I live in a house which is old and not pristine. I am not always patient with people outside my family. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are not always complementary notes about me in my children’s medical files. While none of my children uses a wheelchair, I adore and strongly identify with Maya DiMeo, the mother on the new television show, Speechless.
If you haven’t seen or heard of Speechless, it is a new sitcom about a family with three children, the oldest of whom, has cerebral palsy. J.J. uses a wheelchair, and because he doesn’t have the ability to speak, uses a letter and word board which others read to communicate. The show focuses on the DiMeos interacting with their community, and how having a special needs child can change one’s perspective and interactions with others.
I know not everyone who has seen the show has fallen in love with it quite as much as I have. I have seen comments that it is too over-the-top; that the family isn’t very nice; that the mother drives them crazy. They aren’t wrong. These judgements are all true. Yet, it is these very aspects that allow the writers to deal with some difficult subjects.
Let’s start with the mother, Maya DiMeo, played by Minnie Driver. If you’ve ever fought for services or medical care or just understanding from others for your child, you can appreciate Maya. It is not always easy to get your child what they need. To do so often takes tenacity and a willingness to forget about nice. This is a fact of life for just about every special needs mother I’ve ever met. Our society is not set up for people who are outside the box, and so we must continually try to reshape the box so our children are cared for. Maya just takes it a little bit farther than most of us. She often says out loud what many of us wish we would’ve said in similar situations. She is our alter-ego and it is satisfying to watch her fight for her family.
By writing her character without any filter, it makes it possible for the audience to watch her. Normally, this would be the stuff of minor tragedy. There is nothing amusing about watching a parent fight for her child and either get nowhere or become so demoralized that she stops trying. Instead, the hair-trigger temper, the public dressing-downs of anyone using words such as cripple, and school officials running and hiding at the mere sight of Maya become both something to cheer about, and also secretly be glad she isn’t your neighbor. We can talk about these things that cause her to act this way because she is so much larger than life.
I hope that anyone who watches this show realizes this lesson.
Next, I want to address the complaint that the family isn’t very nice. You know what? They’re right; the family isn’t very nice. But like the character of the mother, in order to deal with the topics the show is covering, this almost had to be the case. If you are raising a special needs child, you know firsthand how easy it is for others to convey sainthood. To make a television show about a family raising a child who uses a wheelchair and cannot speak, it would be so very easy to fall into the saccharine, the “inspirational,” the “Aren’t they wonderful?” All of which takes living with disability into the realm of the ‘other’ and not something everyday people have to contend with.
But the DiMeos are so terribly human. They are not overly nice. They sometimes use bad words. They make mistakes. They are not always good parents. They are certainly not saints. The DiMeos are normal people who happen to have a son who uses a wheelchair and as a result see the world in a slightly different way than other people. To paraphrase the words of the father, “When your child is born with significant needs, you realize that nothing else really matters.”
I hope that anyone who watches this show realizes this lesson. This family is not substantially different from anyone else, their perspective has just been changed by the needs of their child.
In an over-the-top way, the writers have nailed the life of a special needs family. Their house is falling down around them because their time and resources are being spent on their child. They don’t want to be an inspiration to others, but they would like to be treated like anyone else. Others find them baffling at best and a little (or very) rude at worst. The neuro-typical children in the family can struggle with guilt about their sibling and at the same time feel ignored. Being on time is often a foreign concept.
The only time I have felt the writers have not quite hit the mark was when Maya hosted a get-together for other special needs moms and at least six other mothers showed up. In my experience, being a special needs mother is a lonely existence, and it would be nothing short of a miracle to have six other mothers in similar circumstances whom I got together with on a regular basis. If Maya DiMeo invited me to her home, I would totally go.
The DiMeos may not have adopted children and none of my children may use a wheelchair, but I love having someone on TV portray what daily life often feels like. Having special needs children often feels like a perpetual fight to get appropriate treatments and services, while at the same time fighting to get others to see my children as the real human beings they are. The balancing act between needing to acknowledge the different while ensuring they are seen as the same can cause craziness. The DiMeos just take the crazy a little farther and as a result Speechless allows the audience to think about topics they might otherwise want to avoid.