Speechless and Improvising Accessibility

Speechless is a new show featuring Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy, as JJ DiMeo, a character with cerebral palsy who is non-speaking. Instead, he uses a laser attached to his head to indicate letters on a board.

I wrote a review for The Atlantic, focusing on the authenticity of this method.

Silveri told me he was a little stuck in his early drafts, in which the DiMeo family functioned as an exact translation of his own. Initially, the “JJ” character used a typical Adapted and Assistive Communication (AAC) device, which allows a person to select icons and words from a screen and have them spoken aloud in a flat, computer-generated voice. Then Silveri met Eva Sweeney. Sweeney is a woman with cerebral palsy who invented her own method of communication as a teenager rather than rely on typical AAC. “As a kid I used to point with my left hand on my letter board,” she told me. “But that was super slow and tiring. So at 16, I asked my mom to Velcro a laser pointer to a cap, and I’ve been using it since.” Sweeney, now a paid consultant on the show, says she finds it to be much more efficient and interactive than high-tech AAC devices, and it encourages people she’s talking with to stay engaged with the conversation.

Silveri was blown away. “I saw [Eva] interacting with her aide. They had this great intense chemistry, anticipating each other and playing off each other.” After the meeting, Scott re-wrote the whole show. People familiar with AAC may find the technique weird, but in the context of comedy it works beautifully to keep the dialogue moving. Better still, Kenneth adds so much to the show: He is, at once, JJ’s voice and his own character.

The disability community improvises. It has to, because the world isn’t accessible, and we should do better. But let’s also celebrate the creativity.

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