It took me the better part of a day to stumble upon the reason for the crash I heard coming from somewhere in my bedroom. I opened my closet, which is a Pittsburgh closet, which is to say dubiously usable for clothing and thus not opened often. A chunk of plaster rested on a plastic storage bin and last century’s coal dust stuck to everything. I took a picture of the opaque black swaths contrasting the shelves of pastel-colored bedsheets, turned off the light, closed the door, and posted to Instagram.
I’d already been up in the middle of the night, my two-year-old son out-of-character crying. As I changed his diaper, something small and black scurried down his sheets.
I knew before I had even captured it in a tissue. I don’t know how I knew. I’d never seen one in real life before, just pictures online, a little apple seed of psychological warfare running down my baby’s bed.
So maybe you understand why I opted to close the closet door.
Maybe you’ll also understand why I so very much love the DiMeo family on ABC’s Speechless.
Like other parents in the cerebral palsy community last fall, I was anxious to see what the newest addition to the network’s well-formulated and well-loved block of family sitcoms would offer. The show features J.J., a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy (Micah Fowler, who has the same), who is nonverbal and communicates via a forehead-strapped laser pointer and a word-and-letter board. He’s surrounded by bulldozer mom Maya (Minnie Driver), bewildered dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie), tightly wound brother Ray (Mason Cook), and scrappy sister Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). The family has just moved to the worst house in the best school district, where J.J. can be mainstreamed for the first time, and where they meet a janitor, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), who, by premiere’s end, is hired to read J.J.’s board and be his voice.
I want to say this upfront: TV, especially sitcoms, is just TV. The medium has rules to either act in service to or against. But the best sitcoms — notably, ABC’s black-ish — allow for both visibility and emotional truth given the confines of the medium. Which is to say that while I wanted Speechless to be truthful, I knew it couldn’t be factual because that’s not TV’s job (nor does it make for particularly compelling situational comedies). What the show had from the very beginning is the creator, Scott Silveri, who has a nonverbal brother with cerebral palsy, as well as a partnership with The Cerebral Palsy Foundation.
I enjoyed the premiere episode just fine, namely because it set for the show that it would not be afraid to lovingly tease J.J. about his disability. It was the second episode, though, that hit my heart in that perfect sitcom way. Jimmy runs outside to stop Dylan from dragging the trash can from the curb. “We can’t have the neighbors see you cleaning up. It sends a bad message,” he says and then explains, “Our family has a complicated life, so things are gonna fall through the cracks. Lawns aren’t going to get mowed. Garbage bins aren’t going to get taken in. It’s best to be clear about that. It’s the DiMeo way: set the bar nice and low.”
That sentiment resonated immensely, even though I’ve never consciously set the bar low — it just kind of seems to be there. I only called my landlord about the fallen closet ceiling the one time because I was solidly out of bandwidth as I spent the next six months taking up the better part of the laundromat and wondering if I should be distressed about the off-gassing from the plastic storage bags.
This isn’t to say that WD has fundamentally changed who I am as a person. His arrival simply intensified personality traits/habits I’ve been carting around for decades. My books were already categorized and alphabetized on mismatched shelves. In fact, none of my furniture matches, even the pieces I bought on the same day at Ikea. My clothes, however, do match, except some of them date back to early college. I scraped the side of my car against a parked car ten years ago and haven’t yet gotten around to fixing it.
I can rattle off WD’s meds, times and doses, but only in milliliters, never in milligrams. I do not have color-coded bins of pre-drawn syringes as I’ve seen in Facebook groups for parents of children with special needs. I can tell you his daily intake from his feeding tube; I can tell you that one can of Pediasure needs 100 ml of water added to it for the proper proportions. I cannot tell you what that breaks down to for an individual feeding, even though I’m competent at that level of math and nurses have done it for me each time he’s been in the hospital. The answer just won’t stick. I’ve had an emergency hospital bag packed for a year and have never once remembered to bring it to the hospital.
When Maya first hands Kenneth a binder of J.J. instructions, I scoffed a little. A binder like that is exactly what Facebook super moms would have. But then I remembered I have a lengthy email of bedtime instructions to forward to babysitters/my parents. I have how-to videos for WD’s feeding tube. There’s a sticker on his car window alerting EMS of his existence and a sheet of further information tucked into the seat pocket. He’s on the county’s special needs registry, so pertinent big picture information pops up if our apartment comes into contact with 911.
What I love about Speechless is that, in being a show about an entire family, it’s allowed to be about more than just a teenager’s special needs. As well-written and funny as black-ish and Fresh of the Boat are, they’re still in part bound to being model minorities. In the special needs world, the equivalent is called inspiration porn, where people with disabilities are good and strong and can do no wrong and exist to teach able-bodied/minded people how to live better lives.
Upon learning this term in a mid-season episode, Kenneth exclaims, “Hey! It’s the Magical Negro! You know, in the movies, when the black character’s just there to help the white guy out on his journey and he mainly speaks in folksy sayings.” Speechless is, if nothing else, aware of itself and its place in a larger pop culture dialogue.
In this, it’s able to poke at the logical ends of hyper-inclusivity, whether through fellow students being mad at J.J. for getting their bonfire cancelled because they’d be mad at anyone who got their bonfire cancelled or through Maya’s colluding in J.J.’s runaway attempt because teenagers should be able to run away.
The show is created from the heart, which is how it’s able to get away with, and derive humor from, using J.J.’s special needs as an excuse for everything from eating candy for breakfast to jumping lines to getting out of Thanksgiving dinner. And while episodes along the first season dabbled lightly in the serious issues of pressure on typical siblings, divorce rates, and insurance battles, it doesn’t push on them until some of the last episodes, which is when we finally see the family discussing what might happen to J.J. after Maya and Ray are dead.
In some ways, Speechless has had an easier time rising above inspiration porn. ABC viewers have had eight years of watching the white, working-class Heck family try to keep it together on The Middle. The DiMeo family could be kin, and allowing them to be no more different than the Hecks, while still acknowledging the specific difficulties of having a special needs child, is an act of true inclusion. They are exactly who they are with gendered parental disagreements, teenagers trying to find identity/independence, and madcap family adventures.
And so, while my apartment, my son, and I are in a perpetual state of un/presentable, we make it work — just like everybody else does. Just like how people look at me and wonder how I do it, I, for instance, look at my sister with a newborn and a toddler and wonder how she has the wherewithal to get out of bed in the morning. (She’s also, for the record, exactly the kind of person who would have color-coded bins of pre-drawn syringes in her very perfectly matched house.)
One of my favorite things about the logistics of our life is that it’s easier on weekday mornings for me to eat breakfast while sitting on WD’s bed (now bedbug-free, knock on wood). His feed runs and he can later safely sit/play unattended while I shower. For the duration of a bowl of cereal, we are a mom and a son together, our toes wiggling at each other, and it’s as simple and silly and fully us as that.