‘Speechless’ Creator on Casting Disabled Actors in Hollywood, ‘Demystifying’ Special Needs Community

ABC’s new comedy “Speechless” follows a family of five with a special needs child. The actor who portrays the disabled character is Micah Fowler, a teenager, who in real life, has cerebral palsy.

“For me, it was never a question,” show creator Scott Silveri says about casting Fowler. “God bless the studio and the network for not questioning that. I had geared up for a big fight, but the fight never came. There wasn’t the pushback I expected.”

Silveri — who based “Speechless” loosely off of his own experience growing up with an older brother with a disability — says he’s been wanting to do a show like “Speechless” for nearly 20 years, and while he happened to be developing something on his own, he found out ABC was looking for a show about a family with a special needs child.

“I expected to be some trailblazing vanguard like ‘It’s time!’ and I never got to do my speech,” Silveri says with a laugh.

Shortly after “Speechless” was greenlit, a new study came out revealing that 95% of the top television shows cast able-bodies actors in the roles of disabled characters. Silveri says that casting a disabled actor what important to him for this particular show, but he is not offended when others do not.

“If Daniel Day-Lewis had wanted to do this, I would have taken the call, but there was never a real question for me, and it’s for two reasons: it’s the better thing to do and I think it’s the right thing to do, though I take no offense in others who do not. But the driving force is that I wanted the show to feel real,” Silveri explains. With a chuckle, he adds, “There are so many ways to screw a show up, so let’s start from the right place — and then we can get creative about how we screw it up down the line!”

“Speechless” has received rave reviews from critics across the boards, who are especially commending Fowler’s work. Silveri clearly agrees with those industry voices, but aside from the young thesp’s acting talents, (“everybody knew it would be a challenge to find, but we hit the jackpot with him,” he raves), the creator points out that the actor’s authenticity enables the production to survive without consultants commenting on each-and-every move.

“These things move so fast and you don’t want to have to have an actor without a disability in a chair with consultants on the side saying, ‘He wouldn’t do that. His head would go this way.’ You can sniff the fake on that,” Silveri says.

In creating “Speechless,” Silveri is not trying to put out any sort of social message, stressing that the family comedy is not an issue-based series. “This isn’t going to be like the ramp-of-the-week show,” the “Friends” alum quips.

“Because we have that specific point of view, you get a little taste of it,” he says, relating his show to ABC’s other family comedies, “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish,” which have helped to build the network’s diverse brand of sitcoms. “They have their specific and unique experience through which you can tell really universal stories, but there’s a little kernel of something different.”

However, if any positivity should come from “Speechless,” Silveri hopes the series can help the masses feel more comfortable around disabled people.

“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.”

Silveri admits that there was even a learning curve on set in understanding how best to work with Fowler, explaining that an extra 15 minutes was tacked onto production meetings to teach the cast and crew how to use the right language regarding disabled individuals.

“That’s something that goes away quickly and I’ve begged people to take a deep breath,” he says of the stuttering-and-stammering that goes on when people are unsure of what words to use around Fowler. “There is that mental roadblock with people not knowing how to behave, but he puts that at ease…he just has a charisma and quality that invites you in. He has a strength to him so that is not a woe-is-me story. He brings joy to the set.”

Silveri cannot rave enough about Fowler, and says there are very little added challenges to running a show with a disabled actor on board.

Well, except for one thing…

“He has a bigger trailer than everyone so his wheelchair can get through, which of course creates a lot of resentment with the cast,” Silveri says in jest. “It looks like there’s a lot of actors and then Jay Z on the set!”

“Speechless” premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

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