This is going to be a short post today, which will no doubt come as a (possibly pleasant) surprise to those of you who find me to be occasionally verbose. Which is almost certainly all of you. I get that I can be wordy. On some nights, the ghost of Herman Melville appears beside me as I write and whispers, “Dude, wrap it up.”
This evening (Wednesday, September 21, for those of you who may have lost track of time), ABC will premiere a new comedy called Speechless. The premise is one that might sound familiar if you’ve read much of my own writing in the past. Family with a nonverbal, disabled child moves into a new home after chasing services to another school district. The school is unprepared, the parents are perhaps overzealous in their advocacy for their kid, and hilarity ensues. The early reviews are extremely favorable, particularly in regards to avoiding the usual cloying “disability as inspiration” tropes, as well as showing the flaws and missteps of special needs parents as they attempt to be strong advocates in an inadequate system. You can find out more at the Speechless Facebook page.
I feel like there’s been a subtle shift in how people with disabilities are perceived in the popular media. I think I heard more about the Paralympics in the media this year than ever before, although still not enough when you consider the extraordinary work the athletes put in. On-screen portrays of people with disabilities are becoming less of a big deal, although again, there’s a lot of distance left to cover. And the notorious “R Word” seems to be slowly transforming into, if not a taboo word, at least one mostly perceived as being used and defended by low class persons. Outrage at the mocking of a journalist by a politician probably raised more awareness than all the ribbons and marathons of the past year, so, you know, thanks for that. (I’m hesitant to say his name again, kind of for the same reason I don’t look in the mirror and say “Candyman” three times.)
Will Speechless be as good as so many of us are hoping? We’re holding our breaths. As I said, the early buzz is very good. I’ve seen a few SLPs post about the inaccuracies of how assistive speech technology is portrayed in the trailer, and I can honestly see some of those points myself. But here’s the thing. Special needs parents aren’t perfectionists. We’re not going to pick apart this series or any other portrayal of our world detail by detail.
We’re looking for the emotional truth. We’re looking to see the cracks in our families, the hard parts that are also often the funny parts, if only to us. We’re waiting for the frustrations and the basic, often ugly human aspects of our kids, the well-meaning but often ineffectual efforts of the professionals supporting them, and most of all the million and one ways that parents can screw it up, not because we’re neglectful or don’t care, but because we care too much, too hard, too unforgivingly, and with the whiff of desperation and panic.
If Speechless gets that right, that’ll be a huge step for us in the popular social narrative. If it gets it right, AND is a success? Well, that would be epic. I’ll be watching tonight to see if they manage it. I hope you will, too.
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