Speechless Hits Close to Home

There is a new sitcom on ABC that tells the story of a high school student in a wheelchair. His mother goes to extreme measures to get him out of a special education program and into the regular high school. She’s constantly arguing with school officials and anyone else who will listen as she complains about the inadequacies of the handicap accessibility features. For some bizarre reason this show is not titled “The Fran Young Story”. After watching 2 episodes of the show I commented to my dad “a lot of this strikes very close to home.” His reply was “I don’t need to watch the show… I lived it”

The name of the show is “Speechless” because the young man named JJ has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak. He rides around in a power wheelchair and he communicates by pointing at a message board using a laser pointer strapped to the side of his head. Someone then looks at the board and follows the pointer as he either points to common words or spells out words. As is the case with most TV shows and movies featuring someone using an alternative communication device, they do not burden the audience with the tediousness of such forms of communication. It shows the young man pointing at the screen moving his head back and forth for a few seconds and then someone who is supposedly interpreting for him spits out an entire sentence faster than anyone could have possibly typed it out. We’ve seen the same thing in numerous movies about physicist Stephen Hawking whose voice synthesizer is controlled by a single pushbutton and other TV shows where characters have used extremely slow methods of communication.

The crusading mother is played by Minnie Driver. For some reason I’ve never cared for her as an actress. She seems to have annoying mannerisms in every part I’ve ever seen her play. In this particular story she’s supposed to be an annoying person and she does a reasonably good job of it. I can watch the show without thinking about how much I personally dislike her. As a character herself she does not remind me of my mother at all. But her dogged insistence that everything be perfect regarding accessibility and the extremes to which she takes her arguments is what reminds me most about my mother. Of course this is very much a comedy and she plays a part that most people would describe as “over-the-top”. If you had ever seen my mother in her “mother tiger defending her cubs” mode you would realize her performance was not as over-the-top as you might think it was. My mother could crusade on my behalf as ridiculously as this character does.

The reaction of JJ and the other members of the family where they sort of roll their eyes as if to say “oh no… there she goes again” is extremely familiar to me and dad and although I’ve not discussed the show at my sisters I’m sure they would see the same things we are.

The stereotypical condescending ways in which other people treat JJ are a bit exaggerated caricatures of the people I have encountered. I admit that some people I’ve met were very nearly as ridiculous as what is depicted in the show. As I said it’s all played for laughs in an exaggerated way. But it would only need to be toned down a tiny bit to make it really realistic.

One of the plots of the first two episodes is the struggle to find an attendant to help JJ with his daily living activities as well as speaking for him by reading the communications board to which he points. Those of you who know me know that I’ve been in a several month long struggle to get a home health aide so the portrayal of the difficulty of finding the right person is spot on. And when he finally does find an aide, his relationship with that man is very well portrayed.

The opening episode shows that the family has moved to a new house in order to get into a different neighborhood so that JJ can attend a regular high school instead of special education. That part of the story will strike home more closely to my uncle, aunt, and cousin. When my cousin Nancy was young there was no special education program in Lawrence Township so they had to sell their house and move into the Indianapolis city limits so that she could attend a special education school where I attended. Then both my cousin and I later made special arrangements to get out of the special education school and to get mainstreamed into regular education. Fortunately my family never had to move and she did not have to move again in order to get out of special ed and into a mainstream regular education program like they did in the show.

There haven’t been very many shows that dealt with disabled characters as main characters. In 2014 there was a short-lived sitcom called Growing Up Fisher starring J.K. Simmons as a blind father of three kids . I never watched it and don’t know much about being blind. My favorite show that dealt with the issues most realistically with a dramatic series Joan of Arcadia in which the main character Joan would get messages from God. She had a paraplegic brother so in that case he wasn’t the strangest character in the family. There were dramatic moments of that show that I thought built very realistic with the family issues surrounding someone with a disability. Walter White and Breaking Bad had a son with cerebral palsy but he was a relatively minor character.

JJ is played by actor Micah Fowler who himself does have cerebral palsy although my speculation that he is not so severe that he is unable to speak. I’ve known people with cerebral palsy who were for the most part speechless and they were much more severely spastic that JJ.

The father in this family comedy is played by John Ross Bowie who you will recognize from his recurring character Barry Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. I think it’s ironic that his character on Big Bang Theory speaks with a lisp but he’s on a show now named “Speechless” about a kid who can’t talk at all. There’s no sign of a speech impediment in the character on the new show. In fact it’s a little bit strange to hear him speaking plainly when we’ve gotten so used to him playing Barry.

There are two other kids in the family a son and a daughter. Part of the show is their reaction to their mother’s antics and it does touch a bit on the fact that JJ gets much of the attention of the parents. However there is some balance between the characters. Some of the plots deal with the everyday issues that the other children in the family deal with that are not related to having a brother with a disability. So overall it’s a general family comedy that doesn’t constantly deal with the disabled kid.

My criteria for any sitcom is always “Did it make me laugh?” and this one definitely did. I’m giving this one a rating of “I like it”. And if you’re looking for a new sitcom that is admittedly a little bit goofy, check this one out. I’m pleased to hear that ABC has ordered a full season of 22 episodes.

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