ABC’s Speechless has arrived. Finally! Hollywood gets off its collagen-loving, perfectly coiffed ass and creates a network television show featuring a main character in a wheelchair. *gasp* If that wasn’t remarkable enough, the role is also played by a real honest-to-goodness disabled actor with cerebral palsy. *double gasp*
I should note that this isn’t the first attempt to be “inclusive.” Shows like Facts of Life, Life Goes On, and most recently, the Game of Thrones, have attempted it to varying degrees of success. (Peter Dinklage is our answer to Laurence Olivier) But, it shouldn’t be such a noteworthy achievement— considering that folks with disabilities make up such a large segment of the population. According to the U.S. Census, it is estimated that 19% of Americans live with some sort of disability. The umbrella of disability includes various sensory, motor and physical impairments, as well as, invisible disabilities— like learning challenges, autism spectrum conditions, and those with chronic mental health issues.
Yet, despite the large pool of disabled folks from which to draw, 95% of disabled characters in movies and television have been played by able-bodied actors. If you’re lucky and can manage to be an able-bodied white actor playing an “inspiring disabled character” in a movie (à la Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne, Al Pacino, Tom Hanks, etc.), the Academy can’t shower you with an Oscar fast enough. You might as well get the spot ready on your fireplace mantle right now. It won’t be long before a naked, golden— and slightly androgynous— man is perched on top.
Hollywood loves to be “inspired” by stories of heroic disabled people overcoming the odds to achieve remarkable feats— like breathing, eating, sleeping, and making able-bodied people feel better about themselves. Since most of the writers and directors are also able-bodied, these roles are often clichéd, one-dimensional and firmly keep the disabled character in the box labeled “inspiration.” Since 1989, 14 of the 27 Best Actor winners have played a character with some kind of disability. And of those 14, only Jamie Foxx was a person of color. #OscarsSoWhite #NoRealCripplesAllowed
And that does all of us, disabled and not, a great disservice. The disabled community is just as diverse, talented, and multi-faceted as society at-large. By portraying us in such a limited way, we are all losing out.
This is why I am encouraged by the arrival of ABC’s Speechless. It’s quirky, messy and slightly irreverent— with an authenticity and edge that you rarely see in Hollywood’s depictions of disability. We live in a society that spawned the Kardashians, so generally we aren’t allowed to see anything on television that hasn’t been nipped, spray-tanned, and plastered with Botox. So, Speechless is a refreshing change.
Hope the show keeps to its roots and holds on to its edge. If you want to watch a show with sugary sentimentality, you can just watch reruns of Full House.
(For the time being, you can stream the first episode here: http://abc.go.com/shows/speechless/episode-guide/season-01/1-series-premiere-p-i-pilot)