Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

ABC's 'Speechless' extends TV diversity to include teen with cerebral palsy

Former Seinfeld actor, now an activist, says seeing people with disabilities on screen is important

One of the best things that could happen to TV this fall would be for JJ DiMeo to become just another sitcom character.

The oldest child on ABC's Speechless, which premieres Sept. 21 between The Goldbergs and Modern Family (and is previewing early on, JJ is, like many TV teens, good-looking and a bit of a smart-ass.

Like his mother, Maya (Minnie Driver), he challenges authority. Including hers.

And like Micah Fowler (Labor Day), the actor who plays him, JJ has cerebral palsy.

Which wouldn't be a big deal if people with disabilities, and especially people played by actors with those same disabilities, weren't so rare in TV and movies.

Because they are, Speechless can't help but be important to viewers not used to seeing families like theirs included.

It's likely to be watched as closely as Parenthood was by some for its depiction of autism, and with the same intensity my family once brought to the premiere of ABC's Life Goes On, whose stars included Chris Burke, an actor who, like my then-3-month-old son, has Down syndrome.

But Speechless is also one of the funniest network pilots of the fall.

"I don't want to elevate what we are doing, or even trying to do, here. We're trying to entertain," Speechless creator Scott Silveri told me last month.

Silveri, a TV veteran whose writing credits include Friends, Joey, and Perfect Couples, has a brother with cerebral palsy, but he relied on research more than memory in writing JJ (who, unlike Fowler, doesn't speak).

"He can't be the object of the joke. He can't be a prop so we can tell these stories. . . . He needs to have a point of view and not be defined by his disability," Silveri said.

"He's a 16-year-old boy. He wants to date. He wants to rebel. Let's have it be about what any other 16-year-old boy would want and take a look at it through the specific lens of his situation," said Silveri, who admires the matter-of-fact way Breaking Bad incorporated the cerebral palsy of Walter White Jr. (RJ Mitte).

In Speechless, Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy play JJ's siblings, Ray and Dylan, and John Ross Bowie (The Big Bang Theory) his father, Jimmy. Cedric Yarbrough (Reno 911!) plays Kenneth, who works at JJ's new school and whose first meeting with Driver's character proves pivotal.

For Silveri, including a family that might look a bit like his did growing up is "just a natural progression in a conversation about diversity."

"We had talked a lot about wanting to try to find a way to focus on a family that had a special-needs child or special-needs character," ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey told reporters last month.

That fits in with ABC's efforts to expand the range of families depicted in its comedies, with shows like Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and The Real O'Neals. Yet, including disability as an element of diversity is rare, according to actor and comedian Danny Woodburn, co-vice chair of SAG-AFTRA's Performers with Disabilities Committee.

In February, Woodburn, a graduate of Abington Senior High School and Temple University who grew up in Glenside, wrote a Huffington Post piece complaining that "people with disabilities are systematically excluded" from talk of inclusion in Hollywood.

"I was just so enraged," Woodburn said in a phone interview, seeing people on the news "talking about race and gender and the importance of all these other aspects of diversity [at the Oscars] . . . but never was disability talked about."

He noted, though, that a University of Southern California study released Wednesday included disability among the problem spots in the continuing lack of diversity in Hollywood films.

The actor, a person with dwarfism, probably best known for playing Cosmo Kramer's friend Mickey Abbott on Seinfeld, cowrote a Ruderman Family Foundation report this summer that concluded not only that people with disabilities were vastly underrepresented on top TV shows, but also that nearly all were played by actors who didn't share their characters' conditions.

(One exception noted in that report: Freeform's Switched at Birth, whose deaf characters are played by deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, including Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin.)

Seeing people with disabilities on screen is important, Woodburn said, citing A&E's Emmy-nominated reality show Born This Way as "changing people's perceptions of Down syndrome."

Woodburn's brother has Down syndrome, "and I think, had he grown up today, there would be a different understanding of who he is and the kind of person he is, because of the exposure that we've had. But growing up in the '60s and '70s, going to high school [in Abington] . . . was rough for him."

It matters, too, he said, that roles playing characters in wheelchairs, characters with autism, and other conditions are open to actors with those conditions.

"People with disabilities are in this business. They want opportunities . . . and they're not getting equal access. Not just actual physical access to buildings," he said, "but also access to employment."

With nearly one in five Americans now falling under the broad umbrella of disability, and with the explosion in autism diagnoses, more stories about people with special needs are emerging from TV writers' rooms.

Another new ABC family comedy, American Housewife, from former Philadelphia City Paper columnist Sarah Dunn, includes a young character, Anna-Kat (Julia Butters), with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"I have a son [with autism] who does have more severe special needs" than Anna-Kat, Dunn said. "I didn't really think of it as like a soapbox thing. . . . I just thought, this is what my life looks like."

Shawn Ryan, who gave his main character, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), two children with autism in his 2002-08 series The Shield, was inspired by the diagnoses, a month apart, of two friends' children. Years later, his own child was diagnosed, too, he said, describing his son's issues as "all sort of social."

It's not just writers.

"There's not a single network that doesn't have an important person who isn't dealing with some kind of issue with a child, and you're starting to see that bubble up," Ryan said.

"Thirty, 40 years ago, I think all these kids were kind of hidden. And now, and I think it's a great thing, there's a celebration of them. And there's a [sense that] the world is a big place, the world is big enough for different people, and we can embrace and celebrate this."

215-854-5950 @elgray