Neurodevelopmental Disability on TV: Neuroethics and Season 1 of ABC’s Speechless

By John Aspler and Ariel Cascio


John Aspler, a doctoral candidate in Neuroscience at McGill University and the Neuroethics Research Unit, focuses on the experiences of key stakeholders affected by fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, the way they are represented and discussed in Canadian media, and the potential stigmatization they face given related disability stereotypes. 

Ariel Cascio, a postdoctoral researcher at the Neuroethics Research Unit of the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal, focuses primarily on autism spectrum conditions, identity, subjectivity, and biopolitics. 

Introduction

Television can be an important medium through which to explore cultural conceptions of complex topics like disability – a topic tackled by Speechless, a single-camera family sitcom. Speechless tells the story of JJ DiMeo, a young man with cerebral palsy (CP) portrayed by Micah Fowler, who himself has CP. The show focuses on JJ’s daily life as well as the experiences of his parents and siblings. JJ’s aide, an African-American man named Kenneth, voices for JJ, as the latter uses a head-mounted laser pointer to indicate words and letters on a communication board (explaining the show’s title).

In this post, we explore key themes in disability studies and how they are addressed by the show. We also reflect on the effectiveness of Speechless’ narrative in reflecting on these concepts, specifically: 1) the social model of disability; 2) ‘inspiration porn’; 3) the ‘R-word’; and 4) intersectional feminist concerns about how the show connects disability to discussions on gender, class, and race. Our analysis fits the pragmatic neuroethics paradigm, which centres lived experiences of key stakeholders affected by neuro-diagnoses and disabilities (Racine et al. 2011).

*Spoiler Alert for Season 1 of ABC’s Speechless*

The Social Model of Disability

The cast of ABC's Speechless.
(Image courtesy of Flickr.)
In the mid-1970s, as disability rights activists agitated for change worldwide, a novel way of thinking about disability emerged. Mike Oliver (1983) coined the phrase “the social model of disability” to describe the view that disability is rooted in society rather than in biology. While the traditional (or “individual”) model of disability (also called the “medical” or “deficit” model) refers to assumptions that people are disabled by impairments in their bodies or minds that need fixing, the social model argues that people are disabled by environments with insufficient ramps, discrimination, and other barriers.

In Speechless, typical storytelling tropes found in sitcoms can both highlight and distract from the role the environment plays in enabling or disabling people. Suddenly appearing objects, animals, or characters serve as quick comedic resolutions to seemingly serious problems or as a reset button to ensure a return to the show’s status quo. Speechless applies this trope to accessibility. In the episode “S-U-R---SURPRISE,” as JJ attempts to defend his little brother Ray against a bully, a dog he met earlier that episode appears at just the right moment to scare the bully away1. In “T-H-- THE C-L—CLUB,” JJ conveniently gains access to an unrealistically effective electronic communication board, which serves as a tool to bring to light JJ’s complicated feelings about his reliance on and affection for Kenneth. When JJ decides not to replace Kenneth with the board, it disappears forever. In this fashion, the show subtly alludes to the social model of disability by demonstrating that, in an environment without barriers, JJ faces little to no problem being the kind of young man, friend, and brother he wants to be.

Inspiration Porn

“Inspiration Porn” is “an image of a person with a disability […] doing something completely ordinary […] carrying a caption” with an inspirational message (Young, 2012). The intent of inspiration porn is to allow non-disabled people to “put their worries into perspective” (e.g., “what’s your excuse?”). It objectifies people with disabilities for the benefit of viewers without disabilities. These messages also erase the challenges faced by people with disabilities (e.g., “the only disability in life is a bad attitude”).

This is the kind of image that might get captioned with an
inspirational quote, creating "inspiration porn."
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
In “H-E-R---HERO,” Ray defines inspiration porn as “a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional saints who only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.” A student JJ barely knows chooses to speak about him for a school-wide speech contest on the topic of “My Hero.” JJ and Ray conspire to write the most inspiring speech they can imagine – to outdo the stranger. Despite their efforts, Ray ultimately decides to give a more authentic speech about sibling squabbles: “…he can be a real jerk. He teases me and tortures me – runs me over with his wheelchair… he’s just living his life, and there’s nothing brave about that.” The audience claps awkwardly (one audience member comments: “That did not make me feel good.”), and, of course, the fake-yet-inspiring speech wins instead.

The episode is also metatextual, as the show itself could be read as inspiration porn. The showrunners must balance producing a show ‘about’ disability with avoiding essentializing or objectifying the characters. This episode seeks to counter this risk not only by pointing out that JJ – following a certain cultural script of a typical “older brother” – can be a jerk to his siblings, but also by ‘punching up,’ i.e., making less marginalized people (producers and consumers of inspiration porn) the butt of the joke.

The R-Word

“P-R-- PROM" addresses another important theme through its discussion of “the R-word.” Not only does this episode address the more obvious issue of ableist slurs (i.e., the harms associated with casually employing disability-related terms as an insult), but it also delves into important nuances within disability politics. Even within movements for inclusion such as the disability rights movement, segmentation can have an impact on the way people with different needs are perceived and assisted. For example, the public may assume that someone like JJ, who cannot verbalise, has an intellectual disability (Larivière-Bastien et al. 2011). Although indicating that he does not (as JJ’s mother does in the pilot, saying “he’s all there upstairs”) is completely reasonable and appropriate, doing so can entail shifting stigma onto other groups within the umbrella of disability.

