Most Shared

How ABC's 'Speechless' is changing attitudes about disability.

'Speechless' matters because inclusivity on TV promotes inclusivity in life.

How ABC's 'Speechless' is changing attitudes about disability.

Over six decades ago, a disabled character starred on a TV show for the very first time.

She was a woman and a wheelchair-using attorney, and she starred in "Martinsville, U.S.A." The program, a 15-minute soap opera, featured actress Susan Peters. In the storyline, she had moved back to her hometown of Martinsville, Ohio, to begin her own law practice.

Use of the wheelchair — unlike later instances, like Robert T. Ironside (a former cop who became a consultant for the San Francisco Police Department after being paralyzed from the waist down after getting shot in the line of duty) — wasn’t simply a plot device. Peters, who was paralyzed due to a hunting accident just a few years earlier, used a wheelchair both onscreen and off.


"Miss Susan," the show’s original title, was one of several planned soap operas in the early days of television that aspired to "spread sweetness and light and an optimistic philosophy" while shying away from the more “over-the-top storylines” that dominated radio waves in 1951.

Fast forward 65 years, and we get "Speechless" — a new sitcom from ABC.

Photo via ABC/Bob D'Amico.

In "Speechless," which premiered  on Sept. 21, 2016, the first thing disabled teenager JJ DiMeo (played by legitimately disabled actor 18-year-old Micah Fowler) does is flip the bird at two slackers — cerebral palsy style, amplified by using four fingers instead of one.  Call it a comedic accommodation, but the message is funny, unexpected, and crystal clear.

My, how things have changed.

In the show, Fowler stars as a nonverbal teen in a family of five.  But that doesn’t mean the character has nothing to say.

Most of the talk around the show has been positive, especially from the disability community.

According to Stephanie Hydal, who co-organized a premier event at the Westside Center for Independent Living in Mar Vista, "Speechless" did what it needed to do with its first episode.

“'Speechless' introduced audiences to major concepts rooted in the disability experience: inspiration porn, parental roles in advocacy, the role of support providers, and the importance of disability advocacy and self-direction,” said Hydal, who noted that viewers in attendance were impressed by how the show humorously highlighted the difference between compliance and accessibility, which she says is a new concept for most people.

By the end of their screening, Hydal says she witnessed budding non-disabled allies engaging with disability stories told by disabled people, and it felt like an important and rare occurrence.

Social issues aside, and perhaps most importantly, "Speechless" is also genuinely funny.

For a comedy show, “Is it funny?” should be first priority, and "Speechless" really is. Not in a mocking, stereotypical way, but in a way that draws from real life, resonates, and invites people in.

The real life approaches used in "Speechless" are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the ways JJ communicates. "Speechless" creator and "Friends" alum Scott Silveri based JJ’s communication technique on the method developed and used by Eva Sweeney, who has cerebral palsy herself.

Photo via ABC/Tony Rivetti.

Early on, Silveri met with Sweeney to discuss the concept for the show. When he saw Sweeney and her aide communicating with a letter board and laser pointer, he immediately changed the script to insert a human aide in the story, rather than computer-voiced communications, opening up additional avenues for storylines.

Now a paid consultant for the show, Sweeney reads every script “to make sure nothing is completely off or offensive about having CP” and to make sure that the show accurately depicts what being nonverbal is like.

“This doesn’t necessarily make the show better,” wrote Sweeney via email. “But it offers a different and new perspective into how people with disabilities can communicate.”

Plus, the creators brought in actors who actually live with disabilities daily.

Maysoon Zayid, a comedian and actress with cerebral palsy, said "Speechless" is noticeably different when it comes to casting methods: “I love that it makes non-disabled actors playing disabled characters look clownish and offensive.”

Zayid, whose popular TED Talk currently totals over 7 million views, suggested another reason for the show’s success: its authenticity.

“Overbearing moms are definitely REAL for a lot of us," she said. "Being broke is very real too. Disability is not cheap. I love how from the opening scene, JJ shows that nonverbal isn’t the same as infantile. 'Speechless' also champions the inclusion of disabled and non-disabled students together in school which in my case, was life changing.”

"Speechless" matters because inclusivity on TV promotes inclusivity in life too.

For once, it is nice to see something happening on camera that I have experienced in my own life,” said Dominick Evans, a trans disabled film director and creator of the popular #FilmDis weekly Twitter chat on entertainment and media issues.

Photo via ABC/Tony Rivetti.

Where should the show go next? Evans said he’d “like to see JJ’s mom [hilariously played by Minnie Driver] move from Mama Bear protector mode into teaching JJ how to be a great self advocate, and 'Speechless' has the potential to do just that... It can do a lot of good by showing the world disabled teens are just as capable of being annoying buttheads as any other teen out there.”

Or, as Zayid put it, “I'd really love to see JJ date.”

When its stacked up against where we’ve been, ABC’s "Speechless" lands solidly in the “win” column.

