From “Speechless” to “Atypical,” Unpacking Disability Representation and Ableism on TV
Growing up with a disabled brother, and living with long Covid, has made me especially sensitive to the ways disability is portrayed in the media.
Warning: Spoilers for “Friday Night Lights,” “Never Have I Ever,” “Atypical,” “Ramy,” “Speechless” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”
I’ve been wanting to write about disability representation on this newsletter for a long time. It’s a matter that’s very close to me, because my older brother has a severe physical disability, Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, a degenerative disease that’s had him in a wheelchair since he was seven. As he’s gotten older, he’s had to transition to a feeding tube and breathing tube as his muscles have continued to weaken. Amid this he graduated from UC Berkeley with an engineering degree, managed to work part-time for Cisco, and then with my dad at a company they started to create adaptive technologies for people with disabilities.
A few years ago, he had a tracheotomy, and now, his heart is starting to falter. Still, with help from caregivers, he would manage to get dressed, out of bed, and into his wheelchair each day, despite the huge effort that requires. When Covid hit, we were all terrified of what would happen if he or any of his caregivers or my parents got it. There would be nowhere for him to go.
But it wasn’t Covid that’s been the biggest threat to Philip in the last few years, but rather, the progression of his disease. In fact, being on a ventilator has kind of protected him during the pandemic, because he’s breathing less shared particles in the air. Since June of last year, he’s been hospitalized three times for lung infections and pneumonia, as fluid builds on his lungs because his heart is too weak to pump it away. His prognosis is unclear: a few months, a few years. I’m visiting more but I still live across the country. I don’t usually write about it because I don’t want to fall apart.
Meanwhile, I was the one who got Covid in March 2020. Since then, I’ve dealt with a host of strange symptoms ranging from annoying to debilitating that no mainstream doctor seems able to explain. These include circulation problems that catapult my feet from ice-cold to on fire, tingling and shocks on my arms and legs, body aches, not being able to walk far or do much physical activity, fatigue. Each morning and night I take a handful of prescription medications and supplements aimed to help me function enough to work and keep up as best I can with “normal” people.
While I can’t compare my experience with long Covid–two years now–to my brother’s disability, it has given me more first-hand exposure of what it’s like to live with chronic health conditions. Through personal experience and my introduction to the online disability community, I’ve become further tuned in to the ableism that revolves around almost every aspect of our capitalist society. The survival-of-the-fittest ethos that poses disability as a moral failing, and places the ability to work and produce above all other valuations of personhood. From the big things: the impossible machinations of the profiteering healthcare industry, the death churn of Covid denialism; to the smaller: the awkwardness and FOMO of saying no to social activities, or having to adapt them so I’m capable of participating. The isolation and self-loathing and fear of abandonment. The terror that fills me each time I have a new mysterious symptom I can’t explain, like wide-ranging food intolerances that emerged a year and a half after my initial infection. The late-night worries about if it will ever be over, or if this is forever now. With that and the pandemic itself, it’s hard to remember what life was even like before it. As the country lifts most pandemic-related safety measures–a move that will disproportionately affect immunocompromised people and those with disabilities who are more vulnerable to Covid-19–it’s clear that ableism is alive and well.
This is all a long-winded and very personal way of talking about disability representation on television. While for many years, disabled people were all but ignored in the media, or portrayed as offensive stereotypes, in recent years a growing number of TV shows have attempted to tackle topics around disability with more nuance, perspective, and complexity, featuring more representation of disabled people with conditions like autism, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, and even muscular dystrophy. Growing up, the main shows that did this were “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” which made inroads in being some of the first to portray the degree of care and challenges involved with becoming quadriplegic, and raising a child with autism, respectively. Other shows like “House” and “The Big Bang Theory” portrayed seemingly-neurodivergent characters either as savant stereotypes, for laughs, or both.
Today, there are more portrayals of disability out there. While some of these portrayals succeed, and cast actors with the conditions they’re performing, who have had input in the production and writing of these shows, such as “Speechless,” others like “Never Have I Ever” continue to deal in stereotypes and offensive tropes, and others still fall somewhere in between, like “Atypical” and “Ramy.”
I recently saw a Twitter thread that asked “What are the most ableist TV and literature tropes?” The responses were wide-ranging, and spoke to how far we have to come in terms of representation of disability. But we can’t fully expect representation on TV to change until society shifts how it perceives and treats disabled people and their needs–something we’re far from.
Here’s a sampling of some of the responses:
“The main character becomes disabled, and by the end of the episode, or at best, the season, they are healed - by magic, or by virtue, or by sheer force of will,” writes @melpetricko. This common trope has always been one of my biggest pet peeves. We saw it in “Glee.” We saw it in the otherwise-mostly-great “Never Have I Ever,” which inserts a disability plot into the first episode in a super problematic way. The main character, Devi, can’t walk for a year after her father dies, because grief, but magically stands up and starts walking again so she can get closer to her crush. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but the plotline disappears after the first episode, only to be referenced a few times in therapy sessions as some kind of psychosomatic response to her dad dying. This portrayal not only serves little narrative purpose, but it also trivializes and misconstrues the experiences of disabled people. It also threatens to further the dangerous trope that disability is “all in our heads,” or can be willed away.
