As a Special Needs Parent, I Thought I'd Hate ‘Speechless’

Why I was wrong—and what the ABC comedy reveals about conviction and forgiveness.
As a Special Needs Parent, I Thought I'd Hate ‘Speechless’
Image: Courtesy ABC

When I first saw the trailer for ABC’s Speechless, it was shortly after my son was diagnosed with autism, and I was prepared to self-righteously hate it. It conjured the first and only memory I have of my child being mocked: As my son head-butted the side of a car-shaped grocery cart, an older boy in line behind us did the same. Declan thought he was being included in a game. I knew he was being excluded from one.

This is the sort of tone I feared Speechless might strike—one that generated humor by merely playing at inclusion. The 30-minute sitcom features JJ DiMeo, a 16-year-old boy who is rendered speechless by cerebral palsy, and the other DiMeos as they grapple with life as a special needs family in Newport Beach, California. Its premise reads like it should be a drama a la Parenthood. From the get-go, however, it promised to move against the sentimental current that drives most other shows about kids with special needs.

Based solely on the trailer, Speechless seemed uncomfortably irreverent to me, siphoning humor from the special needs community. As I’ve continued to watch it, though, I’ve realized this careful irreverence actually enables Speechless not only to depict the challenges of a special needs family holistically but also to raise broader questions about metaphorical voicelessness and privilege. To accomplish this, the show’s creators tap into the vestiges of a fading form of humor—namely, humor as a form of grace. This unexpected tone won me over as a viewer and empowered me to find a similar grace in my own life.

By the time I hate-watched one episode of Speechless, the sticker shock of my son’s diagnosis had worn off. We were still walking through the heavy moments of autism, but they’d started to take on a dark sort of humor at times, too—humor I felt forbidden to laugh at. This is one of the ways in which Speechless succeeds: by casting off the obligatory homage to sentimentality, the show speaks to the sort of gut-wrenching, irreverent comedic tension we’re socially inhibited from giving voice to.

Precisely because Speechless approaches a special needs family via the formula of a modern sitcom, it reaches the most uncomfortable places of life for some families—places dramas like Parenthood are not agile enough to access. A quirky family sitcom is perfectly positioned to perform a quick pivot from the absurd to the serious without giving its audience whiplash. By doing so, the show’s writers highlight our long-held social expectations, and then succinctly speak doubt into those expectations.

For example, one ongoing arc in the show highlights the dehumanizing effects of pandering to the vulnerable by exaggerating that pandering to the point of absurdity. We see this in episode 10 when JJ is awarded a choir solo, despite his physical inability to speak, let alone sing. The entire choir earnestly applauds JJ’s talent, ignoring the fact that Kenneth, JJ’s aide, is very obviously the one performing. The farce raises the question: How far are we willing to extend the illusion of JJ’s typicality? At what point does it become absurd? And is our discomfort in acknowledging JJ’s differences rooted in the same sentiment as racial “color-blindness”—a nonsensical insistence on sameness that erases differences that we actually interpret as inferiorities?

The same moment is used to continue another theme woven into the series: the various and often unexpected forms social privilege takes. The premise of Speechless is JJ’s vulnerability, and viewers therefore expect to see him as the show’s victim. This rarely happens. Instead, JJ’s unexpected advantages are used frequently to examine social privilege.

The most obvious instance of this is JJ’s relationship to Kenneth, who describes himself in the pilot episode as “the black person in Newport.” Kenneth becomes JJ’s aide almost by chance when he happens upon the teen and his fiercely protective mother, Maya, on the school’s garbage ramp. Ironically, JJ grants Kenneth metaphorical voice when he asks Kenneth to act as his physical one.

The dynamic between JJ and Kenneth shifts from side to side throughout the duration of the season. Kenneth is alternately shielded by JJ's privilege and subsumed by it, and vice versa. In the choir scene, for example, it’s painfully uncomfortable to watch the director look into JJ’s eyes and compliment his voice while ignoring the black man plainly singing. The scene points at white privilege with convicting directness, but also with a supple humor, allowing viewers enough grace to exist in it without defense.

Framing JJ this way—as both a privilege-bearer and as a person with a disability—allows him to come into relief as a holistic human being. He is the funny, pushy older brother. He is sarcastic, and at times crude. And yes, he also has a life-altering disability—one that is integrated into his personhood, not extracted as a foreign adversity, and one that does not render him powerless.

This depiction would likely be utterly impossible in another format. Speechless, in other words, is not successful in spite of being a sitcom, but precisely because it is a sitcom. It employs humor in groundbreaking ways—not simply weaponizing it against the ideas it sets out to challenge, but also making it a vessel of grace extended to the human beings who embrace those ideas. It convicts in much the same way Christians are called to convict: by drawing someone into correction and by calling into question the overlooked social dynamics that might obstruct repentance.

Allowing this sort of humor to work in my own life has helped me not only to better exist in a special needs family but also to exist in my community. For instance, this week’s episode, “O-s-Oscar P-a-Party,” uses Maya’s rivalry with a seemingly perfect fellow special needs mom to highlight the limits of intended inclusivity. While eventually Maya and her rival conclude that there is room at the table for all special needs mothers, they also firmly agree that mothers without kids with special needs are simply the worst. It’s a small moment of convicting irony, but one that points to the restrictions I’ve placed on my own communion with others.

This is the sort of humor Speechless has gifted me with—the kind that both convicts and forgives, that exposes the deficiencies in my social expectations and helps fill them. The model is reminiscent of discipleship, which serves the process of transformation through relationship. While it’s not the only valuable feature embedded in the sitcom, it is the force that animates all the other goodness Speechless delivers weekly.

Val Dunham graduated from Liberty University in 2011 with a BA in English. Though she's originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, she currently lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her husband, Matt, and son, Declan. In her free time, Val enjoys writing for Christ and Pop Culture, watching any and every Boston sporting event, and volunteering at Cambria Baptist Church.

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As a Special Needs Parent, I Thought I'd Hate ‘Speechless’