Last Wednesday night I settled in to watch “Speechless” on ABC—from the perspective of a speech-language pathologist. As is true for many of us, my job follows me wherever I go. It doesn’t really have an off switch. As SLPs, we witness the struggles of our clients and their families.
When “Speechless” came along, I was curious, hopeful and somewhat wary of a show whose main focus is a family’s struggle with raising a child with special needs. Frankly, media hasn’t done a bang-up job of portraying people with disabilities—or those who support them—in a knowledgeable or positive light. But still, I sat on my neighbor’s couch, waiting for the premiere to air.
The show centers on JJ (played by Micah Fowler), a teenage boy and oldest sibling of three. He’s equally adept at eye rolling to his mother’s comments as he is at using his headlight pointer to convey sarcastic messages on his low-tech communication board. His communication system is understated and effective, pointing to single words and presumably an alphabet board to communicate.
One scene includes an awesomely huge alphabet board mounted in the kids’ shared bedroom via which JJ can spell things from his bed when talking to his siblings at night. The viewers never get a long look at JJ’s system, but the low-tech board serves as a nice segue to highlight how so many augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) users have no say in their own voice. Throughout the show, JJ is in pursuit of an aide who can be his voice while he spells out messages. In the end, JJ runs into Cedric Yarbrough, whose voice matches JJ’s personality and requisite essence of coolness (and gender).
In a short 30 minutes, “Speechless” highlighted issues around inclusion, access, being marginalized, and standing out as the token “cripple” (writer’s choice of words, not mine). The writer satirically amplifies those well-intentioned-yet-trying-too-hard moments we’ve all witnessed: JJ’s nomination for class president the first day of class, complete with an over-the-top standing ovation from his peers and teachers, for example. JJ also gets in his share of quick one-liners—typing a message for the teacher “to eat sh—” in response to being class president or a mocking request for his aide to say “bibbidi bobbidi boo” in her high-pitched, fairy-like voice.
JJ’s mom (played by Minnie Driver) comes across as witty, angry and a little unpredictable. Like many parents, she makes advocating for her son a full-time job. Her concerns are relatable, but her character spends most of the time chastising administrators and screaming about injustices done to her child. I have actually experienced the garbage-delivery-system-turned-wheelchair-ramp, but JJ’s mom monopolizes screen time. Those around her can do nothing right by her son. Maybe it’s a traumatic flashback of working in public schools for years, but the grandstanding gets a little old. Meanwhile, even-tempered JJ keeps his character relatively quiet in the background, observing the chaos.
At times the sitcom feels like a venue to reveal ignorance, while at other moments it’s a place to vent. I’m not sure how much mileage “Speechless” may get before it feels exploitative. Luckily, JJ is allowed to be a teenager first and a spokesperson second. JJ’s character may provoke more discussion of disabilities and provide another level of awareness in homes, schools and the broader community. And for that, it may be worth the ride.
Kerry Davis, EdD, CCC-SLP, works in the Boston area. She has a special interest in children with complex communication disorders and AAC, and provides pro-bono support for Step by Step School for Autism in Guyana, South America. firstname.lastname@example.org