ABC's 'Speechless' Looks To Change How Hollywood Depicts Disability
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
ABC TV show "Speechless" is about the Dimeo family - a mom, dad and three kids - but it's not your stereotypical family sitcom. JJ, the oldest of the three, has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, and he's nonverbal. That means he communicates using a board with words and letters on it, which he points to with a small laser. The show isn't sappy. It finds humor in the family's everyday life, like when JJ gets drunk at a Halloween party, and his parents are forced to ground him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPEECHLESS")
MINNIE DRIVER: (As Maya Dimeo) It's going to take a lot to earn back our trust, young man.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, that was good.
(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)
JOHN ROSS BOWIE: (As Jimmy Dimeo) OK. I know we're disappointed. He's grounded. Blah, blah, blah (ph). But was that not fantastic?
DRIVER: (As Maya Dimeo) We just grounded our special needs son for being a normal teenager.
BOWIE: (As Jimmy Dimeo) Maya, we don't say normal.
DRIVER: (As Maya Dimeo) All right - for being an idiot teenager.
BOWIE: (As Jimmy Dimeo) Exactly.
CORNISH: Speechless is ultimately about a fictional family, but show creator Scott Silveri told me it comes from a very personal place. His older brother had cerebral palsy.
SCOTT SILVERI: Growing up with a brother with a disability - it not only affects his life, it invariably affects the life of all of us around him. And he, too, is non-verbal, but he's the person who affected me the most in my life, and I never had a conversation with him. And I think each of us in our family became who we became, to a degree, because of him. And I think, you know, that it's certainly true of my mom, who - God bless her - worked so hard for - to take care of him and to provide for him and to make sure he wasn't neglected. Same with my dad, who, you know, in addition to that, was working very hard to make enough to take care of all of us and to handle the costs that come with disability. It ain't cheap.
CORNISH: You know, hearing you talk like this - it reminds me that the show does feel a little bit more kind of "Married With Children" or, like, "Roseanne" from the '90s...
CORNISH: ...Than anything else. And can you talk about, like, what family sitcoms you loved growing up? Like, what are you borrowing from here?
SILVERI: Well, I loved those. I was - I was a TV junkie. I certainly loved "Family Ties," "Roseanne," "Married With Children," too - those messy shows always.
CORNISH: Yeah, there's some bite there.
SILVERI: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think - I think it's easy to, you know, show love between people when there's really nothing much going on between them. But I was - I was interested in, you know, people with challenges and making that work. You know, I think that's where a lot of - where a lot of comedy comes from. The comedy that I enjoy - it's discomfort. It's bluntness. It's making mistakes. It's being wrong.
CORNISH: Now, the rest of JJ's family, the Dimeos, include the dad, Jimmy, who basically doesn't care what other people think.
SILVERI: That's true.
CORNISH: The mother, Maya Dimeo, played by Minnie Driver.
CORNISH: And I want to play a scene where she discovers that the so-called wheelchair ramp at her son's new school is actually used to take the garbage in and out of the building.
CORNISH: And the school's groundkeeper, who becomes, later, JJ's aide, actually uses the word crippled during the course of their conversation, and here's how she responds.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPEECHLESS")
DRIVER: (As Maya Dimeo) I'll tell you what's going to happen. You're going to build a ramp in front. Furthermore, I would like Crippled here to be cited for his language, which I think should be deemed hate speech.
BOWIE: (As Jimmy Dimeo) Be it so deemed.
CORNISH: That's their dynamic, which is very fun, of her being kind of hyper-intense and him being very chill. But there's another stereotype to this kind of story, which is brave advocate mom.
SILVERI: Well, at every turn, I was reaching out to find what the actual experience was of, you know, families like these. And when I looked at the mom - not just my mom, but I sat down with a lot of mothers of kids with disabilities - they were all fighters, whether they wanted to be or not, whether they came from that or not. I think the mistake would be to have her be only a fighter, to lose sides of a fun and silliness. But the show is not the wheelchair-ramp-of-the-week show. It's not next week, the pizzeria doesn't have one. And, yeah, we were - we were careful not to make it simply her on the attack all the time. I think, you know, it would be, you know, reductive and insulting to moms like this to reduce them simply to that fighting thing. But damn if they don't have it in common.
CORNISH: Now, we reached out to some of our listeners who have watched the show, enjoyed the show and had their own questions. And here's one from Cara Liebowitz of Hyde Park, N.Y.
CARA LIEBOWITZ: I have cerebral palsy, and I know, for me, growing up going to a mainstream school, my summer camp for kids with physical disabilities was really important to me in terms of forming a disability identity and having pride in my disability, as well as finding older mentors who kind of showed me how to do things when you have a disability. So I'd like to know - will we see JJ interacting with other people with disabilities?
CORNISH: Scott Silveri.
SILVERI: Stay tuned. Yes, that's something we have our eye on for this year. I know such a big part of these young kids' social lives is going to - you know, whether it's an after-school program or a camp where they get to go and just be surrounded by their tribe. You know, these kids are absolutely able to get along, and I think inclusion and mainstreaming is an important and positive thing.
CORNISH: And I just want to jump in here. We should mention that Micah Fowler, who is the star of the show - he does have cerebral palsy - right? - though he is verbal.
SILVERI: He does. Yes. Yes.
CORNISH: And so will - like, if you bring in these other kind of characters, are you going to cast the same way? Are you going to be using actors who have these disabilities?
SILVERI: Of course. Oh, yeah. You got it. Yeah. Yeah.
CORNISH: You're saying of course, but, like, nine times out of 10 in Hollywood, that's not how it's done, right? We know from many an Oscar winner that's not how it's done.
SILVERI: I think nine-point-five times out of 10 is the real number. For me, the decision to cast a character with a disability here was simply a practical one. It was absolutely essential to me. It was never a question whether or not we'd cast someone with a disability. And, you know, it's funny I expected that to be a big fight. I got all - I got all ready for it. I was so excited. I got a great speech prepared. I got no pushback. I wish I had. I wanted to take on the system.
CORNISH: You know, there is a term out there, which I've only heard recently, called rep sweats - the idea that, like, if you are so not used to seeing yourself represented in stories and media, movie, TVs, when you get that one depiction, you're like - you put a lot of pressure on it.
CORNISH: Have you been feeling that?
SILVERI: I - you know what? I've actually - I expected a lot more of that. My experience has been, for the most part, that people with disabilities, with a family member - people close to it - are so relieved to see a representation at all. So they're giving us the benefit of the doubt. I felt that, you know, very early on. We're very mindful of the JJ character. He needs to have agency. He needs to be active. He can never simply be a prop. My test for him was - is this a kid who would exist as a character outside of the disability, outside of the wheelchair? And once I was satisfied that he was - OK, great. Let's do that. Let's write for this kid. But if it's - if the wheelchair is the story, that's a story not worth telling in my mind.
CORNISH: Scott Silveri - his new show "Speechless" is on ABC - thank you so much for speaking with us.
SILVERI: It was a real pleasure. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: And "Speechless" airs Wednesdays on ABC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.