How ABC's 'Speechless' plans to avoid the 'very special episode' syndrome

Disabled characters have been few and far between on the networks. Will ABC's irreverent take make room for more?

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For the most part, ABC’s new "Speechless," debuting on Wednesdays this fall, follows the cookie-cutter template of a wacky family sitcom. There’s the take-charge mom, portrayed by Oscar-nominee Minnie Driver, and the clueless (or is he?) dad, played by "The Big Bang Theory’s" John Ross Bowie (minus the Elmer Fudd speech-impediment). There is an athletic daughter (Kyla Kenedy) and a precocious middle child (Mason Cook).

The character that sets "Speechless" apart is the oldest son, J.J, played by Micah Fowler, an actor who has cerebral palsy. The show begins when the family moves to a new town in search of a more opportunities, including a better education for wheelchair-bound J.J., who struggles to communicate, and hilarity (hopefully) ensues. 

Though "Speechless is not the first network show to feature a recurring character with cerebral palsy, it does represent a new take on disability in general, a topic broadcast TV has never been exactly comfortable with. 

"You just hear the logline of a show with a kid with a disability, it suggests that ‘After School Special’-ness," said executive producer Scott Silveri at the recent Summer Television Critics Association Press Tour. "’Speechless’" is not like a disability show. We’re telling family stories here. It’s a show about being different, and not apologizing about being different and embracing who you are."

"Speechless" comes 36-years after actress Geri Jewell made her first appearance on NBC sitcom "The Facts of Life" as Blair’s cousin Geri Tyler. Jewell, who also has cerebral palsy, was the first person with a disability to land a regular role in primetime. Considered groundbreaking at the time, the message behind the Geri character was simply that people with disabilities exist and have something to contribute. 

"When I’m drunk, I walk perfectly straight," joked Jewell as Geri in her first appearance on the landmark episode of "The Facts of Life" on Dec. 24, 1980, which mixed comedy and drama and was praised for providing a glimpse of the life of an individual with a disability. 

But Jewell’s stint on "The Facts of Life" was short-lived. She only made sporadic appearances from 1980 to 1984, each time in what seemed like a "very special episode" complete with a morality lesson.

Also memorable was Chris Burke, an actor with Down syndrome, as teenager Corky Thatcher on ABC 1989-93 drama "Life Goes On," which was the first television series to feature a major character with Down syndrome. Deaf actress (and Oscar winner) Marlee Matlin has shown up in a variety of dramas, including "Reasonable Doubts," "The West Wing" and "The L Word." Lauren Potter, an actress with Down syndrome, was prominently featured on Fox’s "Glee." Jewell was cast on HBO western "Deadwood" in 2004, because creator David Milch thought it would be interesting to see how a disabled character would function in such an unsentimental setting.

Michael J. Fox, meanwhile, attempted a TV comeback in the 2013-14 season with the "Michael J. Fox Show," in which he played a New York City news anchor with Parkinson’s disease who decides to return to work. Like "Speechless," that show—which bombed, despite widespread anticipation— attempted to mine the actor’s real-life condition for laughs that challenge the conventions of taste. Whether the disability aspect helped turn viewers off is hard to say.

Though networks have made progress, the truth is that roles for disabled actors, and the inclusion of disabled characters, have been rare. According to a recent study by the by the Ruderman Family Foundation, only 5% of television characters with a disability are actually played by an actor with a disability. Yet people with disabilities are estimated to be approximately 20% of the U.S. population.

"We have a lot of people on staff, not exclusively, but a lot of people who have experience in this world, whether it’s having siblings or special-needs children," said Silveri. "’Speechless’" is not an issue show. But because there are so few representations of disability on television, you can’t help but feel the responsibility of doing it in an informed and intelligent way. And that’s our goal and we’ve tried to arm ourselves with as much information and perspective as we can to that end."

Broadcasting is a business in which success leads to imitation. By virtue of placement alone— it debuts in the Wednesday 8:30 p.m. half-hour out of "The Goldbergs" and into "Modern Family" on Sept. 21 –"Speechless" would seem to have a fighting chance, which could help networks get over their squeamishness with disabled characters. But you may want to remain cautiously optimistic, warns Billie Gold, VP Director of Programming Research at Amplifi US.

"In ‘Speechless,’ having a central character with cerebral palsy certainly is making a statement that this is real life," she said. "But some may not find it funny and might find it somewhat exploitative, albeit endearing. Kudos to ABC for pushing the envelope and showing the real world, but the question is, is that what people want to see when they tune in to escape?"

Given the current lack of diversity on television, let’s hope they do.

"Speechless" (ABC)

"The Facts of Life" with Geri Jewell

"Life Goes On" with Chris Burke

"Reasonable Doubts" with Marlee Matlin

"Glee" with Lauren Potter

"The Michael J. Fox Show"

Ruderman Study:


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