23 Things Speechless Season One Taught Us About Life with Disabilities

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23 Things Speechless Season One Taught Us About Life with Disabilities

If you’ve been watching ABC’s freshman comedy Speechless, it’s not hard to see why the network renewed it for a second season late last week. The show is a quirky, insightful, heartwarming and at times startlingly accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a teen with disabilities, and part of a special needs family. Its charming stars, including Minnie Driver as irrepressible matriarch Maya DiMeo and Micah Fowler as her son, JJ, who has cerebral palsy, push their characters beyond archetype. Exploring the life of a disabled teen in high school, Speechless strikes just the right balance of hilarity and teachable moments, without stretching into offensive comedy or inspiration porn. Unlike any series that has come before it, Speechless fearlessly (and funnily) addresses the cultural ignorance, insensitivity and stereotypes surrounding disability. Here are 23 things Speechless Season One taught us about what it means to be disabled in America.

23. “C-A—CAMP”
Original Airdate: May 17, 2017

In the season finale, Speechless uses J.J. going away to summer camp to more examine how Maya has wound her self-worth, purpose and identity up in being J.J.’s advocate, and the ways J.J.’s own identity is so closely wrapped up in his connection to his family. The writers and creators of Speechless are clearly aware of how prominently both of these struggles impact teens with disabilities and their parents. And as someone who struggled, along with my mother, throughout my primary and secondary education with a learning disability, I am, too.

Growing up as the only child of a single, working class mother who was acutely tuned-in to my learning disabilities, I always had someone to fight my battles, defend my abilities (and my promise), and fiercely hold others accountable for their mistreatment of me. But after years of having to advocate for me, that role became an intrinsic part of her identity. Her anger or sadness, which sometimes surfaced, over me doing exactly what she had fought for and prepared me to do wasn’t just about whether I appreciated her. It was that she, after our many long-fought battles, saw my independence as a chance for me to fail without the safety net she could provide. But also that, after our many years together, she maybe needed me now just a little more than I needed her.

Speechless asks the questions, when all we’ve had is each other, how do we define and find ourselves outside of that? And in the perfect way, Speechless gives us our answer: J.J. sees the same dynamic he and Maya share being stretched among the other kids and their parents at camp. They and viewers realize that the nature of their relationship and the space between them will change, but their bond never has to.

22. “M-A—MAY-JAY”
Original Airdate: May 10, 2017

This episode marks the first time on Speechless audiences really see the less glamorous side of J.J.’s battle for independence. When J.J. proposes going to summer camp, Mama DiMeo gets insecure. Maya wants to spend more time with J.J. now that school’s out, and in an effort to do that, she inadvertently questions whether he is ready for that kind of autonomy. In a truly emotional moment, we see J.J. attempt to prove his ableness by standing up out of his chair. When he does, he falls, and the family ends up rushing him to the hospital. The moment is tough to watch, but it’s important for several reasons: First, it reminds viewers that in spite of accommodations and confidence, sometimes there are things one simply can’t do. It’s a concept that can be agonizingly difficult for people with disabilities to come to terms with. Second, it shows just how vital it is to have a support network to get you through that realization. Maya and J.J.’s aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) at different times remind J.J. that acknowledging the limitations of his disabilities never means he has to be defined by it. He can still have independence, he’ll just have to go about it in a certain way.

21. “P-R—PROM”
Original Airdate: May 3, 2017

IIn “P-R—PROM,” Speechless tackles why “retard” isn’t ever a harmless word by way of Ray’s prom date, before letting J.J. find common ground with his peers who also, at times, feel like outcasts. Of course, J.J.’s experience at the dance is as much about learning to reject socially constructed frames of normalcy as embracing the ways he is, like everyone, different. Throughout Season One we’ve watched J.J. be treated with “special gloves” while everyone around him experiences even basic social interaction differently. It’s a difficult thing to accept and, in fact, leaves J.J. feeling bitter. But these kinds of experiences also build a special resilience—one that the teen uses to help his classmates. What makes him stand out can help others feel like on to use his complicated relationship with visibility to help others feel more confident about themselves at prom.

