One of the key issues that the Attitude Foundation is addressing is the realistic portrayal of people with disability in television shows. The inclusion of the American situation comedy Speechless on Channel Eleven’s schedule is a significant breakthrough in this area.
The program centres on JJ DiMeo who is a 16-year old with cerebral palsy. He is non-verbal (which is where the title comes from) and a wheelchair user. The show follows him and his family as they move house and then engage in their daily lives, especially JJ attending a new school with his support worker.
The trailer for the show (which is not captioned or audio described) shows some of the issues that the program confronts. Disabled activist and commentator, Carly Findlay, wrote a detailed critique on the program and also outlines some of the hot-button issues around people with disability on television.
Portrayal of people with disabilities
Often we see one-dimensional viewpoints of disability where the sole focus is the disability and how it impacts on or contrasts with non-disabled people. A classic example is the non-disabled man interacting with a disabled sibling or friend as an illustration of his “sensitivity” and leads to the reward of dating the pretty girl. Speechless offers a well-rounded character with ordinary human responses to situations, and some elements that are related to his disability and its impact on his family.
Bigotry of low expectations
This is where people with disability are revered and put on a pedestal for doing ordinary things. In JJ’s case this is illustrated by his being immediately made class president after being applauded and called an inspiration. This issue of “inspiration porn” is dealt with in more detail in later episodes.
A common issue faced by wheelchair users and others with mobility issue is a lack of ramps or them being used for other purposes. The first episode introduces this and shows how disability access may regulated, but the reality of actually being able to use such access features is very different (accessible toilets being used as storerooms is an often reported issue). In this program, the real life experience of people with disability is authentically portrayed with humour. Apparently Micah Fowler (the actor with cerebral palsy who plays JJ) contributed some of his own experiences that were written into the program.
A disabled person as an object of pity is often used, such as news items highlighting the miracle cure from the non-disabled doctor who will help a pitiful child with a disability.
Another is the classic villain with a disability, bitter (and sometimes twisted) and seeking revenge on the world. The UK Channel 4 promotional clip for the Paralympics parodies the disabled villain stereotype with some classic examples, but also pushes the inspiration stereotype. Whilst there are no disabled villains in Speechless, the inspiring, object of pity view is shown and then thankfully shattered.
Should a disabled person be played by a disabled actor?
In her article Findlay equates non-disabled actors playing people with disability as being the same as white actors “blacking-up” (i.e. wearing make up to make them look like a person of colour). This is a controversial issue, subject to much discussion, particularly when major feature films cast famous, and presumably highly marketable, non-disabled actors to play disabled parts. A classic example is Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, and more recently Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking.
The real point that Findlay is making though is that it is rare to see a disabled actor being given a central role that realistically portrays their life, including the impacts of their disability on everyday situations in a mainstream comedy on commercial television.
Speechless is on Eleven on Saturdays at 11.20pm and can be watched on Ten’s catch-up service Ten Play.
For more information on this topic
An opinion piece by Attitude Foundation CEO Alex Varley outlines why the Foundation is going to make a TV series about disability.
The prevalence of characters with a disability in Australian drama is covered in the Screen Australia diversity study.
Australian academic Dr Katie Ellis reviews disabled contestants on reality TV.
SBS includes disability in dating show Undressed.