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Review of Speechless: A Caregiver’s Perspective

“I can’t imagine what you go through day to day”.  As a parent of a disabled adult child, I hear this often.  It is difficult to describe my day to day responsibilities and stress.  It is also hard to describe the incredible triumphs and joys that this role brings me in my life.  The new ABC sitcom, Speechless, attempts to bring light to the challenges and triumphs of parenting a child with a severe disability.

I first heard about the ABC sitcom, Speechless, when Hunter and I were doing background research on Zach Anner.  ABC reached out to Zach Anner to vlog about the Speechless episodes on YouTube.  I do not have cable or local channels, so I was happy to find out Speechless was also on Hulu, a perfect fit for my chaotic schedule.  I was hooked from the very first scene.

Speechless is a sitcom about the DiMeo family, in which the oldest son has Cerebral Palsy.  It first aired on Sept 21, 2016 and since then has become a hit. 

Speechless stars Minnie Driver as Maya DiMeo, the resilient and tenacious mom and John Ross Bowie as Jimmy DiMeo, the tolerant, “go with the flow” dad.  Kyla Kenedy plays Dylan DiMeo, the athletic and practical youngest daughter and Mason Cook plays Ray, the intelligent middle son, who struggles to find his place in the family.  Micah Fowler plays the character of JJ, the oldest son who has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair.  Cedric Yarbrough plays Kenneth, JJ’s aide.

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I have to say that one of the aspects of Speechless I enjoyed right from the start is the fact that the role of JJ is played by an actor who actually has cerebral palsy!  This is definitely a step in the right direction!  In real life, Micah Fowler is verbal and can use a walker, although he is also a wheelchair user.  There are very few successful actors with cerebral palsy, so Micah Fowler is definitely an inspiration.

Speechless addresses the issues of a disabled family member in a very entertaining and humorous manner.  I am not sure how entertaining our life is, but we have learned to maintain our humor and at times our life is quite funny.  If one looks past the entertainment factor and the humor, the challenges many families with a disabled member are brought to light.

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I loved Speechless right from the start as a mom and caregiver of a young man with cerebral palsy.  I could instantly identify with Minnie Driver’s character, Maya.  It is clear from the first episode that she is a dedicated mom who will do anything to ensure her son has all the services and advantages he deserves.  There are times she does so at the expense of her other children. 

This challenge is real.  Hunter’s physical needs are great and since his birth I have been his main caregiver.  My youngest son did not require as much care and many times his needs may have been overlooked.  Although he has never once complained, I wish I had more one-on-one quality time with him as he grew up. 

In the second episode of Speechless, JJ’s new aide, Kenneth, took over much of the care-giving duties.  Maya, a control freak, really had issues with this.  In one scene, she told Kenneth, “This is hard for me, he is my world”.  This simple statement hit home. 

I have been accused many times of being overprotective and overbearing.  I have to own this, I am.  I am because Hunter is my world.  I am because from the second he was diagnosed, it was my job to protect him and be his loudest advocate.  Handing that job over to others is difficult, sometimes impossible.  I have been known to say in caregiver interviews, “If anything bad happens to my son, I may have to kill you”.  Of course, this is said with humor, it actually helps weed out the humorless, but I have to say there may be a bit of truth in that statement.

It is difficult to know when to let go, to allow your disabled child or adult child to experience the normal growing pains of life.  Dating and heartbreak was the topic in two episodes of Speechless.  This is a very difficult, but real challenge.  It is hard knowing that your son will have his heart broken in the best of circumstances. 

When your son is disabled, it is so much more challenging.  Maya stated that it would take a very special girl to be able love her son.  As the mom of a 24-year-old handsome and charming man, I also know that it will take a very special woman to be able to not only see past his disability, but to also be prepared to take on the challenges.  I also know that his heart will be broken in his search for that very special lady.  I am not sure I am ready or prepared for these events.

By Zach Anner

There are many other challenges addressed in this popular sitcom.  The challenge of finances are brought up time to time in Speechless.  There are extra expenses that come with disabilities.  As a single mom, I can really identify with this challenge.  Even home repairs are a challenge!  In one episode, Jimmy DiMeo, lets his neighbor know that they were “Do it yourself people” who don’t do it!  Home repair and maintenance take time and money, neither are plentiful to families with a disabled child. 

My “started, but never finished” home projects are always a reminder of this challenge.  In one episode of Speechless it appeared the DiMeo wheelchair accessible van disappeared, leaving them in a great bind.  The episode really rang familiar with Hunter and I.  Last year our van lift died in the middle of winter.  This posed so many issues for us.  Our wonderful friends and family came to the rescue with a fundraiser, much like what happened to the DiMeos.

Of course, not all challenges are addressed, at least not yet.  The DiMeos have a supportive and loving marriage.  The reality is that 80-90% of marriages fail in families with a special needs child.  The DiMeo’s marriage certainly adds to the heartwarming quality of Speechless.  However, it is definitely not the reality of the vast majority of special needs families, including my own. 

Despite having Cerebral Palsy, JJ appears to be quite healthy.  Again, this is not always the reality for families with a special needs child.  Endless doctor appointments are stressful, emotionally and financially draining and downright frightening.  These aspects of having a disabled child may not work well into the lighthearted, entertaining framework of Speechless.  Quite honestly, I would prefer that the writers of Speechless keep this framework intact.  I would not want Speechless to become too serious, as the appeal would fade. 

Speechless effectively brings awareness to the triumphs and challenges of family life with a disabled member.  It successfully does so in an entertaining and humorous fashion.  I highly recommend this show for everyone.  Caregivers and individuals with disabilities will find Speechless to be relatable.  Others will find Speechless to be enlightening, as well as entertaining. 

You can watch Speechless every Wednesday at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.  You can also watch all the episodes on Hulu!  It will definitely be time well spent!

Written By: Sandi Kelch, mother and caregiver of Hunter



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