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The Shows Shaking Up Disability Representation on Television

Speechless and Switched at Birth deliver great jokes, soapy family drama, and a primer in contemporary issues facing the disability community.

By David M. Perry


In ABC’s Speechless, Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, plays a non-verbal teenager. (Photo: ABC)

“Trash or person?” Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) demands in a dry British accent in the pilot episode of ABC’s sitcom Speechless. Her character’s son, a teenage boy with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, has been forced to enter his school using a ramp that doubles as an egress for waste disposal. Later in the episode, DiMeo will browbeat the school’s principal into providing her son with a new aide. Later, she’ll smooth over arguments with her kids, kiss her husband, and likely balance the checkbook.

Speechless dramatizes an aspect of my life I’ve never seen on television before — the fight of a parent of a disabled child (my son has Down syndrome) for education access. Imagine my surprise: Not only is Minnie Driver not exactly my doppelgänger, disability-related storylines on TV are rare and often reinforce stigma.

On TV, disability is played for laughs, for horror (such as with the “evil cripple” trope), or ignored even by shows otherwise committed to diversity. While critics have coined the phrase “crip up” to refer to the many able-bodied actors who have played disabled characters, often to widespread acclaim, a study by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 95 percent of all disabled characters are played by abled actors (full disclosure, I have worked for the Ruderman Family Foundation on other projects).

Despite this context, the creators of Speechless and the family drama Switched at Birth, both on air this spring, are talking to people with lived experience with disability, casting disabled people to play disabled characters, and using the structure of their respective genres to tell stories that ring true to a parent like me. And by incorporating unconventional families — which resemble my own in their battles over access and stigma — into classic American television genres, they are directing contemporary dialogues about disability straight at a mainstream audience.

With its domestic premise and quirky family dynamic, Speechless is a typical family sitcom whose core cast of characters, the DiMeos, fits right in with The Ricardos (I Love Lucy), The Cleavers (Leave It to Beaver), and The Connors (Roseanne). The pilot, which aired last fall, opens on the working-class DiMeo family moving to a collapsing house in a rich Californian suburb in order to send their eldest son, JJ, who has cerebral palsy (Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy), to a better school.

JJ uses a wheelchair, and is non-verbal: He communicates by shining a laser attached to his head at a board with words and letters, which a nearby family member, or his aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), reads aloud. The method of communication is authentic but unusual in the non-verbal community, which more typically relies on communication devices that generate their own voice when words or icons are selected. The show’s creator, Scott Silveri, designed the JJ-Kenneth relationship after meeting a woman with cerebral palsy named Eva Sweeney, who developed the technique as a teenager. (In a recent episode the show also introduced viewers to eye-activated speech devices.)

While the show’s choices about JJ’s needs and accommodations are highly specific, Speechless is increasingly engaging ongoing dialogues in the broader disability community. In the first season’s 12th episode, “H-E-R — HERO,” a student that JJ has never met before refers to him as a “hero” in an essay contest with a cash prize. When JJ later finds out about it, he complains to his siblings by flashing his laser over his board — “Stupid I. N. S. inspiration porn,” he selects. When Kenneth asks what the term means, Ray, JJ’s brother, replies, “It’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”

Kenneth, who is black and frequently compares his experience in a predominantly white community to JJ’s in a mostly abled community, quickly grasps the concept. He compares inspiration porn to the “magical negro” trope, which Kenneth defines as black characters who are “just there to help the white character on his journey, and he mainly speaks in folksy sayings.”

Speechless capitalizes on the genre’s broad appeal to spark conversations otherwise prevalent only in essays and TED talks.

Inspiration porn is one of the driving issues at the heart of countless disability-rights critiques of mainstream media — and Ray’s definition lines up with that of the late disability rights advocate Stella Young, who defined the term in a TED talk in 2014. Like many disability rights media critics, I’ve written many essays about inspiration porn, focusing on how it dehumanizes disabled individuals by treating them as objects upon which abled folks can project their goodness and distracts from the stigma, abuse, and inaccessibility disabled people face. As “H-E-R — HERO,”demonstrates, the “magical negro” trope similarly dehumanizes its subjects, prioritizing a character’s use value to non-minority peers over his or her unique, idiosyncratic qualities. By regularly dissecting this and other forms of stigmatization JJ and Kenneth experience, Speechless introduces prime-time viewers to disability-community dialogues while demonstrating that more than a few outsider experiences in America are shared.

