'Speechless' draws attention to problems of disabled actors


By Cassidy Delahunty, executive entertainment editor
It’s hard to argue that disabled representation on television hasn’t grown in the past few years. From commercials of wheelchair basketball teams to the upcoming reboot of “Ironside”, now starring a detective in a wheelchair, it’s pretty clear that disabled people on television aren’t an anomaly anymore.
Well, as long as you aren’t looking for real disabled people.
According to a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, disabled actors only make up five percent of disabled characters on television, whether the disability is visible or not. Most of the actors surveyed said that they often faced discrimination when auditioning for a role, and most worked less than once a year. Even in movies or television shows starring disabled characters, such as the recent book-to-movie adaptation of “Me Before You”, able-bodied actors are the ones playing the parts.
It is for this reason that the cast of “Speechless” is such a welcome change.
Revolving around a suburban family, ABC’s new comedy stars teenage boy JJ Dimeo, who has Cerebral Palsy (CP) and cannot speak, played by Micah Fowler, who has CP just like his character.
Along with being extremely funny and original, “Speechless” does an amazing job of addressing many of the real problems teenagers with disabilities face. From being looked down on and nearly objectified to having to use the garbage ramp since his new school has no accessibility ramp, JJ goes through it all in just a 30 minute time span.
Along with this, “Speechless” is one of the first shows I’ve ever seen to have a character with disabilities, the cause of which was not a car crash or some other tragic accident. People who have CP are born with it.
While this show doesn’t do anything about the common trend of disabled characters being white and male, an actual disabled actor playing a disabled character who didn’t get into an accident is still a pretty big deal.
Don’t think I’m saying you should just watch this show because of the representation; “Speechless” is also incredibly funny.
Minnie Driver, who plays JJ’s over-the-top mother, gets a laugh out within the first minute of the show when she takes her son Ray’s observation that the restaurant they need to get to within 10 minutes is 30 minutes away as a challenge. Fiercely protective of all of her children, Driver’s character pushes this show over the top from good to great.
Along with this, a running gag throughout the first episode wherein JJ makes his school-provided aide say things making fun of her high-pitched, fairytale-esque voice, makes it clear that JJ is not going to be another token character, but will instead add to the humor of the show just like any other character.
While “Speechless” won’t solve all of the problems for disabled actors, it certainly is the start we need.