“Casting non-disabled actors to play disabled characters (not sure if this counts but it needs to be said - repeatedly),” writes @JaySickAh. This one comes up a lot. When the Netflix show “Atypical” came out in 2017, it was lauded for centering an autistic character. While the actor who plays the main character, Sam, Keir Gilchrist, does a great job, he isn’t himself neurodivergent, and the show faced some criticism in its first season for not doing its due diligence to include autistic people in the production and writing of the show. As autistic actor Mickey Rowe wrote in Teen Vogue in 2017: “Our media loves stories about autistic white men, but hates using actual autistic adults when creating these stories.” He goes on to say, “if the creative team does not have leadership from within the community itself, it will inevitably misrepresent it. After all, consider that the motto of the autistic community is ‘Nothing about us without us.’ That motto should have extended to Atypical, too.”
Another response to the Twitter thread clearly targets “Atypical” and “Parenthood”:
“Autistic white boys who are good at science but bad at people …
Disability only through a parent's perspective. The child isn't a person but a plot device,” writes @chromesthesia.
“Atypical” does pay a lot of attention to Sam’s parents, and the sacrifices they have made to give Sam the same kinds of opportunities as neurotypical kids. His mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (Elsa), is a classic helicopter parent who seems unable to cede even the slightest level of independence to her autistic son. This rang somewhat true to me, although in my experience (which of course, doesn’t represent everyone’s), having a differently-abled kid usually makes parents hellbent on making sure that anything their kid can do on their own, they should have the opportunity to do (field trips, Boy Scouts, adaptive skiing, etc).
Elsa has been so wound up, for so long, in her total devotion to her son, that she’s driven to cheat on her husband with a bartender in the first season. This plays into another harmful trope that having a disabled family member makes everyone “miserable.” While having special needs is certainly complicated and can be difficult, even the suggestion that Elsa has an affair because of her son is problematic.
The show’s first season has Sam nursing an unhealthy crush on his therapist, Julia, which is pretty uncomfortable. He ends up being pursued by a classmate, Paige, who he treats horribly, but she somehow still likes him. While social awkwardness is certainly a common symptom of autism, Sam sometimes veers into cruelty in his remarks, which seems to go beyond a difficulty reading social cues. “Parenthood” suffered from the same kind of stereotyping.
“Atypical” gets progressively better through its four seasons, and so does its representation of Sam. It nixes the inappropriate therapist plot, humanizes Elsa, and widens its scope to focus not just on Sam but also on his sister, Casey (Bridgette Lundy-Paine), and her own questioning of her sexuality. It also brought an autistic author onto its writing team, and cast more neurodivergent actors. The difference is apparent, as prominent disability writer Sara Luterman wrote. However, there’s clearly a lot of room to grow in terms of portrayals of autism.
Freeform’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” is another recent show about teenagers with autism. In it, Australian wunderkind creator Josh Thomas (who also is behind the very funny “Please Like Me”), plays Nicholas, an immature half-brother to two teenage girls left orphaned after their father’s death. You guessed it: In a “Raising Helen” twist, Nicholas ends up becoming their guardian. One of his half-sisters, Matilda, is autistic. She’s played by Kayla Cromer, who is on the autism spectrum, and her portrayal is a breath of fresh air. Unlike the typical intellectual white man we usually see in portrayals of autistic people, Matilda is a perky, blonde, hormonal teen. (She’s also a piano prodigy because of course). She resists the label of “Aspergers” because she doesn’t want to suggest she’s any less autistic than any other neurodivergent person, though she is high-functioning when we meet her.
I was really excited about “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay.” The issues Matilda faces feel less stereotypical than portrayals I’d seen before, and I loved watching her relationship with her sister, Geneveive. Unfortunately, the show focuses too much on Thomas’s Nicholas, who reveals the limits of his comedy by playing essentially the same character as in “Please Like Me.” In “Everything,” his man-child act grows redundant and grating, and the show was canceled after two seasons. But hopefully, Cromer’s portrayal can “open more doors for people in the disability community,” as she told People.
Back to the ableism thread, @christykarras adds: “The worst, to me, is the idea that people with disabilities aren't romantically attractive. Yes, prejudices exist, but disabled people hook up all the time. How about we show that?”
This is of course a big focus of “Atypical,” which begins when Sam decides he is ready to start dating, though we also see it in subplots of shows like “Sex Education,” as I’ve written before. It’s a far cry from “Friday Night Lights,” where Jason’s disability immediately drives his girlfriend into the arms of his best friend (in the third episode. Save some plot for later, writers!) because “he’s never gonna walk again.”