Original Airdate: April 26, 2017

After overhearing the rest of his family discussing plans for him without his input, J.J. runs away to Kenneth’s house. There, he reveals how angry he feels being left out of the conversation about his future, and about being seen as a “burden” on his family. Of course, Kenneth brings the runaway teen back home, but in typical Maya fashion, she’s outraged that Kenneth would undermine J.J.’s choice to run away. Able-bodied kids do it, so why can’t her son? Outside of J.J.’s own realizations about his potential for personal independence, the episode more subtly discusses the unique bonds parents forge with their children who have disabilities. Maya is so dedicated to taking care of J.J. that even she forgets what he’s capable of. And whether she realizes it or not, she may need him as he much as, or more than, he needs her.

Original Airdate: April 5, 2017

In this episode, J.J. and Kenneth are accused of abusing their relationship to help J.J. cheat. In many ways, “C-H-E—CHEATER is a case study in the ways classroom accommodations for students with disabilities are often seen as an unfair advantage when in reality, classroom aides are designed to help compensate for any disadvantages students may experience. In J.J.’s case, that’s Kenneth functioning as J.J.’s hands so the teen can complete his test in a timely manner. The episode also tackles how often those involved in the educational accommodations process, when not properly trained (like Kenneth), end up misusing the designed support, undermining its importance and purpose.

18. “D-I—DING”
Original Airdate: March 15, 2017

“D-I—DING” sees J.J. fighting with a grocery store customer over respecting boundaries and his wheelchair. After J.J. attempts to pick up an order from the meat counter, viewers watch a random customer put his hand on the control stick of J.J.’s wheelchair, maneuvering the chair—and J.J.—out of the way. The act is incredibly disrespectful and invasive. While J.J.’s chair might seem like “just a chair” to an able-bodied person, it’s a physical extension of who J.J. is. You would never just push someone out of the way, so why would you put your hand on his or her wheelchair? We typically see J.J. choosing his battles a little more carefully—he rolls his eyes at but doesn’t directly confront a few things—but on this J.J. refuses to let it go. He ends up following the customer around the store and obstructing his access to items, which leads to a final confrontation where J.J. forces the customer to see and respect him… and his chair.

Original Airdate: March 8, 2017

When Maya takes time to party with Dylan (Kyla Kennedy) for the youngest DiMeo’s birthday, Ray (Mason Cook) is left “in charge” of J.J. But when Ray loses J.J., the issue of who takes care of whom comes to the forefront. Ray feels a responsibility to care for his brother because that’s a role he’s owned all his life. But J.J. reminds Ray that he is actually the older brother and should be allowed to care not just for himself, but also for Ray. J.J. might need some help with things, but he doesn’t need a babysitter.

Original Airdate: February 22, 2017

Living with disabilities can mean you experience compounding stresses that able-bodied and neurotypical people don’t. As this fun episode shows, you can’t be perfect at everything (as we learn with Maya and the other moms during the Oscar party), and it’s important to let go and have fun (as we see with Kenneth and the movie trivia game he creates for J.J. and the other kids at the party). Stress and chaos can be part of the disability experience, but it shouldn’t be the only part of living with disabilities that we see or acknowledge.

15. “T-H—THE C-L—CLUB”
Original Airdate: February 15, 2017

While Maya and Ray learn the meaning of “staying true to yourself,” this episode sees J.J. and Kenneth get into a bit of a spat. A result of their fight is J.J. replacing Kenneth with a speaking board. Not only does the episode introduce the audience to another aid that non-verbal people use, it also shows the value of human support systems. Yes, J.J. could just as easily rely on some digital device to serve as his voice. But Kenneth isn’t just J.J.’s voice. He’s J.J.’s friend, study partner, cheerleader and defender. They share a bond that helps J.J. develop his identity and his own voice, even if it comes out sounding like Kenneth.

Original Airdate: February 8, 2017

In this Valentine’s day episode, we watch Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) and Maya attempt to rekindle the fire that brought them together in the first place. Meanwhile, J.J. is assigned to deliver candygrams and ends up revealing his addiction to the “sugar rush.” The plotlines are seemingly unrelated, but both in fact underline how love and life don’t always need to be an exciting new adventure or incorporate things typically “off limits” in order to be good. Sometimes, consistency and moderation—especially for families with disabilities that are already juggling so many things—don’t mean you’re boring. Doing nothing after spending your day doing everything is exactly what you need.

