the school staff during my middle and high school years. People think that individuals who live with disabilities are helpless don't have a sense of agency. However, young people like J.J. and myself are proving that's not the case. We are perfectly capable of making decisions that affect our lives. Speechless highlights the importance of self determination for people with disabilities.
In sum, I really liked Speechless. I see so much of myself in the protagonist. Unlike other television shows and movies about disability. this show doesn't portray disabled people as burdens or inspirational and rely on stereotypes. As I said in a previous post, I wished they made a show like Speechless but cast an autistic protagonist. I can't wait to see what season 2 of Speechless has in store.