Thursday, September 29, 2016

Let's Talk About Speechless 1x02 "N-E NEW A-I AIDE"

The second episode of Speechless aired last night, and I wanted to talk about a couple of scenes. To lead off with some positives, I loved Mom paging the two emergency companies to gauge their response times and Ray asking about when their furniture would arrive because there were no chairs for anyone to sit in.  JJ looks pointedly at himself in his chair and shrugs.  I also loved Dad telling Mom that if she had a legitimate concern regarding Kenneth as JJ's new aide that was one thing.  But if it was a matter of JJ "liking him more than you, you have to get over it."  I really loved that Mom's primary focus was always JJ's safety and dignity.


Near the end of the episode, Maya finds that JJ and Kenneth have disappeared from where they were waiting outside Principal Sea Slug's office.  Maya has been planning to fire Kenneth for letting JJ play hooky from PT.  Maya is alarmed, saying that JJ "needs me for that!" and rushes off to the boys' bathroom, where she hears Kenneth assisting JJ inside the accessible stall.

Kenneth reassures JJ:  "It's okay, buddy, I got you," and puts him at ease.  For a few seconds, we are inside the stall with Kenneth and JJ, and we are privy to a modest view of Kenneth helping JJ transfer from his chair to the toilet.  Back outside with Maya, we hear Kenneth telling JJ not to make him guess next time, and not to hold it for too long otherwise there would be trouble because they had already borrowed the last pair of pants in his size from Lost and Found to impress the girls.  We hear JJ laugh.

My first reaction, upon seeing a scene like this was, "YES. This is reality.  This is LIFE."  I thought, finally a show that will show things like transfers.  We, in the disability community, are all-too-familiar with media that will not show moments like this for fear of making the able bodied audience "uncomfortable."  

While I rarely required this level of assistance in the restroom, in fifth grade I was recovering from a surgery, which made using the restroom quite a bit more difficult.  It was never my favorite thing.  Especially, in those early days, having to trust someone new.  But a calm, competent aide helps a ton.

I was glad to see that not only was Maya present in the restroom and able to hear the interaction between Kenneth and JJ (because what a vulnerable position) and as she has said earlier in the episode, his safety and basic needs are the number one priority.  I also loved that the show made it clear through his actions that Kenneth did read JJ's Care Book, learning how to safely transfer him, among other things.  While there were a few comical missteps (and while it's entirely unlikely that a school would hire an untrained aide) it was beyond important to show that Kenneth takes the job seriously and respects JJ.

Conversely, I wonder if there was not another way to communicate Maya's change of heart about Kenneth.  It's a rather vulnerable situation, and it's not something we ever see on primetime TV.  No one goes to the bathroom.  We certainly are not in the stall with them while they do.  This felt a bit like a combination of the Able Bodied Heroes and People as Props Common Inspiration Porn Themes happening here.


The other scene I need to talk about is one that takes place earlier in the episode.  In this one, JJ has disappeared with Kenneth, while his physical therapist is waiting at the house to charge the DiMeo's for "her time," regardless of if she worked with JJ or not.

So, Maya calls youngest son, Ray, in, and tells the therapist to "go" and "heal him."

Outside, the therapist has placed a single orange cone several paces away from Ray.  She tells him it's okay if he can't make it all the way to the cone on the first try.  Ray says, "I think I can manage it," and begins to walk.

[Image is: a single orange cone on pavement, like the one Ray walked to.]

The therapist stops him, with a worried, "What are you doing???  Just walk how you normally walk."

He says, "This IS how I normally walk."

"Oh no," she says, "This is all wrong."

Then she begins to critique Ray's gait and give him specific instructions that feel (and look) awkward to execute.  Upon trying to take her advice, he reaches the cone, and then turns around and screams at her, "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME???"  Ray is so bothered by this, we see him looking up Walking Videos on YouTube and sharing the therapists assessment with his family.  Maya says everyone knows all about Ray's gait already. It's not news.  Later, he talks to his crush at school and she invites him to walk her to class.  He instantly tries to walk "correctly" remembering the therapists instructions, but instead hears her criticizing him.  He tells his crush to go on without him and yells "WHY DID YOU MAKE ME WALK???"

I'm going to be honest and say that my first reaction to this scene was not positive.  Why?  Because this is our life as people with CP.  But instead of letting JJ represent the reality of a scene like this (which would have resonated SO MUCH) we watched an able-bodied child cope with having his gait corrected.  It felt like our experience having our natural gait critiqued and corrected did not hold weight or validity when we experience it, but only when someone nondisabled does.

While I understand it as a storytelling device, I don't think it was necessary to portray it this way.

