When the ABC sitcom Speechless premiers September 21, 2016, viewers will see a different kind of sitcom family. Minnie Driver plays Maya, the mother of three kids, one of which is a special needs child confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. It has been over 25 years since a star in a TV show emphasized the life of a special needs child. Life Goes On (1989-1993) had Chris Burke as Corky, a young boy with Down syndrome. Speechless has Micah Fowler as JJ, a young boy with cerebral palsy.
Driver’s character does everything in her power to make sure her kids have a “normal” life and goes out of her way to create a positive environment for JJ, often to the extent of overdoing her attention to him and his needs and possibly giving less attention to her other two children.
Speaking to the media at the recent Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, Driver explained, “You know, when I read this, it is a high degree of difficulty to pull this particular character off, because she's a lot. And someone said that “Speechless" refers to JJ, the character's nonverbal situation, but also [my character of] Maya renders people speechless with the stuff that she says. I think I understand her. I'm a mother. All mothers fight hard for their children. To have a child with special needs, you have to fight so much harder, from everything that I learned. So yeah, I was up for the challenge.”
According to Driver, “I think that when you have to push as hard as Maya has to push, and any mother with a child with special needs has to push, I think, will tell you, you kind of blaze a trail. You often do leave quite a lot of burned bridges because you have to push hard. In the typical world the things that you or I would take for granted, a person in a wheelchair, for example, they can't take that for granted.”
Scott Silveri, the Executive Producer, co-creator, and writer, told the press, “For me, it's a question of writing what you know. I came from a family with a brother with special needs, and it's something that I've been wanting to write for a long, long time.”
Mason Cook, who plays JJ’s younger brother Ray, explained, “In the show JJ is technically the center of attention for Maya, and we are kind of pushed off to the side. We are, I want to say second, but we're kind of next in line.” It’s evident from the first scene in the pilot that Maya is focused intently on JJ and her concern to make his life as good as she can to the extent of relegating her other children to “next in line,” as Cook said.
Kyla Kennedy plays daughter Dylan and understands the difficulty of living in a family with one special needs child, and the situation it puts her character in when trying to get the attention of her parents, especially her mother. “I definitely think that any kid wants a lot of attention from their parent, but I definitely think that [our characters] kind of understand also. I mean, I know Dylan personally really looks up to her mother and definitely tries to imitate her in many, many ways. And when you are kind of raised that way and you know how it is, you do want more attention. But I also think that we understand in a way, but it is kind of hard sometimes, I guess, for [our characters].”
In real life, Fowler is able to speak, with some difficulty. In exchanges with the press, he showed his passion for acting and his personal humor. “My ... my character JJ has a lot of personality to ... to him.” Fowler carries off his role with great zest and comedic ability. He told the media, “I ... I ... I always wanted to be an actor. Like, deep inside, I always wanted ... wanted to perform.”
Speechless shines a spotlight on the Dimeo family and their daily life trying to make things go smoothly for their children, especially JJ. Families with special needs children will undoubtedly feel a connection to many aspects of this show.