When Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver) in ABC’s Speechless confronts her son’s newest principal, Dr. Miller, over the school’s lack of accessibility, she is a force. She takes one look at the “wheelchair ramp” that her son is supposed to use (the rear exit used for garbage removal) and rips into Miller.
“It’s acceptable alternate access,” the principal responds sheepishly.
Maya then picks up a bag from the trash. “Empty bag of manure,” she says. “Trash, or person? Go!…It’s trash!” When Maya demands to know if Dr. Miller considers herself trash or a person, the principal stammers. Kenneth, the groundskeeper, sees her struggling. “You’re a person, Dr. Miller,” he says incredulously. Maya, her arms outstretched, responds through gritted teeth, “Of course you’re a person.”
As a young disabled woman who was recently a disabled teenager, I know what it’s like trying to negotiate a world built for the nondisabled. And so does my mother. It was with this scene that Speechless—a show whose main character is a teen with cerebral palsy—won our hearts. “It makes me feel not so ridiculous in how I pursued your rights in high school,” says my mom.
While my mother never reached the point of making an administrator question his or her own personhood, she did have my principal ducking into classrooms and offices whenever he saw her enter the building, fired up to fight for my accommodations. While we laugh about it now, that laughter comes from a place of pain. The fact is, we live in a world where the mother of a disabled child who advocates for her daughter’s civil rights is someone people run from rather than applaud. That’s why seeing parents like my mother represented on a prime-time TV show is so validating for our family.
As Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy, like his character, J.J., on Speechless, puts it, “When I first read the script, I thought I was reading something based on my life and my family…And I’ve had lots of other families tell me the same thing. They are so excited and thrilled to finally feel really represented.”
When I sat down to preview Atypical, a show about the family of Sam, an autistic teen, which premieres tomorrow on Netflix, I hoped to find another powerhouse of a mother fighting for her kid’s rights. Like Speechless’s Maya, Sam’s mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is angry. But while Maya is angry at the society that disables her son, in Atypical, Elsa’s anger is directed towards most everyone around her.
She’s upset when Sam seeks support from his father instead of her after he’s humiliated at school, and her feelings of uselessness spur her into a self-destructive decision that will throw the whole family into crisis, by the end of Season 1. She’s angry with Sam’s therapist, Julie, for even suggesting to her son that a teen with autism could date, and after one appointment, Elsa flips her off from the other side of the office door, ranting about how much she hates her, then proceeding to wipe her bare bottom on Julia’s car. Elsa tries to interfere in every aspect of Sam’s life, even going so far as to show up to his therapist’s office unannounced to discuss her son, in complete violation of his privacy.
After previewing Season 1, I reached out to members of the autism community via social media for their responses to the Atypical trailer. Jill Rattray, an autistic writer, responded via e-mail: “Atypical is not disability representation; it’s violence towards autistic people… Autistic people are the butt of the joke in this show.” Thirty-four-year-old Daniel B, who lives in Seattle, replied that what he sees doesn’t reflect his relationship with his mother. During IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings, when asked what her son wanted, Daniel’s mother’s answer was always a refrain of: “Ask Daniel.”
Why we all need to listen to kids with special needs
For kids with disabilities it feels empowering to see pop-culture representation of parents who want their children to be fierce and independent and to live their best possible lives. Daniel recognizes that his parents struggled at first with how to reconcile what society told them—that their son was broken—with their own experiences of him as an individual they loved and valued. But while he’s not saying TV parents of kids with special needs should be portrayed as superheroes without struggles, ultimately he’d prefer to see them represented more as people fighting external pressures from society, and less as people fighting internal pressures from their autistic child.
Another major flaw in Atypical is how it perpetuates myths about the nature of autism, and disability in general. One scene featured in trailers and promotional material shows Sam’s sister’s boyfriend telling Sam, “nobody’s normal,” to try and comfort him. This language further reinforces people’s tendency to use “normal” as the antonym for “disabled.” In a show featurette, Bridgette Lundy-Paige (who plays Sam’s sister) describes Atypical as going “deep into the magical world of the mind of someone with autism.” Statements like this feed into the myth of autistic minds as otherworldly and fodder for inspiring non-disabled people. What disabled kids and their families don’t need is the extra emotional labour of debunking myths.
