Fall 2016 marked cerebral palsy’s introduction into the mainstream. A feat accomplished by ABC sitcom Speechless. Yes, a show dedicated entirely to a special needs family. Previously such programming airing on a top four network seemed implausible. 2016 appears to specialize in implausibility, though. See World Series champions Chicago Cubs and President-elect Donald Trump.
Anyways before I shed tears over the Cleveland Indians losing the World Series, let us refocus on Speechless. Actor Micah Fowler plays JJ Dimeo, a nonverbal teenager with cerebral palsy. The actor’s CP making him ideal for the role. Actress Minnie Driver portrays JJ’s mother, Maya Dimeo. Other key characters include the following.
- Jimmy Dimeo (John Ross Bowie)- JJ’s father
- Ray Dimeo (Mason Cook)- JJ’s brother
- Dylan Dimeo (Kyla Kenedy)- JJ’s sister
- Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough)- School groundskeeper turned JJ’s one-on-one aide
Here I feel tempted to shout. “SPOILERS, WARNING, SPOILERS!” Moving forward I intend to analyze Speechless’ first nine episodes. My analysis determining how well the sitcom works as a CP awareness tool.
While referencing specific stories, I will attempt staying somewhat vague. Still if you wish to know nothing until watching, prepare to stop reading. Instead catch up on Speechless at ABC’s website or via Amazon.
Okay spoiler phobic, stop reading and start watching. Everyone else, we continue!
Speechless to Spotlight
In a way the show name Speechless supplies double meaning. Firstly, the name references JJ’s status as nonverbal. Additionally however, the show brings to the mainstream issues formerly unspoken. Matters prior to the show possessed no voice. Speechless!
With each passing episode Speechless disarms emotional time bombs called stereotypes. Perceiving people with disabilities as innocent angels? Disregarded through JJ’s antics at a party in episode five “H-A-L–HALLOWEEN.” Viewing people with disabilities asexually? Banished in episode eight “R-A-Y-C–RAY-CATION,” a plot setup back in episode six “D-A-T-E–DATE.” Those touching news pieces recalling an inspirational touchdown catch by a player with CP? Episode nine “S-L–SLED H-O–HOCKEY” throws down the metaphorical penalty flag.
More so, Speechless surpasses weakening stereotypes. The show busts what I label “bubble syndrome.” A thought process you and I can easily enter. “Bubble syndrome” occurs when you isolate CP to the individual diagnosed. Yet cerebral palsy impacts all the individual’s loved ones. One fact Speechless successfully highlights. Especially with JJ’s siblings Ray and Dylan!
Perhaps episode four “I-N-S–INSPIRATIONS” best examines the familial aspect. JJ and Kenneth go on their own adventure. This leaves the other Dimeos to enjoy a rare accessibility worry free day. Amidst a joyful moment Dylan shouts gleefully. Her words seconds later fill her with horror.
Truthfully Speechless’ educational potential reaches beyond able-bodied individuals. Heck, I must admit even I am learning from the show. Me, a cerebral palsy blogger and active CP community member!
Episode two “N-E–NEW A-I–AIDE” offers a great example. Initially I failed to connect with the main storyline. Said story explored JJ’s changing relationship with his mother. JJ’s emotions definitely contradicted ones I felt when a teenager. For details on my emotions and experiences, checkout my memoir Off Balanced.
Nevertheless viewer feedback online caused me to rethink. Others empathized with JJ and Maya in “N-E–NEW A-I–AIDE.” Speechless opened my mind. Maybe the greater CP severity equaled a stronger child-parent bond.
Art sometimes resembles life. Such stands the case with Speechless. Courtesy involuntary spasms CP can short circuit an otherwise perfect moment. Certain exaggerated characteristics act as Speechless’ involuntary spasms.
Again allow me to reference episode two “N-E–NEW A-I–AIDE.” The secondary story concentrates on Jimmy and Dylan. Basically Jimmy mentors Dylan on the “idiot way.” He hopes to build a particular reputation with the family’s new neighbors. I understand low expectations, but not that low.
Although, the sitcom’s most consistent flaw exists with Kenneth’s character. In multiple episodes I find Kenneth almost too interested in the students’ lives. To the point I am drawn to label him creepy.
Overall Speechless delivers a realistic look at life with cerebral palsy. The show dispels many CP stereotypes. Speechless’ accurate CP depiction outshines any character’s minor flaws. I strongly encourage you to watch. Plus recommend to your friends and family! You can watch Speechless on ABC’s website or via Amazon. New episodes air on ABC Wednesdays at 8:30pm ET.
For those regularly watching, leave your thoughts. How do you think Speechless fares as a CP awareness tool? Comment below to share.
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