I've only watched the first two episodes of "Speechless", and I don't plan on watching any more. I'm glad that TV is showing someone like the son on the show, in a wheelchair and without verbal speech. That's not my issue with the show, although I do wish sometimes they'd show someone with trouble communicating that went beyond verbal speech. The boy on the show has a lot to say and communicates very well, and of course is also funny and sassy and outgoing and so forth. And there are kids like him---great kids that I've met, very bright kids and adults in wheelchairs that deserve to be seen as the cool people they are. My issue with the show is the mother.
If you have a child with a disability, there's pretty much only one personality you can ever have if you are being portrayed on TV or in a movie. You must be a tireless, relentless, fierce, single-minded, aggressive, angry and over the top advocate for your child. You must be ready to put everything else in your life on a back burner, including your marriage, any other children you might have, your friends, your hobbies---all of it---in order to devote every single second toward the child with a disability. You are supposed to fight everyone and everything in order to get the best life for your child. Everything and everybody except your child is a potential roadblock, and you must be ready to mow them down to get what your child needs. The result will be, of course, that by the end of the movie or run of the TV show, your child will either be "cured" or will be living the best possible life they can---of course doing things that experts said they could never do, of course surprising everyone with how far they have come, of course making you proud and making it clear that the ends justified the means. The mother on "Speechless" is that kind of mother.
In real life, somehow it must be that mistakes are made here and there when handing out children with disabilities. Sometimes, instead of the fierce mother they are supposed to get, they get someone like me, someone who avoids confrontation if at all possible, who is not comfortable demanding anything, who regularly takes her eye off the prize and doesn't follow through with every chance to "fix" her child, who is in fact often not even exactly sure what it is she should be fighting for, if she were inclined to fight.
When talking to a friend about my feelings toward "Speechless" and how I didn't find the mold of the fierce mother, she asked me "Well, what is it you think Janey didn't get because you aren't that way?" That was an excellent question, and the answer was...really nothing. Of course occasionally I do wish there were programs for Janey that don't exist, but in terms of what she really needs, she has always gotten it. I am very lucky that way. I have to thank the Boston public schools for that. I've had nothing but excellent teachers for her, nothing but caring administrators, aides, therapists, ABA workers, bus drivers...I've been incredibly lucky. I can't quite say that's been the case with medical issues, but with the schools, I've somehow been able to get by without ever once having a screaming match at a meeting, or even anything close.
Of course, I do know that I've got some advantages. I speak English, I'm fairly good at understanding the system, I am able to attend meetings without fear of losing a job, I have transportation, I can read---I don't take any of that for granted. I know and have met mothers that care for their children every bit as much as I do, but because of various issues, can't work within the system as I do. I think about Tony's mother a lot. If she had had a child with autism, she wouldn't have known where to start. She spoke very little English, she didn't drive, she didn't understand the US school system---she would have been lost.
In an ideal world, everyone would have had the great experience I've had with their child's schools. We don't live in an ideal world. I know part of why I am able to not be the fierce mother is because of the work of fierce mothers that came before me, that demanded their children get an education at all. I respect that very much. However, I think the media has something to answer to in putting out there a stereotype of a fierce mother. I think it leaves many parents ready for fights that don't have to happen. It also gives a huge advantage to those with the means and skills and money to hire people to fight for them---lawyers or advocates or the like. It's why recent investigations in Massachusetts showed a huge gap between what kind of services kids in rich vs. poor school systems get.
My strong feeling is that schools and parents should be a team, working together to give children what they need. I'm extremely lucky that is what I have experienced. But if I relied solely on the media to get an idea how I should view the school/home relationship, I'd see it as a battle with the school on one side and me on the other. And because of this, I think sometimes schools are expecting every mother to be ready to fight that battle. They might be waiting for demands from parents, and many parents are ready to make those demands. I feel in many cases, that is how resources are handed out---by seeing who demands them. That infuriates me. It makes me sick, really. What about the parents who don't demand---because that isn't their nature, or because they simply have barriers to understanding what they even COULD demand? It is horrifying to me to think that their children might not get what they need while the children of those who know how to play the system do.
I'd love to see a TV show where special educators and parents work together, where the incredible dedication and hard work and love of both are shown. I'd like to see a mother I could relate to in the media, a mother who isn't fierce but still fiercely loves their child. I'd like to see some teachers and therapists like the ones I've known, like the ones I met with today at Janey's school, who care about my child deeply, who provide her with the best education they can (and provide me with the respite school gives me). I'd like to see a child on TV with Janey's kind of speechlessness. Until then, I'll avoid one-dimensional portrayals of special needs mothers.