Review: Speechless Premiere on ABC TV
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Last night, ABC premiered their new television series, Speechless. The show follows the adventures of the DiMeo family – comprised of Maya (mother, Minnie Driver), Jimmy (father, John Ross Bowie), Ray (brother, Mason Cook), Dylan (sister, Kyla Kenedy) and JJ (brother, Micah Fowler). Centered around Maya as a powerhouse mother unapologetically focused on making a better life for her children, the show is one of the first of its kind to offer unique insight into the life of a family with a child who has a disability.
JJ DiMeo has cerebral palsy – a neurological disorder caused by brain damage that primarily affects muscle tone, movement, and motor skills. He is nonverbal, using a laser pointer attached to his glasses and a letter board attached to his wheelchair to spell words and phrases to communicate. He also uses a power wheelchair to compensate for his limited mobility. Despite his challenges, JJ’s feisty personality shines through and the plot weaves around how his unique needs affect his family dynamic and the way the greater community interacts with them.
It is our privilege to work with incredible children and families who share challenges similar to those of JJ and his family. Thanks to ABC and those involved in creating Speechless for introducing the DiMeo family and opening the dialogue about disabilities and the many amazing individuals who are affected – but not defined – by them.
We asked a few of our Speech-Language Pathologists, Kennedy Day School teachers, and Kennedy Day School students to tune in and watch the pilot episode, and share their personal thoughts and reactions. Check them out below…
“We found it interesting that, while they make a point of emphasizing that JJ is cognitively high-functioning, he is still portrayed as someone who is dependent on another person to interpret his messages and be ‘his voice.’ There are countless options for speech generating devices available which would provide JJ with the ability to initiate communication and produce messages 100% independently, rather than having to rely on someone else to speak for him. Especially since Maya’s character is portrayed as such a strong advocate for her son, it seems that she would have fought early on for this type of technology for JJ. It will be interesting as the show continues to see if this is an issue that is addressed.
Another notable aspect of the show was the rapid humorous banter between the family members, which was enjoyable to watch but also offered an unrealistic portrayal of communicative environments for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) users. JJ’s messages were produced almost instantaneously despite the fact that he was using core words and spelling which would realistically have taken longer both for him to generate as well as for his listeners to read and interpret. In addition, many of the individuals he was interacting with were people he had just met, and they would have needed additional time to get to know his communication style and understand him without any communication breakdowns. The quickness and ease of communication allowed the show’s writers to portray JJ’s unique personality and humor; however, it omitted the fact that in real life scenarios, AAC users rely on their communication partners to provide them with adequate wait time to craft and produce their messages, which has an impact on the flow of conversation. Understandably, the show writers need to take some creative license here to make the show entertaining to a broad audience.
The last aspect that was notable in this episode was the portrayal of individuals in JJ’s new school environment as desperately wanting to appear ‘inclusive,’ while paradoxically drawing undue attention to JJ’s differences. His teacher’s frantic declaration that ‘the ovation is insensitive!’ overshoots in his attempt to be mindful of JJ’s physical differences, as well as his offering that ‘Zachary’s cousin is deaf, so he gets it.’ This comedic portrayal highlights the balance between fostering inclusion by being mindful of an individual’s needs and differences while also treating them as a whole person who is not defined entirely by their disability. It also draws the question of who or what is being served in an act of ‘inclusion’ – is actually the individual who is being welcomed, or the self-image of those who are welcoming him? It’s an important question worth considering as professionals and as members of society who interact with individuals with special needs.”
– Emily Bright, M.S., CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist and Coordinator of the ACAT Clinic, and her Speech Language Pathology colleagues
“I think it is difficult for JJ. He has a device like me but uses a laser and has someone talk for him.” – Devin, KDS Student
“I think it’s awesome that JJ is in a wheelchair.” – Colby, KDS Student
“It was awesome.” – Kevin, KDS Student
“[My students] all really liked the fact that the main character was in a wheelchair and they recognized that JJ is similar to them. They would like to see more characters on TV that are similar to themselves. They are looking forward to the next episode.
I thought the episode was funny and it was great seeing a character like JJ on TV. The mother was a strong advocate for her son which I definitely see in the parents of our students at KDS. I also think many siblings have the same experience as the brother, as he often feels ignored because the child with a disability can get more attention.”
– Kelly Adler, Special Education Teacher, Kennedy Day School
“This show was able to humorously show the true struggle of being nonverbal and the passion parents have for their children to all be looked at the same. Minnie Driver was amazing; although she was over the top she was able to speak her mind. She said things we were all hoping she would say. I really loved and appreciated the show showing the point of view of the siblings. Overall the show did a great job of making a typical kid who happens to be nonverbal in a wheelchair normalized.”
– Elizabeth Treganowan Watson, Special Education Teacher, Kennedy Day School
“The highly anticipated Speechless show premiered on ABC last night, a perfect time as we begin a new school year at The Kennedy Day School at Franciscan Children’s. The show demonstrates how many of our families with individuals with disabilities have to fight daily for what is appropriate. The entire family is affected when one member has special needs and it shows the daily struggles of the parents to find a balance to make sure all the children/siblings feel they are not only being heard, but allowed to live a ‘normal’ life.
I really liked the many take-home messages that I picked up on in the first episode that let people watching know how to better interact with individuals with disabilities:
- Our students do not want to be labeled by their disabilities, nor do their disabilities define who they are as individuals.
- They are first individuals.
- They have their own identities.
- They often have age appropriate interests.
- The majority of our students can hear you, and don’t like to have you use a “high pitched baby voice” when speaking to them.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Promote independence and choice making (one example seen by JJ choosing Kenneth to be his “voice” (aide) because he had a cool voice.)
- Ask permission. Can I move your wheelchair? Can I put your tray on?
- Personal space (you don’t want people leaning on you so please don’t lean on student’s personal equipment)
These are all great tips as we train new staff as well as helpful reminders for more seasoned staff at the start of this new school year!”
Michelle Cole, Special Education Teacher, Kennedy Day SchoolView All Blog Stories