This brings me to “Ramy,” a show I’ve talked about in other posts. The titular character’s best friend, Steve, has muscular dystrophy (as does the actor who plays, Steve Way), the same condition as my brother, which I have never seen represented on television before. In some ways, it’s a truly liberating portrayal. It’s so realistic, and amazing to see the friendship between the two characters. But perhaps due to the show’s predilection for shock value, there are some incredibly offensive moments. When the straightedge Muslim Ramy accidentally gets high, he goes to Steve’s house and lectures his mom about how horrible his life is due to the sacrifices she’s made for Steve–in front of Steve! It’s unclear what narrative purpose this serves, other than further proof that Ramy is a giant asshole. Later, Ramy faces a moral quandary when Steve asks him to drive him to a girl’s house who he’s been chatting with online. When they arrive, it’s clear that the girl is both underage and very high. Ramy doesn’t know what to do, because he thinks this might be Steve’s only chance ever to hook up with someone, and decides to help him.
The actor Steve Way is clear that this situation is entirely fictional. But I think the problem it underscores is that when disabled people play disabled characters, such as in “Everything” and “Ramy,” they aren’t usually the protagonist. Their stories are still told through the lens of a non-disabled character. The new Amazon show “As We See It,” boasts a cast of three autistic main characters, all played by autistic people, but even there, the story is refracted through the lens of their neurotypical caregivers and relatives. While they are warming to the idea of own voices representation (to borrow a term from publishing) for disabled characters, they still seem to think that viewers need their stories to be contextualized by the so-called “normal” people around them. It’s another trope @leafingbookstea points out on Twitter: “Disabled characters as ‘the best friend’ never the romantic main characters”.
Steve Way, for one, is hoping to change that, by creating his own series for Apple TV, which he calls “my Ramy. But I’m not gonna call it Steve. Ramy has a much better ring to it than just Steve,” according to an interview with Everyday Health. He’s also going further, as an advocate for Medicare for All and lifting Medicaid restrictions.
While these shows make significant inroads, there is clearly a long way to go. But my favorite in recent years–and the one I’ve found most relatable–is the sitcom “Speechless,” which is about a teenager, J.J. DiMeo, who uses a wheelchair and uses a laser pointer and letter board to communicate. J.J.’s mom, Maya, played by Minnie Driver, is an extremely tough advocate for her son, which could play as over-the-top, but because “Speechless” is a comedy, it works. The actor who plays J.J., Micah Fowler, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair in real life, but had to study to learn how to express himself without words in the show. There are two other siblings, Dylan and Ray, and their lovable doofus dad, Jimmy. J.J. has an aide too, who he chooses because he’s “cool,” despite his lack of experience, much to his mother’s chagrin.
The show’s creator, Mike Silvieri, has a disabled sibling, and took a much more inclusive approach to portraying J.J. than “Atypical” did. “Several of the show’s writers have either siblings or children with disabilities, and Silveri hired two consultants with disabilities. The writers have gone on field trips to physical-therapy centers and listened to guest speakers in their office. The show also struck up a partnership with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation for feedback on story lines and scripts,” noted a 2016 Vulture article.
So much of “Speechless” rings true to my experience growing up with a sibling with special needs. My family’s house, like the DiMeo’s, is the eyesore of the neighborhood because we have no time for things like remodeling or redecorating. This isn’t a tragedy, though, and the DiMeos are unapologetic about being “bad” neighbors. In order to get her son what he needs, Maya has morphed into such a fierce advocate that she terrifies school administrators who want to cut corners or exclude J.J. Minus the British opera singer part, this is 100 percent my mother.
What makes “Speechless” work, though, is how funny it is. A drama might resort to trauma or inspiration porn, but J.J. openly defies such stereotypes. For one, J.J. is not a savant, but a normal teenager who is an average student and obsessed with girls. He’s also super tuned in to when others are being patronizing or paternalistic towards him, something that happens to my brother all the time. In the first episode, J.J. gets a treacly and overenthusiastic welcome at his new school and is immediately elected class president. While a dumber show might celebrate this as a touching example of inclusion, “Speechless” portrays how mad this obviously pitying move makes J.J., who wants to be treated like everyone else. The show manages to make super incisive commentary about what it’s like to live with a disability–and be part of a family where someone has one–without being preachy.
It’s clear there need to be a lot more shows like “Speechless,” which center the voices of disabled creators, and use humor while not making those characters the butt of the joke themselves. As Steve Way has said, “I just want to open the door for more disabled stories and more diverse disabled stories. … I’m disabled, but I’m also a straight white guy. I can’t tell the story of someone who is Black and disabled, or gay and disabled, or trans and disabled. Those stories have to be told too. So that’s what I really want to happen.”
But it’s important to recognize that simply representing disabled people doesn’t go far enough when their lives are being systematically jeopardized by the attitude pervading our country (and the world) that “Covid is over." And we can’t truly expect to see the lives of disabled people valued on television so long as our society devalues them through its policy decisions.
What I’m Watching: I’ve been rewatching “Malcolm in the Middle,” and friends, it is a joy. While it does suffer from some obvious early-aughts gay and fat jokes, it is still remarkably funny and entertaining, and you will have the theme song stuck in your head all day long.