Home Speech-Language Pathology A Word About the New Show ‘Speechless’

A Word About the New Show ‘Speechless’

by Kerry Davis
written by
JOHN ROSS BOWIE, MINNIE DRIVER, MICAH FOWLER, KYLA KENEDY
JOHN ROSS BOWIE, MINNIE DRIVER, MICAH FOWLER, KYLA KENEDY

John Ross Bowie, Minnie Driver, Micah Fowler, Kyla Kenedy

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. kerrydav@gmail.com

 

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9 comments

Debra Cruce September 27, 2016 - 5:40 pm

I was rather disappointed with the show? As an SLP who works hard to get kids matched up with appropriate SGDs, I was hoping for something with some sophistication! But alas, they would not have a plot, would they?

Margaret Cotts September 27, 2016 - 7:07 pm

Hi Debra,
This is an educated guess, but I’m imagining that JJ is going to get a device by the end of the series… I think it’s part of his story arc. I’m not 100% sure, but I’m basing it on the fact that Speechless is partnered with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation. (I also read a casting call which mentioned an SGD.)

Margaret Cotts
Low Tech Solutions

Kat Duren September 27, 2016 - 9:35 pm

My thoughts exactly! Where is the voice output? AAC has come so far, especially eyegaze and better voices that sound much more natural than when I started in the field 20 years ago. And where is his school based SLP?

Amy Hadley October 17, 2016 - 7:32 am

Thank you for starting this conversation, If the show were set in the 1980s when I started my career, then I would say it was groundbreaking. I think it sends the wrong message about how a student with special needs should be accessing his education in 2016.

Margaret Cotts October 19, 2016 - 10:39 pm

I understand the feelings of disappointment expressed throughout the comments, that JJ isn’t using a device with voice output.

That being said, the show seems groundbreaking to me. I can’t think of another TV show where a character with a significant physical & speech disability is portrayed as a whole person, (especially as a person with sexual feelings.)

Margaret Cotts September 27, 2016 - 7:02 pm

In case it’s helpful to folks…

The laser pointer and communication board that JJ uses are from Low Tech Solutions.

We make low tech communication aids for people who aren’t able to speak.

store.lowtechsolutions.org

Christie September 27, 2016 - 8:19 pm

To us, her advocacy may have sounded over the top. But, think of how many battles/interactions/frustrations parents face daily. I think her character will develop. They had a lot of ground to cover in the pilot episode. I was more disappointed in the aloofness of the dad’s character. As for a low tech board vs SGD, The Atlantic had an interesting article in which the show’s creator described why he chose the board for JJ. For me, I am thrilled to see a show that presents a person with CP as a WHOLE person. A son, a sibling, and sometimes- a stinker!!

Erica September 27, 2016 - 8:43 pm

I was hoping to see a speech-generating device as well! SGDs have truly given many of my students a real voice. The system they showed in the pilot seems to be fairly limiting for him. Maybe a new system could be a potential plotline in the future, though!

Ajay September 28, 2016 - 1:17 pm

Hope

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