“Growing up a huge TV and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of characters dealing with disabilities,” says Micah Fowler, 18, via email. As a child, he played small roles on Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street and recently had a role in 2013’s Labor Day, but when Speechless debuts Wednesday, his JJ DiMeo will be one of the first leads on a sitcom with a disability — in JJ’s case, cerebral palsy.
Like his character, Fowler has the neurological disorder, though his symptoms aren’t as severe. While Fowler and JJ both use a wheelchair, JJ is nonverbal and has a limited range of motion that requires him to use a laser pointer to communicate. To play JJ, Fowler must restrain hand and arm movements and “compensate physically,” he says. “All of my acting choices have to come through my expressions alone.” But Fowler hopes people will look past JJ’s wheelchair and see his “heart, humor, and big personality.”
And in the DiMeo family there’s plenty of personality to go around: Minnie Driver, as the unflappable English mother, leads her very American clan — dad Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) and kids JJ, Ray (Mason Cook), and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy) — on a variety of misadventures, all aimed at making a better life for each of her kids. In the pilot, the family moves to attend a school that offers an aide to give JJ a “voice,” one that ultimately manifests itself in the form of school janitor Kenneth, played by Cedric Yarbrough, whom JJ immediately bonds with because he sounds “cool.”
The series steers clear of sentimentality, though, and as Driver says, Fowler’s JJ is a typical teenage boy: “He likes girls, wants to try beer for the first time, wants to hang out and get in with the cool kids.” She commends Fowler, on the other hand, for being anything but run-of-the-mill, calling him “absolutely inspiring in terms of his work ethic.” Also, look out for him to be the one whose dark-edged humor gets the show’s biggest laughs.
Speechless premieres Wed., Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.