Monday, March 21, 2016

Hey, ABC, about that new special needs family sitcom: Don't let us down

Hey, ABC, people are buzzing about Speechless, your pilot centered around a family with a child who has special needs. The so-called comedy from writer Scott Silveri stars Minnie Driver as Maya, an "overbearing mother who moves her family from town to town in an effort to find the right school for her non-verbal son, JJ," according to TVLine

Deadline says that the family "is good at dealing with the challenges it faces and excellent at creating new ones." It also notes that Maya's "single-minded fight for her family can rub people the wrong way—sometimes people in the family itself—but it all stems from a loving intention."

Well, now. While it's breakthrough to have a sitcom about a special needs family, this isn't sounding like a very positive portrayal, ABC. Still, I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. I speak for a lot of parents of kids with special needs when I express my hopes for this potential series.

We hope you don't make special needs moms out to be obnoxious crazy ladies.

Like any parents, we want the best for our children. But we often have to be pushy—because of old-school viewpoints about kids with special needs, because of budget concerns, because of prejudice, because of ignorance or because sometimes only we see our child's potential. Even in settings where you wouldn't think we have to go into overdrive, such as education meetings that determine our children's education goals, we have to be pushy. As a mom noted on a thread on the Facebook page of my friend Hallie, who has a daughter with Down syndrome: "That overbearing mom/dad persona exists, and a comedy may be exactly what we need to help it be understood." We hope you make it clear why special needs parents behave the way they do.

We hope you accurately depict the mountains we must climb, small and large.

Entertainment website The Wrap describes a scene in which a school groundskeeper and Maya have a run-in when she "throws a fit because the wheelchair ramp doubles as as a ramp for the garbage dumpster." I hope you make it totally clear that this is no small thing; why should a child share an entryway with trash?! Sometimes we have to stand up for our children's most basic dignity. Michele Shusterman, founder of the CP Now Foundation, pulled her daughter out of a school that would not install a bathroom grab bar for her. No joke.

We hope you show the abilities.

OK, so you went clever with the title Speechless, a play on the extreme frustration this mom experiences and her child's lack of articulation. But JJ surely isn't voiceless; there are many ways a child with verbal challenges can communicate—with speech apps and augmentative devices, with gestures, expressions, with their eyes. Our children make their needs known. Please show how competent JJ can be.

We hope you help people understand we're not so different.

As parents of kids with special needs, we are acutely aware that sometimes people pity us and our kids, and think that we are a wholly different species. Yes, we face unique challenges, but our families can be like any out there: We enjoy each other's company, we go places, we have fun, we get on each others' nerves, the whole family shebang. We don't want people to feel sad for us—we want them to include us.

Maya and her family may be fictional, but they'll be the first special needs family a lot of viewers will be exposed to, and they'll likely accept them as reality.

Don't let us down, ABC.


  1. This will be interesting to see. Did it say when it will air? Media representation is important but only if it is positive and accurate. Hope this is. Special needs moms are not obnoxious, they are awesome. If my mom hadn't fought for me the way she did, who knows where I would be today.

  2. Perfectly said. I'm excited for this, actually! You didn't say when it is going to air.

    1. Every website result I found only mentioned that the pilot was ordered. Unfortunately, nothing said about when the first episode will be aired. ABC's website doesn't list it yet either. Looking forward to it though.

  3. There are both obnoxious and awesome people in all communities. I don't even know why me parents even bother to fight for me since I'm a useless child.

    1. You are not useless. You are here on this earth for a reason. <3

    2. FlutistPride....
      "You are not useless. You are here on this earth for a reason." I agree with Kathryn A!! Interestingly, I needed to read her comment myself today.... You--and I--are here on this Earth for a reason!! Thanks, Kathryn A!! ;-D
      Love you later, Raelyn

    3. No problem Raelyn! We all need a reminder from time to time!

  4. The casting of minnie driver makes me think you can look to About a Boy for an example of how they'll handle mother/son/advocacy. I think the key is whether they have advisors who will inhibit them from making the mistakes they don't even see on the horizon (and that requires several advisors with first hand knowledge).

  5. There's no way one show about one mom of one special needs kid can be all things to all people. A mom or kid who is nothing but a role model , without imperfections, or even without the sort of imperfections you think would be acceptable, would be really boring to watch.

    The ramp thing? My kid's school was built over 100 years ago and retrofitted with a ramp. One ramp. For the kids, for the trash, for the delivery of rented chairs for the spring musical.

  6. I have definitely become pushy, or as my daughter's teacher noted, she appreciated that I wanted to 'maximize' my daughter's schooling experience and was such a strong advocate. But as I noted back, I find it hard to identify myself as such an advocate when all I'm asking for is that the school meet the MINIMUM requirements of the law.

  7. I've watched every episode of Speechless so far...and I'm not happy with it. Most of my frustration stems not from how the mom, Maya, is portrayed, but from how JJ, the character with non-verbal CP is objectified. JJ is used as a "snowplow" to move items, has his speech device taken off of his chair for no apparent reason BY HIS AIDE (rendering him voiceless), and is overshadowed by the able-bodied characters. This is certainly not the positive portrayal for which I hoped (and I know many others in the disability community feel the same.) Representation is not enough; the representation of those with disabilities must display them as having agency. I'm a writer and I'm in the process of writing an opinion piece about this because I believe this is an important and relevant issue that must be addressed.


Thanks for sharing!

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