Earlier today, I was saddened to learn that my favorite TV show, “Speechless,” has been canceled after three seasons. I was first introduced to the show by one of my professors when it first started airing in September 2016, and have since then continued to follow along with the show, which chronicles the ups, downs, and all-arounds of navigating life with a disability with your family by your side. Today, I will be sharing takeaways from the show “Speechless” for students with disabilities, with no spoilers included.
Sometimes, students move schools to get accommodations
The show starts out with the announcement that the DiMeo family has moved to a new neighborhood in a new school district so that their son, JJ, can get the services he needs to be successful in the classroom with his cerebral palsy. I remember being super excited when I saw this situation on TV, because the exact same thing had happened to my family right before my junior year of high school. Like JJ, teachers had problems with providing me accommodations in the classroom, so my family and I moved to another school district so that I could have a fair chance at graduating high school in four years. This isn’t necessarily a positive thing that happens, but it’s great to see a student that had the same experience I did, and I think it’s important for people to see that students with disabilities are not treated the same from school to school.
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“High functioning” labels are annoying for everyone
People would often tell me that I was very “high functioning” despite my vision impairment when I was in school. Just like JJ, I would get very annoyed at these labels because teachers would have different expectations for me because of my disability, or they would act surprised when I was able to do an ordinary task. I also related to when JJ was trying to do a bunch of tasks that he hadn’t been able to do before and then found himself stuck in a situation where he had to get his aide, Kenneth, to bail him out. By getting caught up in the “high functioning” label, it erases the fact that students still need certain accommodations or that they have certain things that they need help with.
The right assistive technology and accommodations can help a student thrive
As I mentioned, one of my professors introduced me to this show, primarily because they were excited to see how the use of a communication device helped JJ express himself and ensure that he could be successful inside and outside of the classroom. For one of our class assignments, I wrote a short essay about how JJ’s communication device allowed him to be able to talk to his family, participate in extracurriculars, and be included in the general classroom. In addition, having access to Kenneth as a classroom aide helped him to develop socially, meet other students that he might not otherwise talk to, and even sing in choir. It would have been much more difficult to do these things without assistive technology or the amazing Kenneth!
Families are great advocates
JJ’s two siblings, Dylan and Ray, are great allies for JJ and help him in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. While there are moments where they do use JJ’s disability to their advantage, I appreciated seeing that they were always willing to help him and advocate for him as needed. JJ’s siblings reminded me a lot of my own brother, who has helped me a lot with navigating my disability and chronic illness, and who has been a fantastic advocate for me as well.
Another thing I really admired about “Speechless” was how JJ’s parents would defend him in disability meetings and ensure he received his services. My parents fought hard to ensure that I would have access to large print and accessible materials in the classroom, even when there were times when the school insisted there was nothing that could be done. I’m sure my mom and JJ’s mom could bond over these shared experiences of having to ensure that schools provided accommodations.
Disabled students want to do things their peers do as well
Oftentimes, the stereotype is that disabled students don’t do anything for fun and they just sit in the house when they come home from school. JJ helped to show that was far from the case, as there were episodes where he attended parties, participated in plays, went to prom, and even sneaked out of the house. I remember my teachers being surprised that I played clarinet, acted in the one-act play, and even went to prom because they imagined that my medical condition would keep me from doing all of these things or having fun while doing them. Just like JJ, I could enjoy the same activities as my peers and have just as much fun.
Disabled people are not your inspiration
Disability is often portrayed in the media as a tragedy, and that people who are able to function with their disability are considered “inspirational.” I love how “Speechless” tackled this issue and ensured that JJ was not seen as extraordinary because he could do the same things as his siblings. While his disability was a major part of the show, JJ was never portrayed as a static character or as someone who existed to teach the other characters a lesson.
Another thing I appreciated was that JJ didn’t ask for a lot of special treatment or insist that he get things simply because he is disabled. While they do slip up a few times, his family is generally the same way and ensure that they are seen as having three kids- not two kids and one kid with a disability.
One of the biggest takeaways from “Speechless” is how much disability representation matters in the media. I had never seen a TV show before that tackled the unique experience of being a teenager with a physical disability, and the chaotic things that can happen as a result of that. Sometimes I wish that “Speechless” had premiered when I was in high school, because I feel like it would have helped me with understanding that I have different experiences compared to other students without disabilities, but that everything will work out at the end.
So, thank you to the cast and crew of “Speechless” for creating such an amazing show that perfectly describes what it’s like to be a student with a disability in public schools. It will always be one of my favorite shows!