I was just talking to a friend recently about my experience doing a gait lab as a child (after that big surgery in fifth grade.)  The doctors put all these sticky things on you, you're not dressed in too much, and you're barefoot, so you're cold, and you have to contend with how the floor feels on the soles of your feet.  Plus, you KNOW all these people are watching you and comparing your gait to typical people.  They are judging you against impossible standards.  So when we hear well-meaning comments like, "You can walk better than that," it felt so jarring.

Because yes, we COULD walk better than that.  If we were dressed properly. if we were allowed to wear shoes, if we did not have weird things stuck all over our bodies, if we were not being stared at, judged, and compared to an unreachable standard.

I'm not saying the scene didn't do a great job explaining how awkward it feels to be in that experience, because it does feel just like that.  And it does make you just that self-conscious about how you move in the world.  But it's an experience I relate SO closely with having CP that seeing it portrayed by someone without it just felt...wrong.

I am trying to give the show the benefit of the doubt.  It is one episode (and only the second ever) and we may very well see JJ in therapy one of these weeks.  I know I would love to see this aspect explored more.  Clearly, there was a reason JJ skipped therapy.  Because this was not a one-time experience for him.  This was a constant experience, probably from the time he was a toddler.  And he needed a break.

I want to see those moments from his perspective.  It was the reason that the standing ovation scene in the classroom in the Pilot episode was so effective.  We saw JJ dealing with it, knowing it was his reality.

Did you see the show this week?  What was your take?


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  1. Finally watched episode 2. I think the lines are really clever in certain scenes and I like that the disabled character with CP does naughty things and has some sass on him LOL. The mom’s overbearingness is spot on. I know people who caretake my non verbal friends who are like that. The scenes where the CP character looks at the females is pretty much every disabled guy I know in a nutshell LOL. I like how they show the caretaker relationship. The PT stuff is my entire life haha, too rich! The subplot with the “idiots” seems kinda shoe horned in and very forced so I wasn’t that into it. I also think there are moments where the show tries to be a little too smart for it’s own good and the pacing seems really rushed like a Disney Channel show at times. In this episode the CP character seems the most developed out of all the characters so I have to say I like the show very much. I want to see them structure some of the dialogue a bit better and have some scenes of the CP character having PT himself as well as have some episodes that do not deal with disability so directly to become more relatable for able bodied.

    1. I have heard lots of comments from people with CP who thought the PT scene was like their life. It was like mine, too, and well done, I just wish to have seen it authentically portrayed. I think the show will do a good job with the mix of storylines - they seem to make sure it's never ONLY disability focused, and gives focus to the AB family members, too.

    2. Hi Tonia...I had a different take on the PT scene...My daughter has CP so this is coming from my perspective as a mom. As the PT was spouting off her critique shall we say of the young "able bodied" man's Gait, I looked at it like this is exactly how PT's speak to my 10 year old daughter and she becomes a list of Jargon that describes what's "wrong" with her. Therefore it was great to see this kind of Jargon spewed at a child that is "able bodied" and yet her comments totally effect how he feels about himself and his actually destroys his confidence in his own ability to the point of affecting his ability negatively!!!!!!! The power of words and attitudes are sometimes more profound both positively and negatively than the actual therapy. I hoped all my daughter's therapists would look at this episode and see how horrendous it is to describe a person's abilities in this way. She is a person first and not a list of proper gait steps..needing to be fixed. When we find therapists like this......we run the other way!!!(Quite literally) The show is just beginning and much like shows like "Blackish" Fresh Off The Boat" "The Real Oneal's"and many more comedies, they are breaking new ground in bringing disability issues into the mainstream media. Gandhi said "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you and then you win" Well the ignoring of disability issues in the main stream media has happened for far too long. Now if they are laughing with us that is a much better step than laughing at us...and that is what I think the goal of this show is. Opening up our everyday lives to mainstream media will also hopefully take the next step of encouraging people to fight with us for disability rights issues...and then we will win! ...I would say give them a I do believe they can have a larger positive impact. And, I LOVEEEEE reading everything you write!!! You are an awesome advocate....I have learned so many things from your posts and so appreciate your views , perspectives and willingness to share your experiences.

    3. Kindred Kids,

      I absolutely agree with you. It WAS a powerful and well-done scene. Completely accurate to what I went through as a kid in PT as well. But as I said in the post, it made it difficult to swallow to see an experience SO close to what we go through in our community portrayed by an able bodied actor.

      So much of our representation has historically been by able bodied actors, who earn awards for their "authentic" portrayal, when, to us, it just looks like a mockery.

