By Joanna Mechlinski
It’s rare to see a disabled or chronically ill person in a leading role on TV or in the movies. It’s even more rare to see the occasional role filled by an actor who shares the same disability or illness in real life (unlike Hugh Laurie, for example, who didn’t need a cane to walk like his titular character on House did).
This past September, viewers were introduced to the character of JJ DiMeo, a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, on the ABC sitcom Speechless. Played by Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, JJ is uses a motorized wheelchair and a communication board, as well as an assistant, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) as he navigates school, friends, family and the world as a whole.
In a recent episode, JJ and his 14-year-old brother Ray (Mason Cook) want to go to the mall to get their younger sister a birthday gift. Their mother Maya (Minnie Driver) tells the boys to be careful — and for Ray to take care of JJ. Understandably, JJ is miffed. He tells Ray that he’s the older brother and ought to be taking care of Ray, not vice versa. While Ray understands the problem, he’s at a loss on how to answer.
But thanks to a small argument, the afternoon doesn’t exactly go as planned. When Ray isn’t paying attention, JJ leaves the house and heads for the mall himself.
The world, of course, has a number of obstacles for a person like JJ. But the teen wasn’t deterred by any of them. While riding the bus, JJ couldn’t pull the rope or call out to let the driver know where to let him off – so he shone his laser pointer at the driver’s mirror and got himself thrown off the bus at the precise spot he wanted.
When coming to the end of a busy street, JJ was unable to press the button that would allow for a pedestrian to cross. So he rammed his wheelchair into a trashcan, causing it to fall partially into the road. Drivers slammed on their brakes, and a satisfied JJ was able to roll safely to the next block.
After a number of other difficulties on the part of both brothers, JJ and Ray are finally reunited at the mall – only to face off to a young man who is clearly taking advantage of being a bit older and stronger to bully them. As the sole possessor of a speaking voice, an obviously terrified Ray is doing his best to stand up to the young man. But little does he know that JJ has ideas of his own. In the end, it’s the older brother who saves the day.
Obviously, JJ’s cerebral palsy plays a huge part in his life – and thus the show as a whole. It would be unrealistic for Speechless to pretend otherwise. But equally prominent is the message that regardless of abilities or disabilities, all people are just people. For the most part, we all want the same things in life.
In another episode, students were asked to write an essay about their hero. Ray understands all too well what kinds of ideas people tend to have about those faced with disabilities, and if it leads to winning the hoverboard prize, Ray is fine with parroting the words about JJ they want to hear.
Yet ultimately Ray discovers he can’t go through with it. Instead of telling the audience what a saint his brother is, Ray details everyday life with JJ – even the way he recently attempted to run Ray over with his wheelchair when he got annoyed with him. Disappointed in hearing about a teenage boy essentially just like any other, the judges award the prize to a student who proclaims his life utterly transformed by the example of JJ.
The student didn’t even know JJ personally. As bizarre as that might seem to viewers, the writers essentially nailed the scenario. Chances are, that’s exactly the way the essay contest would have gone down.
Television and film have a long way to go before they start to depict people with disabilities or chronic illness in a realistic manner. But with shows like Speechless, it’s at least a step in the right direction.
Joanna Mechlinski is a former newspaper reporter who now works in education. She is a chronic pain sufferer who lives in Connecticut and is a frequent contributor to the National Pain Report.
Featured image of JJ DiMeo as played by Micah Fowler from Speechless. http://abc.go.com/shows/speechless/cast/jj-dimeo