A Voice Heard: Micah Fowler’s JJ DiMeo on “Speechless”
Speechless has resonated with viewers across the board not only because of its lighthearted approach and comedic timing, but also because of the show’s depth and desire to familiarize its audience with CP.
By: Sherry Owais & Alexandra Hammer
The television sitcom, Speechless, debuted in September of 2016. Similar to many sitcoms, this show follows a family through their daily lives and tells the story of their different adventures and struggles. However, this television show stands apart because it is centered around a high school student, JJ DiMeo, living with the physical and communication challenges of cerebral palsy (CP). In this television series, the family moves around a great deal in order to find a good educational fit for JJ. Since JJ cannot speak himself and uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system, the family settles on a school that will provide an aide who will help their son communicate. What makes this series even more intriguing and relatable is that the actor who plays JJ, Micah Fowler, also has CP (ABC, 2016).
Cerebral palsy is a congenital disorder that occurs due to malformation of or damage to the developing brain of the fetus or to a brain injury occurring during or shortly after childbirth (NINDS, 2013). This disorder can be characterized by a number of different signs and symptoms, namely motor and muscle impairments, which can affect walking, sitting, standing, gross motor movements, fine motor movements, and speech and swallowing. The severity and symptoms of the disorder depend on the location and significance of the injury.
Individuals with CP have differences in movement and muscle tone, which, in regards to speech, can cause difficulty with motor control and verbalizations, resulting in apraxia of speech or dysarthria, specifically spastic dysarthria. Apraxia of speech can be described as an inability to properly plan speech in terms of motor control, while spastic dysarthria is a motor speech disorder that is characterized by slow speech, low pitch, and difficulty with consonants (Duffy, 2013). Treatments for cerebral palsy depend on the nature of the brain injury and severity of the disorder and may include physical, occupational, or speech therapy, as well as prescription medications.
Actor Micah Fowler, similar to his character JJ, does not have complete mobility of his legs and uses a walker and a wheelchair to compensate. However, while his character utilizes an AAC system, Fowler is verbal, and the effect CP has on his speech can be observed: his speech is slow and quiet with imprecise articulation, all of which can be expected for an individual with this disorder.
Fowler has used his platform as an actor to bring attention and awareness to cerebral palsy. He is the newest ambassador for the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and after every episode of Speechless, the foundation posts informational videos about cerebral palsy to further discuss the CP-related content in each episode, which Fowler encourages viewers to watch. These topics range from communication and AAC systems, to confidence and independence, and to general well-being (Cerebral Palsy Foundation, 2016).
Speechless has resonated with viewers across the board not only because of its lighthearted approach and comedic timing, but also because of the show’s depth and desire to familiarize its audience with CP. By featuring a character played by a normal teenaged actor living with cerebral palsy, and by offering easily accessible information in conjunction with each episode, this show has taken a significant step toward normalizing disabilities in society, whether that means including mobility equipment or showing that communication can come through a device like an AAC or through spoken speech itself.
Check out the Speechless page at the Cerebral Palsy Foundation: http://yourcpf.org/speechless/
ABC. (2016). JJ DiMeo: Played by Micah Fowler. Retrieved from http://abc.go.com/shows/speechless/cast/jj-dimeo
Cerebral Palsy Foundation. (2016). Speechless. Retrieved from http://yourcpf.org/speechless/
Duffy, J. (2013). Spastic Dysarthria. (3rd ed.), Motor speech disorders: Substrates, differential diagnosis, and management (pp.128). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2013). Cerebral palsy: Hope through research. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver- Education/Hope-Through-Research/Cerebral-Palsy-Hope-Through-Research