      Even though this scene was NOT that, because of the history around the way we've been represented in the media, this did hurt. Only the previous week, we got a taste of JJ experiencing EXACTLY what I have experienced. It made me feel seen, heard, validated, all of that.

      And just that quickly, we have the PT scene, essentially communicating "This experience won't have the necessary weight and gravity communicated to the audience UNLESS we do it with an able-bodied kid."

      This happens often. We, in the disability community share about ableism we experience...and crickets chirp. But if the right set of circumstances happen and by chance an able bodied person is mistaken as disabled and experiences ableism and THEY share about it? Everyone says how awful it is that they have experienced it.

      So, it's a bit of a raw wound in that way.

      I want our experiences to matter just as much when they happen to us, and, to me, this scene was just another example that they don't.

  2. I absolutely loved the PT scene because it was incredibly true to my experience. As someone with mild hemiplegia, I've received instructions and gait improvement suggestions in the form of physiological terminology more times than I can count. The fact that Ray was unable to correct his gait and his self-consciousness to the criticism he received is something I'be dreamt of seeing portrayed in the media. I personally internalized criticism about my fair when I was younger, which led me to believe there was something wrong with moving the way I did and something wrong with me. I'd notice my knee turning in or my gait being "off", presume everyone else noticed my CP (it's incredibly mild, they didn't, they still don't) and on particularly sensitive days, be frustrated by my body and on the verge of tears. I believe that having that moment portrayed by an able-bodied character was powerful in that it introduced an issue faced by the CP community to a character without CP. Having Ray have his gait critiqued may resonate better with an able-bodied audience because they know that any of them could be in his place. Of course, it would have been ideal for a an actor or actress with CP to have that moment, as it is an everyday part of the CP experience, but the way it was portrayed fit seamlessly into the story line. I hope they cast someone with CP to guest star sometime soon (perhaps with a milder/different form of CP than the main character) so that the audience can see the wide array of presentations that CP can have (and yes, I'd love to be that guest star! :))

    1. It was absolutely very relatable for me too. It was just the portrayal that took away from it a lot for me. And I totally understand the reasons why it was portrayed that way, but I don't agree with them.

      That would be a great idea, regarding a guest star (or guest stars) with different presentations of CP! There are so many!

  3. I think we have our own hot-button issues with the show, and that's awesome. :) I'm the 12:41 Anonymous, and if I had to pick one issue with Speechless, it's that even though CP is finally on T.V., it's one particular subtype being portrayed, which can reinforce stereotypes. Of course, a non-verbal teenage boy using a wheelchair can have CP, but so can someone who, to the outside world, just appears to be slightly clumsy. Some people with CP use adaptive equipment, but others don't. Some have neat handwriting, others don't. Some are geniuses, some have average intelligence, some have intellectual impairment. Could showing one image of CP harm true disability representation and increase the "But you don't LOOK like you have CP" comments? As someone who violates many stereotypes of CP (I don't use adaptive equipment, people can't tell I walk differently, unaffected speech, can wear heels), I'm concerned about changes in how people might react if they find out I have CP. If the first image people see in the media is a non-verbal wheelchair user, then to them, people like me may have to hear more comments about how we do or do not "look" and may feel the need to "prove" to others that we have the condition.

    (Side note to readers: No matter how much you feel you need for others to believe you when you say you have CP, you are under NO obligation to prove anything. Just wondering if these uncomfortable situations will crop up more often now.)

    1. I agree. The representation does seem to fall on the "more extreme" end of the spectrum. While I think it IS good, especially for people who are nonverbal, to see themselves represented on TV, I see what you're saying, and know how easy it is for the public to buy into a singular portrayal of a certain disability. (The "Rain Man" take on autism, for example.)

    2. This is why I write about "mild" CP in my films because I NEVER saw mild CP represented. And I hear you about different story lines regarding my old comment! :)

    3. I have started trying to include mild CP in stuff I write for the same reason <3

  4. Tonia- Blessings of joy and creativity to you today! I found your blog looking for comments on Ray's PT session. I have been a PT for 35 years and love and respect your comments, insights and community discussion forum. Just me, from my stand point, I think they were making fun of us PTs. Our ridiculous, hypervigilance and anxiety-response-riddled comments about movement disorders. I've been around long enough to see super-empowered, differently-abled patients, co-workers and peers teach me that it's just about staying mobile, not better, but mobile and without pain! So humor us, team with us and remind us during those developmental years to "zip-it" during comments! Have a great evening and remember we PT's are a crazy-fun breed who want way more than enough! Haha!
    Stacey Neville,PT

    1. Hi Stacey, I think that is entirely possible! Glad you're here :)