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