23 Things Speechless Season One Taught Us About Life with Disabilities

If you’ve been watching ABC’s freshman comedy Speechless, it’s not hard to see why the network renewed it for a second season late last week. The show is a quirky, insightful, heartwarming and at times startlingly accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a teen with disabilities, and part of a special needs family. Its charming stars, including Minnie Driver as irrepressible matriarch Maya DiMeo and Micah Fowler as her son, JJ, who has cerebral palsy, push their characters beyond archetype. Exploring the life of a disabled teen in high school, Speechless strikes just the right balance of hilarity and teachable moments, without stretching into offensive comedy or inspiration porn. Unlike any series that has come before it, Speechless fearlessly (and funnily) addresses the cultural ignorance, insensitivity and stereotypes surrounding disability. Here are 23 things Speechless Season One taught us about what it means to be disabled in America.

23. “C-A—CAMP” 
Original Airdate: May 17, 2017

In the season finale, Speechless uses J.J. going away to summer camp to more examine how Maya has wound her self-worth, purpose and identity up in being J.J.’s advocate, and the ways J.J.’s own identity is so closely wrapped up in his connection to his family. The writers and creators of Speechless are clearly aware of how prominently both of these struggles impact teens with disabilities and their parents. And as someone who struggled, along with my mother, throughout my primary and secondary education with a learning disability, I am, too.

Growing up as the only child of a single, working class mother who was acutely tuned-in to my learning disabilities, I always had someone to fight my battles, defend my abilities (and my promise), and fiercely hold others accountable for their mistreatment of me. But after years of having to advocate for me, that role became an intrinsic part of her identity. Her anger or sadness, which sometimes surfaced, over me doing exactly what she had fought for and prepared me to do wasn’t just about whether I appreciated her. It was that she, after our many long-fought battles, saw my independence as a chance for me to fail without the safety net she could provide. But also that, after our many years together, she maybe needed me now just a little more than I needed her.

Speechless asks the questions, when all we’ve had is each other, how do we define and find ourselves outside of that? And in the perfect way, Speechless gives us our answer: J.J. sees the same dynamic he and Maya share being stretched among the other kids and their parents at camp. They and viewers realize that the nature of their relationship and the space between them will change, but their bond never has to.

22. “M-A—MAY-JAY” 
Original Airdate: May 10, 2017

This episode marks the first time on Speechless audiences really see the less glamorous side of J.J.’s battle for independence. When J.J. proposes going to summer camp, Mama DiMeo gets insecure. Maya wants to spend more time with J.J. now that school’s out, and in an effort to do that, she inadvertently questions whether he is ready for that kind of autonomy. In a truly emotional moment, we see J.J. attempt to prove his ableness by standing up out of his chair. When he does, he falls, and the family ends up rushing him to the hospital. The moment is tough to watch, but it’s important for several reasons: First, it reminds viewers that in spite of accommodations and confidence, sometimes there are things one simply can’t do. It’s a concept that can be agonizingly difficult for people with disabilities to come to terms with. Second, it shows just how vital it is to have a support network to get you through that realization. Maya and J.J.’s aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) at different times remind J.J. that acknowledging the limitations of his disabilities never means he has to be defined by it. He can still have independence, he’ll just have to go about it in a certain way.

21. “P-R—PROM” 
Original Airdate: May 3, 2017

IIn “P-R—PROM,” Speechless tackles why “retard” isn’t ever a harmless word by way of Ray’s prom date, before letting J.J. find common ground with his peers who also, at times, feel like outcasts. Of course, J.J.’s experience at the dance is as much about learning to reject socially constructed frames of normalcy as embracing the ways he is, like everyone, different. Throughout Season One we’ve watched J.J. be treated with “special gloves” while everyone around him experiences even basic social interaction differently. It’s a difficult thing to accept and, in fact, leaves J.J. feeling bitter. But these kinds of experiences also build a special resilience—one that the teen uses to help his classmates. What makes him stand out can help others feel like on to use his complicated relationship with visibility to help others feel more confident about themselves at prom.

20. “R-U-N—RUNAWAY” 
Original Airdate: April 26, 2017

After overhearing the rest of his family discussing plans for him without his input, J.J. runs away to Kenneth’s house. There, he reveals how angry he feels being left out of the conversation about his future, and about being seen as a “burden” on his family. Of course, Kenneth brings the runaway teen back home, but in typical Maya fashion, she’s outraged that Kenneth would undermine J.J.’s choice to run away. Able-bodied kids do it, so why can’t her son? Outside of J.J.’s own realizations about his potential for personal independence, the episode more subtly discusses the unique bonds parents forge with their children who have disabilities. Maya is so dedicated to taking care of J.J. that even she forgets what he’s capable of. And whether she realizes it or not, she may need him as he much as, or more than, he needs her.

19. “C-H-E—CHEATER” 
Original Airdate: April 5, 2017

In this episode, J.J. and Kenneth are accused of abusing their relationship to help J.J. cheat. In many ways, “C-H-E—CHEATER is a case study in the ways classroom accommodations for students with disabilities are often seen as an unfair advantage when in reality, classroom aides are designed to help compensate for any disadvantages students may experience. In J.J.’s case, that’s Kenneth functioning as J.J.’s hands so the teen can complete his test in a timely manner. The episode also tackles how often those involved in the educational accommodations process, when not properly trained (like Kenneth), end up misusing the designed support, undermining its importance and purpose.

This list first appeared in full at Paste Magazine on May 19, 2017

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