When the word came out that Friends writer, Scott Silveri, had created a comedy for ABC called Speechless, I became speechless. Actually, I did not.
Speechless has been described as a single camera show from 20th Century Fox Television which “revolves around a family with a special needs child who is good at dealing with the challenges it faces and excellent at creating new ones.” In addition to Scott Silveri, the show will be produced by Jake Kasdan and Melvin Mar, who are responsible for being the executive producers behind Fresh off the Boat. The only actor currently listed is Cedric Yarborough who recently appeared in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Goldbergs.
I wasn’t able to find much about this show but when I read the log line for this show, I was immediately filled with anxiety. I have spent the last eleven years working with students with varying degrees of disabilities and from my extensive television and movie habits, I’ve seen Hollywood get it right (Parenthood) and I’ve seen them get it horribly wrong (The Other Sister).
So since no one has asked my opinion, I figured I’d give it anyway because I want to and so that is what I will do.
I will title this my open letter to the people who are behind the show Speechless. Maybe some things to remember, maybe some stuff to forget but please no repeats of The Other Sister and if you have not seen it, then do and learn what not to do.
I don’t know what disability you are planning on dealing with in Speechless. From the title, maybe it’s a child that has no voice? Or it’s a metaphorical title? I do love this title because often these kids really have no voice. Literally and figuratively.
There’s one moment I will never forget that happened years ago. While on a field trip, I watched as a Special Education teacher threw a student’s jacket into the L.A. River when he wasn’t listening and when the kid cried and tried to climb the chain link fence to presumably get his jacket back, he got in more trouble. When I looked at the teacher’s note to the parents at the end of the day, the teacher had written, “child had thrown jacket into L.A. River”. No one would believe the student if he said he had not done it.
So what are you going to do?
These kids always want something but sometimes do not know how to ask for it. It’s like going to a party and seeing someone whom you know but cannot remember their name, it drives you crazy because you know who that person is but you can’t figure out the correct name or even where you know them from. That frustration? That anger? That’s what these kids are feeling every single minute of the day so maybe you’ll show that frustration? Maybe not. These kids can hit, they can pull out chunks of your hair, they can smack you and spit at you and bite you all because they can’t figure out how to tell you that they need to go to the bathroom or the math is too hard.
The show is listed as a comedy so I wonder what the jokes will be? These kids can be hilarious. Despite the challenges and there are plenty. Parenthood did a fantastic job at showing the bullying, the issues with social situations and learning the differences between appropriate and not appropriate behavior, there are some amazing moments that have both cracked me up and made me proud to work with this population for eleven years:
- There was that time when I was putting a carton of LAUSD broccoli on a child’s plate. He looked at me, picked it up, handed it back to the lunch lady and said quite firmly,”no.” Sometimes they can communicate just fine.
- When I asked a child with an Emotional Disturbance to give me examples of things with two legs, he looked at me and said, “a dead body”. He wasn’t wrong.
- These kids can pick up a lot more than we give them credit for. They know the teachers who will let them get away with anything because those teachers feel they “can’t do it” so they won’t. There was one child who had trouble carrying his lunch, but I made him do it anyway. One day, I walked towards him and noticed another teacher carrying his lunch. He saw me, held out his hands and let out a loud groan. They know. These kids are amazing at being able to pick out the adults that will treat them as if they are not capable. Treat ’em like they’re capable and they’ll amaze you every single time.
- I rewrote Grease for a group of middle school students with disabilities so severe they weren’t able to function properly in a general education environment. They did such a fantastic job that I think it rivaled Grease Live. Just saying. They sang the songs, they nailed the jokes. They made the story completely come alive. As a writer, you always want the perfect actors to make your words to come to life how you imagined them. These kids did just that.
- I had worked with a child on cutting paper, I showed him how to cut something and ended up cutting my finger. He was stunned. The next time I practiced having him cut a piece of paper, he took the scissors from me and told me, “I’ll do it. Not you.”
- Putting out newspapers for a painting project, there was a picture of Beyonce on one of the papers, a kid with very low vocal skills let out a gasp, pointed at Beyonce and said, “pretty. She’s pretty.” Can’t argue with that.
- A child with Aspergers was obsessed with finding secret menus of things. I told him about the secret menu at In ‘n Out. He decided I was his favorite teacher.
- A girl with severe disabilities and who could not speak would see me from across the yard and immediately start walking towards me with her arms outstretched for a hug. These kids know the people who are on their side. They may not always show it, but they know the ones who will be their voices for them when they can’t express it. One time, this same girl, was trying to tell someone something but she had no words. She walked across the yard, grabbed my arm, marched me over to the teacher she was trying to “communicate” with and I became this girl’s “voice.” This girl knew I would know what she needed and she was right.
- I’ve had kids whose knowledge of certain things amaze me. I had a child who could tell you exactly the day you were born on if you gave him your birthdate. He could tell you without even having to think about it. He told me mine and I had to text my mother to make sure he was right. He was. July 27, 1978 was indeed a Thursday. I’ve had kids who can solve complicated math problems in their heads within minutes. I’ve had kids tell me everything about bugs, trains, Minecraft. They’ve all got something and will be happy to talk about it for hours on end.
- Despite the diagnosis, never underestimate. A diagnosis does not describe a person.
So my hope is that whatever you do with this show, it’s done tastefully. These kids are not victims. They’re dealing with a world we can’t possibly understand because it’s almost impossible for them to explain it to us. They aren’t jokes, they just have a special and different way of looking at things.