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Speechless: Speaking On Disabilities

From the executive producer of the hit 1990s comedy, Friends, Scott Silveri is breaking ground with his most recent sitcom, Speechless. The show, which piloted on ABC, immediately captured widespread attention as viewers became enraptured in the hilariously spunky antics of the DiMeo family, as they try to find the perfect school for their teenage son, JJ, portrayed by Micah Fowler, who suffers from cerebral palsy.

After an incredibly successful premiere, the comedy quickly earned a permanent prime time slot on Wednesdays at 8/7:30 central, rubbing elbows between top-rating series such as Modern Family and The Goldbergs.

Now returned from a three-week hiatus in December, Speechless is back and funnier than ever. As one of the few television series to actually cast a disabled actor for the role of a disabled character, Silveri’s show is opening important conversations revolving around special needs individuals and families in an accessible, charming way. But that’s not the only, or even most notable aspect, that sets this sitcom apart. What makes Speechless a special series is that it manages to address physical disability without pigeon-holing itself as what Silveri himself refers to as “the disability show.”

Growing up with a brother who also has cerebral palsy, Silveri was always eager to share a story like JJ’s. However, unaware of how to tackle the challenge, Silveri took his time to gradually wove a well–rounded plot told by equally well–rounded characters. Silveri expressed to the Los Angeles Times that his ultimate goal was to make Speechless resonant and real without becoming the next “issue show.”

With an illustrious career in both film and television, Silveri is no stranger to Hollywood’s history of casting able-minded and bodied actors as disabled characters, including Cuba Gooding Jr. as the mentally-handicapped titular character in the 2003 film, Radio and Dustin Hoffman’s legendary performance as an autistic savant in the 1980s blockbuster, Rain Man. This in mind, it was important to Silveri to both properly and organically represent the special needs community and their families. While Silveri respects other creators’ decisions in casting able-bodied actors for special needs roles, he made finding a disabled actor paramount in casting the show’s star, JJ. When it came to developing Speechless, the Friends alum wanted everything to feel real.”

Fortunately for Speechless, Silveri is not the only seasoned professional on set. Starring as the DiMeo’s iron willed, no–nonsense matriarch is Good Will Hunting British actress, Minnie Driver, who, in conjunction with her onscreen husband, Jimmy DiMeo, portrayed by The Big Bang Theory’s John Ross Bowie, helps keep the show’s family dynamics authentic and entertaining.

Right from the series’ trailer, which was released back in June of 2016, it was evident that Silveri’s strategic casting paid off, especially in discovering the show’s diamond–in–the–rough, Micah Fowler. Despite Fowler’s severe speech impediment, the newcomer blew Silveri away with his expressiveness and natural charisma, who Silveri raves is both inviting and “a joy to the set.” According to Silveri’s experiences working with Fowler, making a show with a disabled actor came with very few challenges and a lot of rewards.

Aware that there is still a lot of mystification and discomfort that surrounds the general populace about the special needs community, Silveri was hopeful during the show’s production that it would help pave the way to normalizing people with disabilities. Even on set, Silveri’s crew were given short, 15 minute sessions during production meetings on appropriate language in deference to Fowler and other individuals with disabilities. Luckily for the cast and crew, Silveri also disclosed in an interview with Variety that Fowler makes this learning curve an easy one. While the creator understands that disability is a widely foreign topic, for many families, it is reality, and hopes that Speechless will “demystify” disability.

Featured Image by hdskeil on Flickr

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