Visible Progress

Slowly but surely, progress is coming in depicting people with disabilities.

Liane Bonin Starr
  • Robert Ascroft

With ABC’s Speechless — and the likes of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Switched at Birth and Born This Way on premium and basic cable — the needle seems to be moving when it comes to portraying disability on screen. Most advocates would say there’s still a long way to go.

“There are more people with disabilities than African Americans or Hispanics in America,” says Jennifer Mizrahi, president of the nonprofit organization RespectAbility. “There’s a huge reason to portray people with disabilities, and the fact that 20 percent of people have disabilities and only about 2 percent of television characters do is just unacceptable.”

Mizrahi appreciates that Speechless defied a practice that’s become common in television and film. “Any time you have a character with a disability, the tendency is to make being friends with that person a crutch to make another character look like a good person. What’s great about Speechless is, they don’t make [J.J.] into a hero and don’t look down at him.”

“I love that Speechless is a comedy,” says New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger, whose daughter has Rett syndrome. “It explodes the sympathy and pity myth.

"It’s good for people to see that families like these have humor in them, because it normalizes this kind of family. It’s important to get across that they’re different — but not all that different — and more approachable and less worthy of your pity than you think. I’d love to see a few more of these shows to help break down the invisibility factor.”

Still, to call it a trend may be an overreach.

“Change won’t happen overnight,” Genzlinger says. “But it’s nice to see it inch forward the way it has for black characters and Latino characters. It would be nice to see disability getting traction.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017