Historically, the media has been known to portray those with disabilities inaccurately at best, and most often, not at all.
Yet, as many in the disability community are already aware, ABC’s new prime time show, “Speechless,” has the potential to influence the popular perception of those with disabilities in a positive and humorous way.
“Speechless,” which recently joined ABC’s Wednesday night comedy line-up, follows the adventures of the DiMeo family in their quest toward better services and more independence for their oldest son JJ who has Cerebral Palsy (CP) and is nonverbal. While it is impossible to predict the success of any show so early on, with the backing of a major network behind it, recognizable star-power in the form of Minnie Driver (JJ’s mother, Maya DiMeo), and positive early reviews from those with and without disabilities, “Speechless” certainly seems to be on the right track.
And while not the first show to feature a major character with a disability, the facts that Micah Fowler who plays JJ actually lives with CP, along with ABC’s clear desire to portray disability as honestly and humorously as possible, positions “Speechless” to be an effective tool in breaking down barriers and helping to facilitate valuable conversations between persons with disabilities and those without disabilities.
The buzz surrounding “Speechless” provides the perfect opportunity to further dialogue with and educate others about what life with a disability looks like, many of the unique challenges that those with disabilities face, and the ways in which media often misconstrues the experiences of those living a “disabled” life. Self-advocates need to be at the forefront of these conversations. The following list provides tips self-advocates can follow if they wish to capitalize on the buzz surrounding “Speechless” to raise awareness about disability issues.
Watch “Speechless”: In order to effectively engage those outside of the disability community who are relying on the media to inform their knowledge of disability, you have to first know what they are seeing.
Utilize Social Media: Social media can be a great platform for raising awareness about social issues and disability issues are no exception. Post a mini-review of the show on your Facebook page or a simple statement of how well the show did or did not represent life with a disability accurately. Address how the show did or did not correspond to your experience as a person with a disability. Ask your friends what they think. Keep the dialogue going by responding to their comments. Complement your post with a relevant photo, like you and your friends/family watching the show, or post a short video review. Secondly, comment on online articles or reviews about the show with your honest, first-hand experience. Be honest and candid but keep dialogue professional and civil. Post links to valuable resources (see next tip).
Provide Others with Resources Which Will Accurately Explain Disability Issues: Many self-advocates are plugged into more than a few disability-related sources of information, whereas the general public likely isn’t, and one of the best ways to educate is to share what you know. Beyond your own experiences (which are so important and should be shared in their own right!), make sure to freely provide disability related resources to others, and use these as jumping off points of conversation. For those with CP, the team behind “Speechless” has made this a bit easier by partnering with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation to release web content and resources related to CP and the issues discussed on the show each week.
Self-advocacy groups should choose a representative and offer him/her as a resource to the local media in their communities about how well the show reflects the reality of someone living with a disability. The ABC station in your area is most likely to jump on an interview opportunity because “Speechless” airs on ABC; but if they decline, contact the other stations. Self-advocates with CP have the best potential to land an interview but if your group doesn’t have a self-advocate with CP willing and able to be interviewed, choose another self-advocate who can speak about disability issues. Feel free to use this tip sheet prepared for FL SAND groups to pitch the interview to the media.
Kelli Munn contributed to this article. Ms. Munn owns Kelli Munn PRM, a public relations, marketing, and project management agency. She currently contracts with Organizational Management Solutions to provide training and technical assistance to Florida Self-Advocates Network’D (FL SAND), a network of self-advocacy groups in Florida.