Speechless, on the other hand, educates about disability without ever feeling preachy. It raises issues of accessibility, normalizes the use of a communication device and has a disabled lead character who is not only funny but sometimes even a bit of a jerk. In one episode JJ’s new teachers and classmates attempt to make him student body president, citing how “inspirational” he is, only to be met with derision from both JJ and his siblings. JJ refuses to serve as their hero just for leaving the house. Being treated as an inspiration for simply existing is not just patronizing, it’s something many disabled individuals experience on a daily basis.
The autism community has also been vocal about the portrayal of Sam in Atypical by non-disabled actor Keir Gilchrist and the lack of advisors to the show who are on the autism spectrum. One autistic 28-year-old twitter user, @adr1e tweeted: “I will give it a chance but the writers could have done so much more if you included actual autistic people.”
When a disabled kid is cast in a disabled role, it adds credibility to the narrative and the entire series; it conveys to disabled teens and their families that the show creators do not see disability as a costume, but rather someone’s identity. If I had seen disabled kids represented accurately on TV when I was a teenager, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me until I was in my early twenties to embrace my identity as a disabled woman.
There are some redeeming moments in Atypical: a handful of Sam’s conversations with his father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), ring with authenticity, such as those that are not based on parental frustration and disappointment, but rather show a dad attempting to give his son dating advice. And, in a scene that had me cheering, Sam debunks the myth that autistic people don’t have empathy. Sitting with his therapist, he explains that he may have difficulty immediately reading how others are feeling, but once he knows, he feels just as empathetic, if not more so, than others.
But such scenes are few and far between, and to me this reflects the fact that Atypical is not informed by any advisor who actually has the disability that defines the main child character.
The show’s creator has a family member with autism, there was one actor with autism in a very minor role, several crew members have kids on the spectrum, and there is an autism researcher on staff who ensures the therapist character acts according to protocol, granted. But when I see scenes like the one in which Sam is told he’s becoming a better person, because he’s only talking about Antarctica, his favorite subject, three times a day, I cringe.
If Atypical had input from individuals who were themselves autistic, it’s unlikely they would have gone with a plot point that involved pushing Sam to hide who he was. This sentiment is shared by Canadian disability rights activist and editor of Autistics Aloud Patricia George-Zwicker (@pgzwicker), who tweeted to the show’s official Twitter account: “You’re seeing the backlash—it’s not going away. Had you had enough #ActuallyAutistic to guide you this would not be happening #Atypical.”
Speechless, on the other hand, hired multiple disability consultants, both disabled and non-disabled. And, in contrast to the response of autistic community to Atypical, cast lead Micah Fowler says in all the conversations he’s had with individuals with CP and their families, “I haven’t had one person tell me we’re doing it wrong, so I think we’re on the right track to accurate representation.”
As a disabled viewer I want to see TV families like mine, who may be complicated and flawed and at times even unlikeable, but who love each other for who they are—who don’t think of things in terms of “normal” and “abnormal,” and who are focused on rights that every person should be afforded. I don’t want any more sob stories, and I certainly don’t want stereotypes about disabled children and their families to be perpetuated.
We are not a monolith, and we deserve to see that played out on our television screens just as much as other families. When a TV show gets it right, the results are tangible. Speechless star Micah Fowler reports that after Season 1:
“I’ve had moms telling me that siblings are now proud of their disabled brother or sister instead of ashamed, people telling me that their kids have finally started using their AAC [augmentative and alternative communication] devices to communicate like JJ, adults telling me how much it means to finally be accurately represented after all these years, and moms thanking me for giving their child hope and making them smile again.”
When Speechless returns to screens this fall, my mother and I will be glued to the screen. Who knows what next year will bring in terms of shows featuring disabled kids and their families. On top of hoping for more representation in general, I’m hoping for more relatable and diverse characters (how about a female teen with disabilities… a person of colour?) and more sensitive and informed plotlines. If Atypical makes it to a second season, I hope that the show will—to quote my mother—“quit congratulating itself and step it up—it’s 2017 for God’s sake!”