Raymond Burr. Daniel Day Lewis. Samuel L. Jackson. Gary Sinise. Kenneth Branagh, and of course, Sir Patrick Stewart. To the average person, these actors’ names may not seem to have much in common, other than being very talented individuals who’ve had successful careers in television and film.
To us wheelchairians (™), however, these are just a few of the names of non-disabled actors who have been cast in the role of a character with a disability. In the eyes of a lot of us, this sort of thing is tantamount to the whitewashing of characters in Hollywood, or cosplaying in blackface. There are many actors with disabilities out there with a lot of untapped talent, yet due to our society’s obsession with superficial image, it seems that even these cases of “disability drag” aren’t out of bounds.
So, for National Disabilities Month, I want to talk for a bit about why I’m SO glad that the ABC comedy, Speechless, has come to television.
The show marks the first time since 2004 that a wheelchair-using actor has starred in a prime-time network television show, when Darryl Mitchell portrayed Eli Goggins on the 4-season comedy Ed. That’s TWELVE YEARS of television without disabled actors portraying disabled characters. It also adds more proof to a study published by the Ruderman Foundation in July of 2016, which found that NINETY FIVE (95) PERCENT of characters with disabilities are portrayed by able-bodied actors. That makes disabled actors the most underrepresented minority in Hollywood today. With any luck, however, Micah Fowler and his masterful portrayal of JJ DiMeo have set the stage to change all of that.
As an actor who actually has cerebral palsy, eighteen year old Fowler plays the role of JJ in such a way to show that disabled characters can not only have depth & likability (beyond just being used as objects of pity or “inspiration”), but also have a lot to say – even though JJ doesn’t speak a word of dialogue (we’ve got the silky-voiced Cedric Yarbrough for that). JJ is definitely a teenager, with the attitude, issues, and sense of humor of anyone else his age to match.
Since its premiere episode, Speechless has also introduced the world at large to some huge concepts of the disability experience: the importance of advocacy & self-direction, independence, and “inspiration porn” – the latter of which has been shown multiple times in hilariously over the top ways on the show. We’ve seen JJ advocate for himself when dealing with his siblings and with his aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), and also gotten the full brunt of his comical reactions to anyone trying to lay on the “acceptance” too thick.
We’ve also seen a lot of disability myths dispelled. One popular one, is that people with disabilities don’t date, and are aromantic/asexual beings. Episode 6 of season 1 (entitled D-A-T-E – DATE) saw the character of JJ develop an interest in, and go on a date with a young lady in his peer group. Another pre-conceived notion that Speechless has tackled in stellar style is the thought that any non-verbal person with a disability is mentally “slow”. It’s been shown time & again throughout the show’s run, that JJ is whip-smart, and he uses that intelligence to outwit many of the characters in the series.
If you haven’t already, dear readers, do yourselves a favor and watch this show. Not only is it hysterical, but it means a lot to the multitude of actors with disabilities out there who just want a chance to practice their craft, and to the millions of people in the United States alone who now have a character on television with whom they can identify, and who offers some modicum of representation for us.
Speechless airs Wednesday nights at 8:30pm Eastern Time on ABC.