By Contributing Writer: Michael Theobald
In American television, characters with disabilities are rarely portrayed in reoccurring roles, especially on network television. There’s a new show on Fox called Speechless, which is centered on a family with three children, one of whom has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. There are countless numbers of reasons why shows with disabled characters don’t last very long and unless the writers avoid some of these negative reasons, a show might last only a couple of seasons. I’m hoping Speechless will avoid this and it might last a few more.
The show is about a family of five who buy a very (well some people would say inexpensive, but I’ll call it like I see it) cheap house, so the kids can attend a well-funded public school in the area. In each episode, there are several instances where the creators of the show are able to demonstrate common issues that arise for students with disabilities.
In the first episode JJ tries to go into the main entrance of the school, but he can’t because there are stairs, so the principal tells him the handicapped entrance is on the other side of the building, and the entrance turned out to be a short ramp by the dumpsters that the janitors called the garbage ramp. I thought that was so funny because when I was in high school I couldn’t use the main entrance, and there was a sign that said the handicapped entrance is at the loading dock. That doesn’t sound too difficult, but the loading dock was on the complete other end of the school, and the only way to get there from the entrance was to take the sidewalk to the street that was at the front and then there was a long trek around the school that went through the street, by the dumpsters, and the door was always locked.
The thing they didn’t go into was the accessibility inside the school because in my school there was only one bathroom I could use, and it always felt like I was on the other side of the school when I needed it, but those types of stories don’t play well on television, so it’s probably a good thing they don’t delve to deeply into that issue.
The show is called Speechless because JJ doesn’t talk, so he uses a paper word board that he points at with a laser on his head, and whoever is around him reads whatever he’s pointing at. During an episode, JJ’s younger brother, Ray, joins the school choir, and JJ joins too. He starts singing by pointing at words, and his aide starts singing in a very low clear voice then the teacher started to coach JJ like he was the one singing. I was laughing so hard at this part throughout the whole commercial that followed.
I don’t know what time this show is set in because when I was in high school in 2000, there were a few people with these large computer like devices they could carry around, and I could only assume it was a speech device paid for by the state because I never heard or saw any of them use them. I also think the way the show is working with him quickly selecting a word, and another person saying it is much better for the comedic timing. Finally in the show the family hired their own aide, and he got too involved in JJ’s life and friends, but throughout the first season he became better at following him.
When I first got into high school the school seemed very apprehensive about me navigating the school alone, so the school hired their own aide to follow me around all day, and he would drive me nuts getting into my business all the time. But I imagine I would have felt the same way no matter how I hired him.
In an episode, JJ gets upset with his aide, and wants to show him that he doesn’t need him, so he borrows a friends electronic speech device, and after a short tutorial he starts demonstrating how quick and easy it is to use. I’ve used a taxpayer funded speech device and besides it having a great operating system, the hardware running it was out of date before I even got it, and it only got slower and noisier over time.
During the episode, his friend with the device tells him one of the greatest things about having the device, is searching websites. Well I think there are a few problems with that statement: for starters when I got the device there was a strange rule that the state couldn’t pay for anything with built in wireless, so I bought a specialized wireless adapter, and it only seemed to work when the maintenance guy was around, then the moment he’d leave it’d stop working. Since the wireless never worked I had to plug into a Ethernet cord which was always an ordeal because it was a pain to plug in, and the device was connected to my chair, so I couldn’t move my chair while it was plugged in, and I would only occasionally search the Internet, but I mainly used it to get emails.
One last thing I noticed was the way he communicates with both the device and the word board. I’ve used both methods, and the word prediction never worked that well, but it’s a TV show and if they spent all of their time attempting to predict words realistically I don’t think I’d even watch it anymore.
This show is having a very good first season, and one of the main rules the writers need to avoid is that the show isn’t only about the disabled son, it’s about a family. Throughout the first season the story lines involving JJ are rarely the main story line of an episode. In a few other shows involving disabled characters, every episode after the first season is all about the disabled character, then it turns into a pity party where it attempts to make the audience feel bad for the disabled character because of the disability.
Otherwise something I noticed during my summer job as a counselor for a summer recreational program for elementary students and during my first semester of college was that little kids and drunk older kids ask me very similar questions. One time somebody asked me “how do you sleep?” and then somebody asked me “how do you fit in a car?” I don’t remember where I was when I heard those questions, but one was at college and the other was by an elementary student. This is when I realized kids always have strange questions, and it’s best for them to ask while they still feel comfortable asking ridiculous questions, and don’t need an assist from alcohol.
The second season just started in September, and I’m happy to say that they seem to be avoiding some of these rating sinkholes. One more thing I noticed was at the end of the first season Ray was working with JJ attempting to write a speech about how JJ is Ray’s hero, and Ray will win a prize. Then during the speech Ray had a change of heart and says JJ is sort of a jerk, and then during the next season JJ makes a few selfish jerk moves. When I was in high school I thought I was always very logical and reasonable, but then when I was in my mid-twenties I began thinking about some of my jerk moves. I try my best not to have jerk like reactions to things, but my speech is a lot more difficult to understand now than it used to be, and I tend to get short with people when they don’t understand me, but I’m mainly upset with myself.
JJ is now in his senior year of high school, and I’d like to see how JJ deals with his disability after his graduation. Will he: go to college or trade school; will he live on campus or commute; or will he find a job? In the second season JJ showed that he could benefit from trade school, but either way I’m excited to see what happens.