Opinion: Speechless – The Portrayal of Disabled and Chronically Ill People

Opinion: Speechless – The Portrayal of Disabled and Chronically Ill People

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).

Joanna Mechlinski

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

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Authored by: Joanna Mechlinski

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Tim Mason at 8:44 pm

    My first reply was either over looked or rejected.
    I am sorry to see that.
    In short, I referred readers “On Borrowed Time” starring Lionel Barrymore and “The Young Dr. Kildare starring him also as a Dr. Gillespie. Both wheelchair bound and not for the sake of the movie. these movies are 1939 and 1938 respectively.
    I would also like to add. “The Secret Garden” 1948. although the child in this move was obviously not sick and wheelchair bound in real life..

    And to IB suffering. the addicts represent a psychosocial problems with a certain age group that wants to be hip and rob from mom, dad, granny and pappy to party with their friends.
    Granny’s medicine did not kill their teen, the teen killed him/herself. I am certain those pills did not jump from granny’s cabinet or purse and jump into their mouths.
    reference this to booze and cigarettes.
    If I had $10 dollars for every 19 to 25 year old that got arrested everyday in this town for possession of controlled substance (CII) I would not have to work. They steal or trade for these medications.

  2. Ibin Suffran at 11:38 am

    Unfortunately the disabled, chronically ill, and chronic pain patients seem t be a sub-culture in the greatest country on the face of the planet. No one or agency wishes to deal appropriately with the fact that we are all created equal. It has been amended to we are all created equal but, we will treat you the way we wish. Chronic illness does not affect some people, directly or indirectly. MILLIONS of good, hard working folks are struggling for ANY “quality” of life but, we must slow the opioid epidemic. There are better ways to deal with immorality, lawlessness, and self destruction and carelessness but again all are chastised for the sins of the few. The “mindset” for the few causing an “opioid epidemic” can NOT be altered by damming up the needed medicine supply. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Meaning, the needed opioid medication will be kept from those who .really need it, don’t abuse it, and can’t get but what will replace the void. My guess is something worse. I respect the agencies TRULY concerned about the health welfare of this country.

  3. Maureen at 7:31 am

    Joanna, I love reading your post! I’m proud of JJ for becoming an actor!
    Thank you for depicting the essence of what we all deal with.
    Just this week I had an old friend come visit me, from out of state, for just 2 1/2 days.
    I’ve known her since kindergarten (we are in our early 60’s now) and hadn’t seen her for 3 years since I moved from CT. to Fla.
    This friend has never seemed to want to grasp hold of the condition I live with since my auto accident injury in 2004. The day my life changed big time.
    We were best friends growing up/since age 5, we traveled together in our younger days, experienced life to the fullest together etc etc….before I became disabled.
    I asked her why did she come for such a short time??
    Her reply was ‘I didn’t want to tire you out’. I of course thought that was a lame answer, and it hurt me.
    My reply was ‘this is my condition and yes, I may tire out but all I need is some rest, lie on ice and then I can give more of myself.
    In the meantime, you could simply do your own thing and just ‘go with my flow’. She gave no reply back.
    My time with her surely did tire me out and put me in more pain and the day she left (yesterday morn) I had to crash!
    But, I tried to explain to her that just having her in my home preoccupying my mind and distracting me from my pain was like being in Heaven to me!
    I never ever get company. My 4 siblings who live here never even come to my home. I moved here for their help and support and never received it.
    I was thrilled to have her here! I pushed to ‘go with her flow’, and go out to lunch and to dinner (I never go to restaurants!) and take a scenic ride etc. and try to be more normal, for HER SAKE!
    It took me over a week to dust, clean my house and floors, make up her guest bed, food shop etc. That tired me out and surely hurt my body much more than her visit. I suffered greatly but would never tell her that.
    The day she arrived I was in sheer agony, but I had to hide it.
    I knew this friend would be afraid of me if I showed the true pain I was in.
    Its such a catch 22…
    Bottom line is that all we want is acceptance, interest, and at least an attempt toward understanding us, as well as compassion and even a smidgen of empathy and ‘not limiting time’ with us just because we are not like you, and for others to ‘go with our flow’! Why is that so hard for a lot of people?!