This Little Miggy Stayed Home: Favorite Shows Featuring Disabilities

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Favorite Shows Featuring Disabilities

Recently one of my favorite shows, Switched at Birth, returned from a long hiatus for it's final season. It's a show that has a lot to do with the deaf community and has been really eye opening for me. I thought I'd do a quick round up of some of my favorite shows and movies that center around disability and talk a little about why I like them, what resonates with me, what doesn't, etc. Of course I'd love to hear your thoughts as well. 

First up, Speechless. Such a great show. Really, a show like this has been a long time coming. It's a sitcom centered around a special needs family, the DiMeos, who have three children one of which  who has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal. While it is based on the lives of a special needs family, as creator Scott Silveri puts it, "this is no documentary about disability."

I love this show for a few reasons: One, it's really great that the actor who plays the character also has CP in real life. This might be new to you, but the idea that disabled characters should be played by disabled actors is a kind of a whole, big, thing. (Since Rain Man, 14 of the 27 Best Actor Oscars have gone to a man portraying the sick or handicapped...yeah. This is problematic for many reasons. Don't even get me started on You Before Me.) Think of it this way, back in the day white actors sometimes wore black-face to portray black characters, but that would never be appropriate now. This is really another conversation for another day with a lot of nuance, but long story short, it's really great to see a disabled actor playing a disabled character on TV. And on a sitcom!

The second reason is I love Speechless is I AM THAT MOM. This show nails the special needs experience in so many ways and for me the over-protective, out-spoken, ready-to-advocate-at-the-drop-of-a-hat mom is so very relatable. When I said this to one of my best friends she said, "No! You're not crazy like she is." And I was like, "Oh, she's not crazy. She's a special needs mom."

I really like that this show is not preachy or sentimental (like me-ha!) but I appreciate what creator Silveri said about hoping that a show like this would help others be more comfortable around people with disabilities: “I’d be very happy if this show, or any show in general, were able to demystify this a little bit,” Silveri says. “Both of these things are done out of discomfort, but there’s starring and there’s ignoring and there’s a lot in between. It’s not born out of malice. It’s just out of a lack of experience. Something that’s foreign, it scares people, and I’d like to demystify that." Amen to that.

Switched At Birth
So this is the show that is finally back for the 5th and final season. I started Switched at Birth when Zuzu was just a baby and I needed a show to nurse to. The main reason I decided to watch this show was that a friend of mine from San Antonio, well it's her sister-in-law (Katie LeClerc) who plays one of the lead roles. Crazy right? It had already been on the air for a couple seasons (back then it was on AbcFamily, now it's FreeForm) and when I started watching it I had no idea that so much of the show would center on the deaf community and deaf culture. It has been such an eye opening show.

First, it is a little on the cheesy side, that is just the nature of the ABCFamily type shows and you just gotta embrace it. But there are some real all stars in the cast like Lea Thompson and Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin and for all you Gilmore Girls fans it stars a grown up April Nardini aka Vanessa Marano (who I met at the GG fan fest, so we are basically besties.)

Again, another thing I love about this show is that it features quite a few people who are deaf or hard of hearing in real life. Marlee Matlin, Sean Beardy, Ryan Lane and even everyone's favorite Top Model and Dancing with the Stars champ Nyle DiMarco has been on this show.

As I said, I've learned a lot. I've learned that most deaf people don't consider themselves disabled, within the deaf community cochlear implants are rather controversial, and like many people with disabilities they want to be accepted for who they are and not seen as a population that needs to be fixed. They have done some really awesome episodes, for example they did one episode (I believe the first TV show ever?) entirely in ASL (American Sign Language.) No voice over or talking allowed. Additionally, the show tackles some really controversial and interesting subject matters outside of deaf issues and rarely ties it up all nicely with a neat little ending. Subjects including date rape (did he or didn't he?), race relations and the arrival of a baby with Down syndrome.

This is the perfect time to get started on Switched at Birth since it's in its last season and is prime for catching up by binge watching and then watching the very end with everyone else. You know you wanna.

Temple Grandin
I can't think of a movie that features an actor with a disability, but hopefully that will start to change right? That being said,  the HBO movie Temple Grandin is a fantastic movie. (Which I just found out you can stream for free if you have Amazon prime!) Temple Grandin is a real life person who has Autism. I highly encourage you to watch her TedTalk which, in my view, goes hand in hand with the movie. Her message in the Tedtalk is that the world needs all kinds of different minds, including the Autistic brain. I think that message can be broadened quite a bit to say that the world needs all kinds of bodies, perspectives, experiences, and journeys and that includes the disabled body/perspective/experience/journey.

I appreciate that this movie goes on to show Temple's journey as a person with Autism trying to forge her way in a world that is not made for or by Autistic people. It is sometimes difficult to watch, heartbreaking even, and  brings to light the truth that many of us feel which is that disability itself is not a disabled person's biggest stumbling block, but rather how society views that disability and the barriers they place around it.

A quote from Temple in the movie gets me every time: "They knew I was different, not less. I had a gift. I could see the world in a new way." 


Anyone else loving the shows I've talked about above? Anything else that I've missed? I feel like My Left Foot would probably be a classic in this category, but I've never seen it, therefore I'm not sure about the message and authenticity. Even if disabled actors aren't playing disabled characters (which I don't think should necessarily happen 100% of the time, but definitely more than 5% of the time) I really hope the stories centering around disability don't fall into the victim/hero stereotypes. Again, what else am I missing? Also, any thoughts on any of the ideas I've talked about as far as representing disabled people in movies? Do you agree, disagree, is it all new to you? Talk, dish,  discuss!


  1. my left foot is excellent and i also really like the elephant man. both required a lot of tissues and WEEKS of reflection.

    1. Yes I want to see both of those.

  2. "I can't think of a movie that features an actor with a disability"

    Gabrielle! It's a French Canadian movie and the main character is played by an actress with Williams Syndrome. And of course The Station Agent, which is one of my favorite movies ever, stars Peter Dinklage.

    My Left Foot is excellent. And Speechless is the best thing to happen to TV for a while.

    1. Good to know! I'll check it out! And yes there are quite a few movies featuring people with Dwarfism, but not often in a respectful way (The Wizzard of Oz for example...although the sentimental child in me loves that movie) I left many of those out. However, Peter Dinklage is a fantastic actor and I'd love to check out The Station Agent.

  3. Love Speechless- great portrayal, great casting, and maybe most importantly, it's funny!

    I loved the portrayal of autism in Max Braverman in Parenthood- that rang really true for me and our experience.

    1. Yes! Max Braverman.... I too loved Parenthood. Should have gone on the list.

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  5. Speechless is my favorite! I laugh to the point of crying becauese I am that mom too!

  6. The actor who played Walter White's son in Breaking Bad actually has CP in real life. While the show is pretty dark and not really about disabilities, he was a terrific actor.

  7. I watched Life Goes On growing up. I didn't know about authenticity or that sort of thing at the time, but I liked Chris Burke as Corky, and the show started opening my eyes to the portrayal/perception of those with special needs in our society.

    Whenever I hear of an actor playing a disabled person in a movie, I automatically think, "Oscar bait," and often it's hard not to see the performance as just a performance instead of letting it transport me to the experience of the disabled person, which I would so much prefer. And need to see more of.

    I have to check out all the shows you listed. I immediately thought of you when I first heard about Speechless. I've always wanted to see Temple Grandin. Cheesy or not, I should also see Switched at Birth, because I think Marlee Matlin is one of the bad-assiest ladies around.