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ABC's Comedy Speechless Takes On Special Needs

It's not an "issue" show

Malcolm Venable

Speechless, coming to ABC this fall, stars Minnie Driver as Maya DiMeo, a "mom on a mission," raising three children, including one with special needs.

The show marks a bit of a breakthrough for a network sitcom, giving visibility to a special needs kid and the unique challenges his family experiences too. That said, producers want you to know it's not an "issue" show.

"You hear a logline about a show with a kid with a disability, it sounds like an after-school special," executive producer Scott Silveri said at the Television Critics Association gathering in Beverly Hills Thursday. "We do everything we can to subvert that in the pilot. It's not a lot of navel gazing -- sitting around, 'Woe is me.' That's not what the experience is."

Speechless, he said, also doesn't prop up J.J. DiMeo -- the teenager with cerebral palsy played by Micha Fowler -- to do the "teach everyone a lesson" cliche that's been referred to as the "Inspirationally Disadvantaged" trope. J.J. DiMeo, wheelchair bound and non-verbal, doesn't exist to earn sympathy or make everyone feel good for treating him as a whole human being.

Catch up on all the latest news from TCA

"The show is about being different and not apologizing for being different and embracing who you are," Silveri said. "We want to get it right. Becuase there are so few representations of people with disability on television we knew we had to do it in an intelligent and responsible way." In fact, the show comes from his own experience as the brother of a special-needs kid; Micah Fowler's parents guide them in what's OK and what's not, and Micah pipes in too to ensure the portrayal of both him and people who love him is accurate.

Speechless also stars John Ross Bowie (The Big Bang Theory) as Maya's husband Jimmy, as well as Mason Cook, and Kyla Kennedy as their children. Maya is a bit of a hell-raiser, Driver said; she fights hard for her kids, as nearly all moms do, but must fight harder than most. "You have to blaze a trail and leave bridges burned," Driver said. "You have to fight hard. I am worried that Mya always enters in a huff. She runs pretty hot, and that's alright."

Silveri said he'd been wanting to tell this story for some 20 years before he aligned with studio and network partners who happened to be looking for what he wanted to say at just the right time. "This was an attempt to write what I know," Silveri said. "What I know is the challenges, the ups and downs...I know how it's the same as other people's [families], how its different, how it's funny. It's a very personal story and I feel lucky to tell it."

Speechless debuts on ABC in September.