“Speechless”: can we laugh at disability?

In these days, I watched the first two episodes “Speechless”, a TV series broadcasted a few months ago in the USA and now arrived in Italy (Fox  broadcasts it on Sky platform every Friday evening). It’s a comedy, but with a particular not to undervalue: for the first time in this TV genre, the main character is a boy with disability (who, just like me, grew up in the ’80s-‘90s, will remember the precedent of “Life goes on”,  the story of a family which included Corky,  a boy with Down syndrome, but the genre was quite different).  In this case, the main character is JJ DiMeo, a teenage boy suffering from a cerebral palsy, which forces him to use a wheelchair and prevents him from speaking (from here comes the comedy title) without the support of a device equipped with a keyboard and a laser pointer to pick numbers and letters and, this way, communicate with others.


There would be all the premises for a sad and tear-jerking story. But “Speechless” is quite the opposite: you often laugh, and even loudly. JJ’s “diversity” and his daily issues (the struggle of his scrappy mother, Maya, to ensure him the access to school from the main entrance and not using that reserved to garbage, in the first episode of the series, is unforgettable) aren’t hidden, nor underrated. But, first, from this series emerges the “normality” of JJ and his family. Yes, JJ is sick, has clear issues and, to do things that, for all of us, are granted, needs help from his family and his unlikely (but very funny) assistant- school janitor, Kenneth. But it doesn’t make him inferior to others, thanks to his caustic humour and bright mind.

But what I liked the most about “Speechless” is that, contrary to what they usually do on tv or in movies when talking about disability, here there’s no exaltation of the diverse “superiority”. Mind you: when he arrives in the new school, teachers and schoolmates try to welcome JJ in the spirit of the classic “politically correct”, dedicating to him a standing ovation without any reason (which leaves the boy quite perplexed, indeed).  But, precisely, the reaction of JJ and his family (quaint characters, but who you easily grow fond of) floors everyone, letting them understand that, maybe, they’d better change their attitude.

The "Speechless" cast

The “Speechless” cast

Watching “Speechless, you almost end up not seeing JJ’s wheelchair and device, focusing on fulminating gags among the characters and, all in all, on the “normality” that emerges from it. Ultimately, as Kenneth immediately understands, JJ is a teenager like the others, in every way. His disability is just a condition like any other, not a mark.

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