13. “S-I—SICK D-A—DAY”
Original Airdate: January 18, 2017

When Maya gets sick, Jimmy is forced to step up and keep the DiMeo family on track. But as Jimmy goes through the motions, the DiMeo children realize that their father is actually a well-oiled machine. Jimmy attempts to hide this from Maya so it doesn’t hurt her feelings, but she eventually finds out, forcing him to re-evaluate how much he gives to the household. Eventually they all discover, after Jimmy gets sick, that Dad’s hands-off approach isn’t so hands off. The episode isn’t just a good look at all the moving parts of running a household and raising a family. It’s a reminder that in a world which often values only what we physically contribute—a notion that dehumanizes and erases the contributions and efforts of disabled people like J.J.—everyone has importance, everyone has value and everyone brings something to the table.

12. “H-E—HERO”
Original Airdate: January 11, 2017

As the DiMeos fight with their insurance company to get J.J. a new chair, Speechless viewers are privy to another side of the disability experience: healthcare. After J.J.’s current chair takes its last beating, the DiMeos turn to their insurance agent for a replacement. Unfortunately, their usual agent is set to be replaced by an impossible-to-manipulate new one. Maya and Jimmy jump through some odd and funny hoops (including pretending to ride horses and having Dylan almost throw a race) to get the agent to approve a new chair for J.J. Ultimately, it’s all a subtle but clever metaphor for the lengths many families with disabilities must go to in order to get even the most necessary of necessities. This episode also gets double points for directly calling out “inspiration porn,” or the tendency for able-bodied people to use the very existence of disabled people as a means of getting “perspective” on life.

Original Airdate: January 4, 2017

Speechless spends a good amount of time proving to us that the DiMeos live in a sort structured chaos. Maya and Jimmy’s freewheeling, go-with-the-flow nature might look to an outsider a bit like negligence, particularly when it comes to J.J.’s care. But regardless of how “together” Maya is or isn’t at any given time, she has consistently shown strength in her ability to advocate for her eldest son. In this episode, we see how prepared Maya is to take care of all of her children (not just J.J.) following Ray’s burst appendix scare. Particularly for parents with disabled children, it’s a reminder that things are not always about having yourself together at all times. It’s about having yourself together during the right ones.

10. “C-H—CHOIR”
Original Airdate: December 14, 2016

In yet another holiday episode (this show really loves those), a lot of things for the DiMeos get misplaced, including cars and jealousy. When J.J. finds Ray’s choir teacher to be attractive, he and Kenneth join the extracurricular, and in a “steal your girl” moment, J.J. uses Kenneth’s killer vocal cords to steal his brother’s solo and win the praises and attention of the choir director. While it’s not entirely clear how realistic this storyline is, its hilarity makes it a delight to watch, in addition to proving that not everything we think is off limits to people with disabilities is actually off limits.

Original Airdate: December 7, 2016

There’s quite a bit of cultural pressure and stereotype around who gets to or even can play sports. Whether its recreational, competitive or professional athletics, our society still deems those classified as overweight or seemingly “out of shape” unfit to play sports. And despite it being 2017, gender and race still influence who gets the opportunity to play certain sports. When it comes to disability, outside wider known events like the Paralympics, the general public’s knowledge about how much more accessible sports have become is slim. “S-L—SLED H-O—HOCKEY” is a reminder that staying active, being fit and playing competitively are not reserved for able-bodied people.

Original Airdate: November 30, 2016

While this episode’s main storyline is dominated by Ray’s desire to have a traditionally planned vacation instead of the fly-by-night trips the DiMeos usually go on, an important subplot is J.J.’s love life. Unlike episode six, which sees a more positive experience with romance for J.J., “R-A-Y-C—RAY-CATION” sees J.J. getting his heart broken. And while the romance may not have turned out exactly the way he or we wanted, the storyline allows J.J. to be treated like any other lovesick teenage boy—encouraged by wingman Kenneth and supported by his brother.

