As a mother of an intellectually disabled young adult daughter with cerebral palsy, I cheered when I read of the development of a new TV series about a differently-abled teen and his family. People with disabilities are an underrepresented group in the media, and in many spheres of our lives and communities. I'm grateful to the Speechless' creator, as well as to the network executives for offering us a much-missed perspective on TV this Fall.
But -- yes, the concept of showing us a family facing unexpected challenges and working together to maximize life opportunities for every family member is praiseworthy. But, especially after this past week's episode, I am disappointed in how the family is being portrayed, and the implications of that portrayal on audience perceptions of families with special needs.
The episode showed the Dimeo family moving into their new "fixer-upper" home. Sadly, many families challenged by special needs issues also face economic challenges due to, for example, medical expenses, equipment costs, and care needs that may limit ability to work for an individual or family members serving as caregivers. In the episode's B story, the Dimeo family, however, boasted about being poor neighbors, by being messy and leaving trash and trash bins out, being rude in response to friendly overtures, and pranking the neighbors. Asked by the Dimeo daughter if they were being "jerks", the father responded that the family were just "idiots", and so were less likely to be criticized.
I know Speechless is supposed to be a comedy, but is such "humor" funny? It's not just that the dialogue is a sad reminder that people with disabilities such as JJ Dimeo would have been at risk of being called such names themselves in the not too distant past. But, what is worse is that a family that bonds together to care for themselves and all their children would be written not as heroes or "average Joes", but as obnoxious, yes, jerks, who deserve to be rejected. Way to go in promoting acceptance, writers.
The characterization of the mother, Maya Dimeo, also feeds into negative stereotypes, i.e. that her appropriate dynamic advocacy for excellent services for her son is neurotic and unstable. Is a subliminal message: "the whole family is 'off' and 'deserve' ridicule"? How much better it would have been to introduce a loving and, not unrealistically, overprotective mother whose love and advocacy for a son perceived as vulnerable makes her a bit irritating at times. Or a family exhausted and stretched to the limit by caregiving and economic challenges stumbles under the weight of these challenges as they try to do their best, and are helped by a community of neighbors that include comic eccentrics.
I do have to commend the writers on capturing some of the legitimate challenges that families like ours face. Feelings by siblings that the child with special needs takes up more than their share of parent attention. The difficulties of finding the right caregivers. And, the reluctance to let children with disabilities "grow up" and become as independent as possible as teens and adults. Kudos for addressing these serious issues. But, as you move forward with this ground-breaking series, writers, please don't sacrifice your protagonists' likability in search of comedy, and be sensitive to how some types of humor may be perceived as an unwise choice.