Friday, October 7, 2016

Not quite speechless about Speechless

  I want to hear JJ talk.  Yes, he should always speak up for himself and not have others defend or argue for him, but, more than that, I want to hear JJ speak. 
   Why does JJ, who has Cerebral Palsy like I do, not talk at all, as if he’s mute? Why can’t he talk and be hard to understand, as with me?  This is the case with many people with C.P. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’ve never met anyone with C.P who can’t talk at all, who is mute.  The only time JJ vocalizes is when he laughs, groans or exclaims.  
   And why doesn’t the communication device he uses, with a laser attached to his glasses, speak?  Most such devices nowadays speak.  Why is JJ stuck with needing someone to read what he points to? 
   Yes, I have these quibbles and gripes about Speechless, the new sitcom on ABC about the Dimeo family, whose three children include the teenaged JJ, who has Cerebral Palsy and uses a power wheelchair and a communication device attached to it.  But I have to say that these complaints are nothing.  Overall, I am amazed that such a program, let alone a comedy, with a vital, young, severely disabled character, is on broadcast television. One of my attendants said that, because of this, watching the show is “surreal.” He means he has never seen anything like it on T.V. A huge bonus is that the boy who plays JJ, Micah Fowler, has C.P, albeit reportedly not as severely.  Wow!  This is a gigantic step for television, especially for those who know how hard it is for disabled actors to get work. 
   There are many things I really like about the show.  I like it the whole family is sort of disabled, not picture-perfect, with their messy and frenetic lifestyle.  I like it that the mother, played by the driven Minnie Driver, is a handful and sometimes downright unlikable, in her efforts to get the best for JJ.  I like the tension with JJ’s siblings, with his brother resenting all the attention JJ gets and his sister wondering if she runs track because JJ can’t. 
   There is also the wonderfully snarky humor, like the oh-so P.C school principal pointing out that the school mascot has been changed to the banana slug, which has both male and female genetalia. 
   Yes, some things are awfully broad and over the top, like JJ suddenly announcing in the first episode that he is running for student council to the cheers of the whole school.  Such is par for the course in a sitcom, though. However, I really hope JJ’s attendant/reader (a funny character played by Cederic Yarboro, and perhaps the reason that the communication device doesn’t speak) defending and rescuing him, as he did in this week’s third episode when students get angry at him because of the inaccessible homecoming bonfire being moved indoors, isn’t a trend. 
   Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that JJ doesn’t drool or has many spasms and that he isn’t seen eating. JJ has been sanitized, even made pretty, with the messier aspects of C.P air-brushed away.  (Maybe this is why, or part of why, he doesn’t speak.) But then there’s a stunning scene, like in the second episode, when the attendant assists JJ, lifting him up, at the toilet.  This is breath-taking – a young, healthy man being assisted to go to the bathroom in a sitcom.  Even now, thinking of this extraordinarily intimate, tender and real scene on national television nearly brings tears to my eyes. 
   Hearing JJ, when he laughs or exclaims, is also quite moving to me.  This is why I want JJ to talk.  When I watch this show, I am seeing myself in a television show for the first time.  This is quite powerful.  I also want to hear myself. 

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