ABC's 'Speechless' Calls for Abilities Expo

By Julienne Dallara, Abilities Expo

WAbilities Expo was called to action, and that call came from TV's Speechless.

In the last two decades television has tried, with varying degrees of success, to accurately represent the disability community. With only a few exceptions, that has meant putting an able-bodied actor in a wheelchair and sending him to a local rehab hospital for a week to "learn" how to act as a person with a disability. Occasionally, Hollywood casts an actor with the disability he is portraying. Fortunately, this is the case with ABC's Speechless.

Cast of 'Speechless'

Recreating Abilities Expo for the Small Screen

To quickly recap, Speechless follows the life of the DiMeo's, a family whose oldest child, JJ, has cerebral palsy and cannot vocalize. He speaks by pointing a laser on his head at a word on his word board. JJ DiMeo is played by the talented Micah Fowler, an actor with cerebral palsy.

Minnie Driver plays his militantly supportive mother, Maya. Those of us familiar with special needs families will recognize some of the disability scenarios, written to capitalize on the absurdity we all know is there.

The Abilities Expo was contacted by Speechless when a plot line was conceived that included Maya going to "an Abilities Expo type" event, because she has invented some wheelchair-friendly apparel. Accordingly, Expo contacted our vendors in the Hollywood area, and some were tapped to have a booth at ABC's "Abilities Expo."

The following are first-hand accounts of life on the set—as much as we are able to share! We were sworn to secrecy—not allowed to share any images from the set until after the air date of February 1st. The photographs you see here are pre-Speechless. Once the episode has aired (just three weeks before the actual Abilities Expo at the LA Convention Center on February 22-24, 2019), we can share it all!

Barbara Beccio, e Isperante Accessible Apparel

When Barbara got the email from Abilities asking if she would like to show her wheelchair-friendly clothing on the set of Speechless, her breathless response was, "Great!  I definitely want to make it happen!"

Barbara relates that her experience was good, the crew was helpful. However, it was a couple of long days for someone unused to television filming! The first day's shoot was 13 ½ hours, followed by 10 hours on the second day. But Barbara was fed well and has hopes that her booth and custom clothing will make the final cut!  (An unexpected plus: some of the crew and extras purchased some of her products.)

Julienne Dallara of Abilities Expo

She also found kindred spirits among the other exhibitors, saying, "We were like a school bus full of kids!  We were supposed to stay in the holding tent in the parking lot, but it was raining so hard that they let us come inside."

"The best part for me was that I just started with the Expo last year, so I have never gotten to meet any of the other exhibitors. Now we know each other, and we have had a chance to hang out. "

Lisa Wells, Cure Medical's CURE Catheters

"I was amazed at how much time and care they took to train us! We got instructions on how to carry ourselves appropriately on set. I commend them for working so hard to be a realistic depiction of a special needs family."

According to Lisa, who is a veteran exhibitor at the actual Abilities Expo, Speechless' set designer decided positioning of booths based upon the look of the booth, logos and relevant products. Abilities Expo's 20' long banners, lanyards and signage for workshops were all duplicated.

Lisa Wells of Cure Medical

"It was encouraging to see extras using wheelchairs, forearm crutches and even an amputee. You could tell they are really trying to create an authentic picture."

Lisa also commends the show for contacting the owners of the Abilities Expo. "They were smart using actual vendors to make it look as much like the real event as possible. I'm thankful for the opportunity to play myself as a long-term advocate for the disability community."

Ellen Seder and Lynette LaScala, NAPA Center's Physical Therapy for Children with Disabilities

"The most surprising thing to me was how well organized it was!  There was no down time—the directors had instructions for us at all time."

According to Ellen, the extras around NAPA's booth were told to act as though Minnie Driver's character was not liked by the exhibitors at the Expo.

Therapy at NAPA Center

"She is the Mama Bear for her child! The extras were instructed that when Minnie walked by, we were supposed to give her dirty looks, nudging and whispering, anything we could do to show that we did not respect this character. But we couldn't make any noise!  We were just supposed to mouth the word 'watermelon' over and over."

Valerie Teague, Oxylife Hyperbarics' Oxygen Therapy

"It was just like a diminutive Abilities Expo—the attention to detail was unbelievable!  The Speechless team even re-created the feeling of the Abilities Expo—we were all a family."

Cast of 'Speechless'
Valerie described the feeling on the set as that of a community. "The director, the producer, the cast and the crew were real, compassionate human beings who understand the disability community. Having Micah and his mom there was an added bonus!"

She summed up the experience with gratitude: "Kudos to the creators of the show—it was an honor to be part of the process."

Mark February 1, 2019 on your calendar to see Speechless, with ABC's version of Abilities Expo. Then we hope to see our SoCal friends at the real Abilities Expo, February 22-24. (Micah Fowler will be at that one, too!)

And stay tuned for the February issue of the Abilities Buzz with our photos from the set!


Pre-Register for Abilities Expo Today...It's Free!

Sign up for the Abilities Buzz

Stay in the know on disability news and info.