I am not a saint because I have a chronic illness, nor do I want to be. Yet sometimes society puts those who experience some sort of disability on a pedestal or considers them something “other.” Sometimes we make assumptions about people with a disability or a physical impairment, and we treat them in a way that makes us feel good rather than how the person actually wants to be treated.
It wasn’t until I saw the first episode of Speechless that I realized how important it was for the story to exist. When I heard that ABC’s new TV show was about a kid in a wheelchair, I imagined an after-school special trying (and failing) to tug at my heartstrings. But that is not what this delightful comedy is all about.People want heroes to overcome their challenges, and disability is not something that can be “fixed.”
The show takes pleasure in showing that JJ DiMeo, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, is a normal kid with as much sass as the next teenager. In the first episode alone, he teases his brother, smirks at a lady in a parking lot for yelling at his mother when she parks in a handicap zone, and shows more animation than a Disney flick. The show is witty, wry, and willing to tackle difficult topics with compassion and humor.
Speechless struck a chord with me because it ingeniously balances misconceptions about illness and disability with the cacophony of everyday life. I’m not in a wheelchair, but I deal with chronic pain on a regular basis, and I know what it’s like to feel out of place because of physical limitations. I also hate being put in the spotlight for something I have no control over.
Disability vs. Sainthood
The show refuses to follow the “inspirationally disadvantaged” cliché found in lots of fiction that features disabled characters (what I like to refer to as the Tiny Tim Trope). Speechless treats JJ as a normal person with a unique personality—faults, flaws, and everything. The pilot episode even makes fun of this trope as JJ is greeted with applause from his classmates when he enters his new school. For no reason beyond his being in a wheelchair, he is commended by his teacher and encouraged to run for school president.
“Why? You don’t know me,” he asks through his communication board in response to a “JJ for President” sign being flashed in his face.
“Well, we don’t have to. You’re an inspiration,” the teacher replies.
As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s a hilarious representation of our culture’s common response to people with disabilities. When someone is different, we treat him differently. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. In episode 4, JJ and his aide, Kenneth, discover that not only can they cut lines because JJ is in a wheelchair, but people will also buy them lunch, let them into baseball games for free, and basically let them do whatever they want. The show peels this trope back to reveal the reality: such generosity was more about the people feeling good for doing a supposedly good deed than about JJ inspiring the masses.
The show points out this misconception in society that disabled people need to be inspirations for the rest of us. And it’s sadly true that if you are not a charismatic, Type A go-getter, your job options are limited when you’re disabled. JJ can’t work as a cashier, do manual labor, or wait tables like many teenagers his age do. But his inability to do those things doesn’t mean his job is automatically to make others feel better about their own existence.
Speechless makes fun of this treatment again in episode 12, when a random kid writes a speech about JJ and refers to him as his best friend and hero—when he doesn’t know JJ at all.
“It’s insulting. I don’t exist to make you feel better about yourself,” JJ tells him.
He then gives his brother Ray permission to give a completely sappy speech about how much he loves JJ so Ray will win the speech contest instead of the other kid. Though Ray is prepared to lay it on thick when he steps onto the podium, he ends up unable to milk his relationship with his brother in that fashion. Instead, he tells the truth:
“My brother isn’t a hero,” Ray says. “I know him better than anyone. And I can tell you, in all honesty, he can be a real jerk. He teases me and tortures me. Runs me over with his wheelchair. He told me I was adopted and my real mom was Nancy Grace. He isn’t brave either. He’s just living his life. And there’s nothing brave about that.”
Ray’s speech does JJ more of a favor than the previous kid’s, and JJ responds to it with a huge grin. While I think that living with a disability often does require bravery, it’s often not the disability itself but culture’s response to it that requires courage.
The show subverts the Tiny Tim Trope by JJ’s dismayed response to this special treatment and by declaring his family members’ stories are just as important as his. We get to know and love his parents and his siblings just as much (if not more than) JJ throughout the series.
Don’t Apologize for Being You
The reason disabilities are treated so differently in our culture is because we worship youth, beauty, health, and strength. If you don’t fall into one of those categories, you get allocated to sainthood (see above) or written off as worthless.
Illness is often treated in the media as something to be pitied in a one-off episode (like when Lucy gets a cold in Fairy Tail and has to miss the annual Blossom Viewing Festival) or as a plot device to accomplish a new setting or for character development (such as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy fights a monster that preys on sick children in the hospital). The death of a character due to illness can be used to propel a protagonist into adventure without being tied down (such as in Guardians of the Galaxy when Star Lord’s mother dies). If there’s a disabled character, the story often revolves entirely around the disability and how it affects the person’s life (such as Forrest Gump).
At a Television Critics Association gathering, Speechless’s executive producer Scott Silveri said, “The show is about being different and not apologizing for being different and embracing who you are. We want to get it right. Because there are so few representations of people with disability on television we knew we had to do it in an intelligent and responsible way.”
Physical illness and disability is hard to write around if it isn’t the main crux of the story. Hence why we have so many stories about cancer patients, but not many about someone with cancer as an important character outside of her illness. People want heroes to overcome their challenges, and disability is not something that can be “fixed.”
When a disability is a part of you, it’s not something you should have to apologize for. It’s also not something you should be concerned about being unaccepted for. The reality is often, of course, otherwise. The other side of pandering behavior is people not treating you as equals, and JJ experiences a lot of that in the show as well, from Ray scoffing at him at the idea of going to a grocery store by himself to his mom wanting to solve every one of his problems. However, the strength of his character comes from an identity that is not wrapped up in his disability.
Identity Comes from Elsewhere
Identities shouldn’t be dependent on the physical, as difficult as it is to see beyond it. Especially for Christians, we can remember our identities have a whole lot more to do with Christ than they do with us or with our physical form.
If you take a look at Jesus’ treatment of people with disabilities in the Gospels, you’ll notice he did a lot of healing, yes, but it was their faith that he found more important. In one chapter of Matthew alone, there are three examples of this:
“And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’ ” (9:2)
“Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ ” (9:22)
“When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ They said to him, ‘Yes, Lord.’ Then, he touched their eyes, saying, ‘According to your faith be it done to you.’ And their eyes were opened.” (9:28–30)
Jesus recognized that physical disabilities were an awful thing to live with, and he healed many people of them. But it was the heart that he cared most about, not the paralytic’s inability to move or the blind men’s inability to see. Looking beyond the physical form, Jesus was concerned with who those people were, what they cared about, who they loved, and what they believed in. The body was just a temporary thing, and not as important to him (easy for him to say, I know, I know—but still true).
As tricky as it is, our identities are supposed to be rooted in our connection and relationship to our Creator, which allows us to shift focus away from ourselves and onto God instead. This allows us to recognize that there’s more to the world than our suffering, to know there’s something beautiful and indescribably wonderful to come. By focusing on Christ now, we can catch glimpses of that beauty in this world and are reminded of His promises—promises of joy, life, and an end to all suffering and disability. These promises apply to us all, regardless of our physical state.