Micah Fowler, a young actor with cerebral palsy, has joined the cast of the ABC comedy Speechless with Minnie Driver playing his mother and John Ross Bowie (The Big Bang Theory) as his dad. Variety says the show revolves around the daily challenges of a family with a nonverbal special-needs child. Rounding out the family are Kyla Kennedy (The Walking Dead) cast as the middle child and Mason Cook (Legends, The Goldbergs) as the youngest. Cedric the Entertainer is also involved, as a character names Kenneth.
The premise sounds like something that could be great, or a complete bomb depending on how the creators handle the material. There is a lot of humor to be gleaned from the tough, unexpected parts of life and shows like Monk, Kimmy Schmidt, M.A.S.H., and even The Big Bang Theory have proven that unusual topics can be fertile ground for material.
The project boasts an A-list creative team including Scott Silveri (Friends, Joey), Jake Kasdan (New Girl), and Melvin Mar (Fresh Off the Boat) as producers. Christine Gernon (New Girl) will direct. Prior to the pilot order from ABC the site Tracking Board, who monitor script options and purchases, described it as “[A] really good pilot. Deep. Sad. Honest. It’s like an indie dramedy packaged as a half hour.”
Unless the script has changed they also note that the at least one of the other two children is on the autism spectrum, and the third is obsessed with running.
Fowler made his screen debut in Labor Day opposite Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. Speechless will be his first television role and he is among a select group of actors who share the burden of representing the entire differently-abled population – as actors not characters. He seems like a wonderfully down to earth young man who posts videos of his dog barking at the shed on YouTube, and favorites all things Marvel. He’s just joined Twitter and is celebrating his new gig.
— Cedric Yarbrough (@cedricyarbrough) March 25, 2016
Disabled characters abound in entertainment; they can be the center of rich stories with struggle and achievement, inward and outward growth, but the most celebrated of those performances are done by normally-abled actors. Just last year Eddie Redmayne won the Oscar for The Theory of Everything, Patrick Stewart draws fans in as Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men, Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman is timeless. By comparison disabled actors, in both dis- and normally-abled roles, hardly register a blip on the screen. (Michael J. Fox notwithstanding, but he is a unique case.)
According to census data about 20% of US citizens have some kind of disability, much less than conglomerated ethnic minority populations or gender divides, so it’s a community that is often tacked on to the end of conversations about diversity. Writing for Backstage, amputee actress Rachel Handler notes that only about 1% of roles in 2015 were disabled, and abled actors are too-often cast for them. Productions give homilies about the-best-person-for-the-job, and the difficulty of finding an capable actor for some severe disabilities – for example someone with Raymond Babbit’s level of autism would probably not have been able to play that role in Rainman. But then we have RJ Mitte, from Breaking Bad, an actor with mild cerebral palsy who played a character with a more severe case showing casting directors just how it can be done.
Rarer yet would be for a disabled actor to win a role not specified as disabled. As I think through my favorite shows there are several roles that I can easily see being played by someone disabled without changing the story at all.
The Academy’s promise to boost diversity initiatives is still just in the discussion phase so it remains to be seen how they include disabilities. In the meantime, I’m cheering for young Micah Fowler to own this show.