As the title of Freeform’s Switched at Birth suggests, the show chronicles the lives of two girls who were switched in the hospital as infants. Though they’re connected by this early accidental swap, both characters come from different worlds — Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano), short and dark-haired, grew up in a wealthy and conservative family, while Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc, who identifies as hard of hearing), tall, deaf, and athletic, grew up with her single mom, Regina. When both families learn of the swap, they meet and eventually begin living together — requiring the Kennish family to acknowledge their ignorance about Deaf culture and learn sign language, which permeates the show. (ABC has called it “the first mainstream television series to have multiple deaf and hard-of-hearing series regulars and scenes shot entirely in ASL.”)


(Photo: ABC)

Though the series has some typical melodramatic family drama trappings — a character falling in love with another’s ex-boyfriend, a secret ex-wife that turns out to be a drug dealer — its storylines routinely engage with headlines affecting the disability community. Midway through the fourth season, Toby (Daphne’s biological brother) finds out that Lily, his sort-of girlfriend, is pregnant, and that the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. As Toby and Lily attempt to develop a real relationship, Lily considers abortion. At the time the episode aired, anti-choice activists were (as they are now) advocating laws that criminalize choosing to have an abortion after a prenatal diagnosis of a disability. (I ardently oppose such laws — I’ve written elsewhere about how they won’t help anyone with Down syndrome and they aren’t intended to do so.)

Switched at Birth walks viewers through the phases of Lily’s complex decision: Daphne doesn’t try to persuade Lily one way or another, but confesses to Bay, as they process the diagnosis, that she’s embracing the word “disabled” to apply to both her and a future nephew. Bay and Toby go to a school to meet children with Down syndrome, their parents and teachers, and adults with Down syndrome who work there. Though Lily admits that she’s scared, she and Toby nevertheless decide to stay together and have the baby. This narrative arc affirms the complexity of any woman’s response to a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome — without ever challenging the basic humanity of disabled people or questioning a woman’s right to choose.

These shows succeed in part in portraying disability because they are committed to portraying the real experiences of those who live with and around it. I became intimately acquainted with Switched at Birth’s commitment when Lizzy Weiss, the show’s creator, reached out to me over email in the winter of 2015, asking me to read some of the show’s scripts to judge their authenticity. We began an open dialogue: When I dismissed the show as a teen soap opera, Weiss chastised me for adopting a sexist term to describe a family-oriented drama; when I suggested problems in the show’s framing of discussions of Down syndrome, Weiss emailed to ask questions. That winter, I spoke over the phone with other writers on the show about my first years with my son Nico, read scripts, and watched as those writers crafted their storylines.

Toby, played by Lucas Grabeel, embodies elements and emotions from my stories. In one scene in the season’s third episode, Toby tells his mother how much Carlton, his child, loves his music — when I was exhausted and home alone with my son during his first year, I often played my guitar to soothe myself and engage him — it allowed me to be both a good father and keep myself going during a rough year. (Now, my son uses music as a communication tool.)

Later in the same episode, Lily confesses to wishing her son might learn a bit more quickly, recognizing how awful it is to admit frustration over developmental delays. I talked about this frustration, fears about bullying in school, and the need to make sure my son is cared for when my wife and I die with Switched at Birth’s writers. And in the same episode, Toby says, “I’m always worried whether his heart will be OK, or whether he’s going to get bullied on the playground when he’s 10, or who’s going to take care of him when we’re gone.”

Reaching out to those with personal experience has benefited Speechless and Switched at Birth — but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two shows doing the best work with disability narratives in 2017 are a sitcom and a family drama. These formats require quickly moving plots and regular emotional peaks and valleys in order to follow the “sitcom code” of plotting. These constraints create opportunity for writers looking to pen diverse shows that people will reliably watch — Americans love sitcoms and family dramas — and to convey pointed messages through slight tweaks to formats that viewers recognize. And so, when Speechless casts a lead character who is non-verbal, but tells lots of jokes, and when Switched at Birth shuts off the sound as Deaf characters speak to one other, both shows break with television conventions just enough to shake up viewers who are otherwise hooked to the shows’ addictive formulas. Familiarity enables risks, in both shows’ cases.

A handful of good examples of disability representation doesn’t mean that American television has made the wasteland of disability-related TV bloom. Still, maybe the informed storytelling on Speechless and Switched at Birth, so richly steeped in the concept of disability as identity, can change that, gently guiding viewers within comfortable narrative frameworks to a slightly richer understanding of what it means to be disabled in America.