Like a lot of special needs parents, I’ve been wondering about ABC’s new sitcom, Speechless. Specifically, I’ve wondered how it will portray mom of three Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) and her 16-year-old, JJ (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy on the show and in real life. Speechless centers around her mission to find the ideal school for JJ and give him a “voice.”
I am that mom. My son, Max, has cerebral palsy and intellectual disability, and for his entire life I have pushed and pushed — and occasionally moved mountains — to enable him to communicate, get the services he needs, and basically lead a good, fulfilling existence. You know, the kind every child deserves.
A comedy about a special needs family is a rarity in TV land, let alone one that has an actor with disability in the cast. I’d hoped that Speechless would offer an accurate depiction, not one made for laughs. Happily, it achieves both.
My husband and I got to watch a screener of the first episode, which has a fast-paced vibe and Minnie Driver at her funniest and boldest best. Dave and I related. We winced sympathetically as we watched Maya’s travails. And we laughed out loud several times, especially at the overly enthusiastic aide JJ gets whose fairy-godmother-like voice mortifies him.
I realize that Maya — a woman who is such a force of nature the police won’t mess with her for speeding — might seem over the top for all the battles she fights, big and small. But then, this is the reality for special needs families. We regularly have to go to bat not just for services for our children but dignity and respect, too. Life really is this crazy-intense for us at times.
These are the key things Speechless gets totally right about special needs parents and their children:
1. It’s not always easy to find good help.
In the program, Maya moves her family to a new district and enrolls JJ in his sixth school in two years. Yes, this is more extreme than what the average special needs parent goes through. But the universal truth about special needs parenting is we do spend an enormous amount of time and effort finding good teachers, aides, speech therapists, occupational therapists, doctors, and specialists. Not to mention, psychics! (Kid-ding.)
2. Children and teens with disabilities are still children and teens at heart.
This is something people regularly seem to overlook about my son; they assume that Max can’t understand them or that they have to address him as if he is a toddler. Actually, Max does comprehend what people say. He may have disabilities, but in many ways he is like any other boy, and deserves to be treated as such. It horrifies me when people blatantly stare at him, which is why I especially relished the opening moments of the show.
After a couple of teens in a parking lot blatantly gape at JJ, he gives them four fingers — his version of the finger (people with cerebral palsy can have issues controlling their muscles and movements). I’ve often joked that I will be so excited the day Max can give me the finger, because it will be an amazing feat of fine-motor skills.
3. Special needs parents have to advocate for the most basic things.
Walking through the front doors of a school isn’t something most people ever think twice about … unless you have a child who uses a wheelchair. Upon arriving at the ramp-less front entrance to JJ’s new school, Maya immediately asks the principal to build one, rather than forcing her son to use the “alternate-access” ramp which also serves as the exit for garbage. She proceeds to give the principal and custodian what she calls a “crash course in basic human dignity.” And indeed, it is.
4. Our children are not inspirations just because they exist.
It’s one thing to be considerate of the needs of youth with special needs, and to make certain accommodations for them. It’s another thing to kiss up to them just because they have disabilities. As soon as JJ enters his classroom for the first time, the teacher rallies the students to give him a standing ovation. A classmate proceeds to hold up a sign that says “JJ for President.” JJ logically types on his communication device, “Why? You don’t know me!” And the teacher responds, “We don’t have to — you’re an inspiration!” [Insert eye roll from special needs parents everywhere.]
Speechless brilliantly captures how even the most well-meaning people sometimes go wrong. We think our children rock, of course, but just because they are living their lives does not make them special; putting them on a pedestal only makes them further stand out from their peers.
5. Sometimes, we struggle to give our other kids special attention, too.
There are times when parents get so caught up in catering to the needs of a child with disabilities that our other kids can take a back seat, especially when big-deal events happen such as starting a new school. As Maya’s husband tells her, “You fight and fight to make sure JJ has a normal life. Maybe he’s not the only one who deserves that.” Like Maya, I’ve had to acknowledge that’s true. And like Maya, apologies have been made.
6. To us, words count.
For years now, other parents and I have spoken out against language that demeans people with disabilities, particularly the slur “retard.” In one scene, Maya calls the custodian on his use of the word “crippled.” She may appear contentious for getting up in arms about this, too — but the thing is, outdated terms continue to make society view people with disabilities as second-rate human beings. Our children have many challenges to overcome in this world, and shouldn’t have to contend with words that categorize them as defective.
7. We will do anything to help our kids.
Maya’s in-your-face m.o. isn’t the way all moms of kids with special needs operate (this is a sitcom, after all). But for sure, her motivation and intentions are true to life. We are our children’s best advocates, cheerleaders, and champions. And we will do anything within our power to make the world a more welcoming, inclusive, better place for them. Keep fighting the good fight, Maya DiMeo. I’ll be sitting on my couch, cheering for you and JJ.