Thankfully, audiences seem to agree. The series premiered to universally positive reviews and solid opening ratings (2.0, 7.3 million in Live+same day). It held up so well, in fact, that the network just announced a rare early full-season order just a week-and-a-half into the season.

But don't think we're all the way there just yet. When it comes to bringing more authentic disabled talent to the screen, a lot more work needs to be done.

A recent study published by the Ruderman Family Foundation reports that less than 1% of TV characters have disabilities — and 95% of those roles are played by actors without disabilities. Even fewer disabled people have established careers as writers, producers, or directors, despite census data that suggests over 56 million, or roughly 1 in 5, Americans are disabled, within every demographic — rich, poor, gay, straight, female, male, trans, person of color, or white as newly fallen snow.

In 2016, disability is a cultural and political identity, a diverse community, and entire libraries of compelling, outside-the-box stories that, by and large, haven’t been widely told — yet.

Hollywood take note: Whether it is creative input, audience cultivation, or hiring practices, the disability community — however one defines or understands it — can no longer be ignored.

Photo via ABC/Richard Cartwright.

If your ideas about disability are stuck in 1951 and you get it wrong, disability advocates, artists, and influencers are going to call you out.

Get it right and you might just have a hit television show like "Speechless."  

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
True

Increasingly customers are looking for more conscious shopping options. According to a Nielsen survey in 2018, nearly half (48%) of U.S. consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

But while many consumers are interested in spending their money on products that are more sustainable, few actually follow through. An article in the 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review revealed that 65% of consumers said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, but only about 26% actually do so. It's unclear where this intention gap comes from, but thankfully it's getting more convenient to shop sustainably from many of the retailers you already support.

Amazon recently introduced Climate Pledge Friendly, "a new program to help make it easy for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products." When you're browsing Amazon, a Climate Pledge Friendly label will appear on more than 45,000 products to signify they have one or more different sustainability certifications which "help preserve the natural world, reducing the carbon footprint of shipments to customers," according to the online retailer.

Amazon

In order to distinguish more sustainable products, the program partnered with a wide range of external certifications, including governmental agencies, non-profits, and independent laboratories, all of which have a focus on preserving the natural world.

Keep Reading Show less

President Trump has exited the White House as the first president in 100 years to not have a pet. President Biden is bringing the presidential pets tradition back, but with a special "first" of his own.

Champ and Major, the Bidens' German shepherds have officially moved into the White House, with Major being the first rescue dog to live there. The Bidens adopted the now 3-year-old good boy from the Delaware Humane Association in 2018.

Anyone who's ever moved with a pet knows that transitions can be tenuous. New sights, smells, and sounds, in addition to the change in routine, can be stressful for animals. And when you're a human who is not only moving into a new home, but also starting a new job as the president of the Untied States, you might need a little time to adjust right along with your pets.

That's why the Biden family took some time to fully transition their two dogs into the White House this week. Though the president and first lady moved in on January 20, the first doggos didn't officially move in until five days later, after a gradual introduction to the building and grounds to get them used to their new home.

They sure do look happy to be with their people in The People's House now, though.

Keep Reading Show less
True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

Keep Reading Show less

Two weeks ago, we watched a pro-Trump mob storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of a U.S. election and keep Donald Trump in power. And among those insurrectionists were well-known adherents of QAnon, nearly every image of the crowd shows people wearing Q gear or carrying Q flags, and some of the more frightening elements we saw tie directly into QAnon beliefs.

Since hints of it first started showing up in social media comments several years ago, I've been intrigued—and endlessly frustrated—by the phenomenon of QAnon. At first, it was just a few fringey whacko conspiracy theorists I could easily roll my eyes at and ignore, but as I started seeing elements of it show up more and more frequently from more and more people, alarm bells started ringing.

Holy crap, there are a lot of people who actually believe this stuff.

Eventually, it got personal. A QAnon adherent on Twitter kept commenting on my tweets, pushing bizarro Q ideas on many of my posts. The account didn't use a real name, but the profile was classic QAnon, complete with the #WWG1WGA. ("Where we go one, we go all"—a QAnon rallying cry.) I thought it might be a bot, so I blocked them. Later, I discovered that it was actually one of my own extended family members.

Holy crap, I actually know people who actually believe this stuff.

Keep Reading Show less

Even as millions of Americans celebrated the inauguration of President Joe Biden this week, the nation also mourned the fact that, for the first time in modern history, the United States did not have a peaceful transition of power.

With the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, when pro-Trump insurrectionists attempted to stop the constitutional process of counting electoral votes and where terrorists threatened to kill lawmakers and the vice president for not keeping Trump in power, our long and proud tradition was broken. And although presidential power was ultimately transferred without incident on January 20, the presence of 20,000 National Guard troops around the Capitol reminded us of the threat that still lingers.

First Lady Jill Biden showed up today with cookies in hand for a group of National Guard troops at the Capitol to thank them for keeping her family safe. The homemade chocolate chip cookies were a small token of appreciation, but one that came from the heart of a mother whose son had served as well.

Keep Reading Show less