Original Airdate: November 16, 2016

In the way that “I-N—INSPIRATIONS” addressed how J.J.’s disability has become a formative part of the DiMeo family’s identity, “T-H-A—THANKSGIVING” is a lesson in how removed extended family can be from that equation. When the family of Jimmy’s older brother decides to celebrate Turkey Day with the DiMeos, we get a front row seat to all the ways more distant relatives of people with disabilities can condescend to them (intentionally or not) and generally misunderstand the nature of their impairment—despite having people at the ready to ask about it. Just because someone knows you doesn’t mean they know you.

6. “D-A-T-E—DATE?”
Original Airdate: November 9, 2016

On the big and small screen, people with disabilities are often portrayed as undesirable and desexualized. We rarely watch them in romantic situations, turning the concept of them dating into something seemingly “unrealistic.” This episode sows the seeds of a budding (and awfully sweet) romance between J.J. and Claire, a classmate who is temporarily in a wheelchair due to two broken ankles. It’s a nice addition to J.J.’s storyline, considering how much we watch Ray fail with girls.

Original Airdate: October 26, 2016

In this special holiday episode, J.J. has a howling good time at a Halloween party, where he partakes in some serious underage drinking (with the help of some classmates and right under Kenneth’s nose). The episode is one of many times we see how well Speechless illustrates the diversity of disability. J.J. is an incredibly clever teenager, and just like his able-bodied peers, he can be clever in all the wrong ways. While his cerebral palsy may make doing certain things physically harder, this storyline dismantles the misconception that CP creates cognitive issues. J.J.’s poor choices aren’t a result of his disability. They’re a result of him being a reckless teen. (Bonus points for giving us the perfect “J.J. sneaks back into the house while drunk, but how do you actually sneak back into the house when you’ve got Kenneth at your side and a motorized wheelchair you can barely drive?” sequence.)

Original Airdate: October 12, 2016

In the same way that accessibility is rarely on the minds of those without disabilities (unless they are confronted by a disabled person), this episode shows how normalized accommodations become in the lives of the families who deal with them. When J.J. goes to spend a day with Kenneth, the rest of the DiMeo family is given a rare opportunity to do things they might otherwise not think about doing because it won’t include J.J. Meanwhile, Kenneth gets a taste of what it’s like when disability defines almost every aspect of your life, from how people interact with you to where you sit in a baseball stadium.

Original Airdate: October 5, 2016

When the school hosts a bonfire, Maya gets it canceled because it’s not an accessible event. But after J.J. finds out and gets upset, Maya get the trip un-canceled, resulting in a hilarious “makeshift” bonfire on school grounds. The episode is a glaring example of how non-inclusive educational institutions typically are. Something as simple as attending a field trip (or even J.J. navigating a safe, non-restrictive home environment) speaks to the things those with mobility issues and physical disabilities must think about on a daily basis.

Original Airdate: September 28, 2016

School administrators get a rude awakening after J.J. refuses the professionally trained classroom aide the school has hired to be the non-verbal teen’s voice, and instead asks for the janitor, Kenneth, to be his voice. While many of us think “all assistance is created equal,” J.J.’s search for someone to act as his voice in class and in the halls emphasizes how schools and educational administrators in a rush meet disability law requirements ignore the specific needs, identities and confidence of disabled students.

1. “P-I—PILOT”
Original Airdate: September 21, 2016

There are quite a few teachable moments in “P-I—PILOT,” including the need for ADA-compliant educational facilities. But one of the pilot’s most memorable moments is also one of the best possible introductions to the series. In an opening scene, an older woman angrily honks her horn at Maya and J.J. DiMeo as they sit in their giant van, parked in a spot clearly labeled “handicapped.” As the woman chides the DiMeo duo for taking up a space that is seemingly only for older people who need assistance, in movie-reveal fashion Maya and J.J. exit the van, revealing J.J.’s wheelchair and crushing the myth that the appearance of youth signifies able-bodiedness.

Abbey White is a freelance entertainment and identities journalist who has written for USA TODAY Network, The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, ScreenSpy and Paste Magazine, among other outlets. She is currently an editorial intern for The Nation magazine and will be joining Vox’s culture and identities section for the summer.

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