Image courtesy of Twenty20.
Speechless rejects this shift when Ray reflects: “It’s not about JJ and [the r-word] not being an accurate description of him. What about people who do think a different way or at a different pace? Should we reference them in a nasty way when we do something dumb because we think it’s cute?” Setting aside that “dumb” is also an ableist slur, it is refreshing to see the show promote inclusion of all differences.

Intersectionality

A final key theme, drawing from feminist theory broadly, is intersectionality, i.e., the way that “intersections of race and gender, of heterosexism, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, all of these social dynamics come together” (Crenshaw, TED). Notably, there are glaring tensions in the way that the show explores the intersection of disability and gender.

JJ’s behaviour toward women, which can occasionally be problematic, stems from the understandable goal of normalizing JJ – to have him be just like other teenage boys on TV (i.e., horny and a bit of a jerk). Ray’s behavior toward women and girls, however, reflects larger problems. Ray (again, perhaps like other teenage boys on TV) has a poor understanding of how to treat women and receives frequent encouragement from characters who should know better (e.g., his father). The metatext of the show seems oddly oblivious to how Ray’s attitude toward women reflects the “nice guy” trope – the idea that some men understand relationships as an exchange in which they pay the currency of niceness (through words, acts, gifts) in exchange for the goods of a kiss, a relationship, or a hook up. In other words, niceness is instrumental, not genuine, and sex is treated as a commodity. While we can understand the tension in JJ’s case, the show struggles in how it frames Ray’s treatment of women.

Speechless also explicitly focuses on issues of class. The DiMeo family is not wealthy. Their bathroom doesn’t have a door, they argue with insurance companies, and Dad works as an airport attendant. Ray especially struggles with the pressures to be or appear wealthy, which leads to episodes like “T-H-- THE C-L—CLUB,” where Ray tries to become a country club insider. A later episode (“C-H—CHEATER”), in which Ray similarly tries to get rich quick via a pyramid scheme, nuances Ray’s desires about wealth by exploring the intersection between family, work, and disability. Ray explains that his desire to make money is “for JJ. Later. Do I help? Is there a plan? I want to be ready.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Finally, Speechless also addresses issues of race, gender, and voice through JJ’s aides. JJ’s first ‘voice’ is a woman with a higher-pitched voice and a timid approach to repeating JJ’s more colorful language choices. After meeting Kenneth, JJ tells him he “sound[s] cool” and offers him the job instead. Black masculinity is often configured as cool, which the show at once explores with nuance and also casually exploits.

Ultimately, JJ values having an aide whose voice seems more authentic; however, the line between JJ and Kenneth is blurred by the show in sometimes strange ways. In one episode, Kenneth goes to school when JJ does not and finds that he has no one to eat lunch with because he is not, in fact, friends with JJ’s friends – an explicit reflection on that line. In another episode, JJ joins the choir and, in a particularly surreal twist, lands the solo with Kenneth’s voice and, later, dance moves. The other characters here appear to interpret Kenneth as being JJ, not just as voicing for him.

However, the show is careful about drawing comparisons between the types of marginalization Kenneth and JJ experience based on race and disability respectively – exploring some overlap, but not overselling the similarity. For example, when Kenneth hears Ray and JJ writing their inspiration porn speech, he points out similarities with the ‘Magical Negro’ trope, which Kenneth defines as when “the black character is just there to help the white guy on his journey and he mainly speaks in folksy sayings.”

Conclusion

In this post, we highlighted ways in which the television show Speechless addresses challenges and stereotypes faced by people with neurodevelopmental disabilities. While often successful, there are several ways in which the show falls short – especially in how it understands gender. Nonetheless, media portrayals of neurodevelopmental disability provide fruitful material upon which neuroethics scholars can reflect and which will hopefully have a positive impact on the public sphere.

References

Larivière-Bastien, D., Majnemer, A., Shevell, M., and E. Racine. 2011. Perspectives of Adolescents and Young Adults with Cerebral Palsy on the Ethical and Social Challenges Encountered in Healthcare Services. Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics 1(1): 43-54.

Oliver M. 1983. Social Work with Disabled People. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Racine, E., E. Bell, N. C. Di Pietro, L. Wade and J. Illes. 2011. Evidence-Based Neuroethics for Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Seminars in Pediatric Neurology 18(1): 21-25.

Young, S. 2012. We’re not here for your inspiration. ABC News. Accessed 12 October 2017 at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-03/young-inspiration-porn/4107006.

**Confusingly, most official ABC videos we link to here do not include subtitles.

Want to cite this post?

Aspler, J and Cascio, A. (2018). Neurodevelopmental Disability on TV: Neuroethics and Season 1 of ABC’s Speechless. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/01/neurodevelopmental-disability-on-tv.html

Comments

Daddy Ken said…
Great to have this thoughtful review/analysis. ABC seems to be focused on difference these days with Speechless and The Good Doctor. They may not be perfect, but they certainly show that we are far from where we were only a few years ago.