5 heartwarming TV shows that celebrate special-needs families
From 'Speechless' to 'The A Word,' these series have raised the bar on building awareness for a more inclusive world.
As any family with a special-needs member will tell you, one of the hardest challenges of any disability is changing public perception. While awareness is changing thanks to PSAs and greater inclusiveness in schools and the workforce, there is still much to be done to dispel age-old myths and stereotypes regarding disabled persons.
One area where the disabled community, represented by more than 1 billion people worldwide, is finding a new and authentic voice is through television. Several critically beloved series have featured special-needs characters, their families and the highs and lows of everyday life. Below are just a few heartwarming examples of shows that have built awareness and opened new doors to those with special needs.
"Parenthood," which recently concluded six seasons on NBC, is widely credited with moving the needle on autism awareness due to one of its central characters, Max Braverman, played by American actor Max Burkholder. Max has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that includes difficulty developing meaningful relationships, trouble making eye contact and inability to show affection.
According to showrunner Jason Katims, who has a son with Asperger's, the goal from the beginning was to tell intimate stories about family. "I’ve heard so many anecdotal stories about what a positive effect that has had for families and for the autistic community," he told the Huffington Post. "It actually goes beyond the autistic community to just people who are dealing with various challenges and disabilities. So, of course, that’s incredibly rewarding to all of us that the show seems to have had an impact in some way."
Kerry Magro of the nonprofit Autism Speaks further praised "Parenthood" for its realistic portrayal of autism and its myriad of social and medical issues. "With the prevalence of autism at 1 in 68 today, this show couldn’t have come at a better time to help spread awareness," she wrote. "Autism has certainly become part of the national culture. I truly hope the series 'Parenthood' will open the door for the portrayal of more characters with autism in the future."
'The A Word'
Based on a hit Israeli drama of the same name, "The A Word" is a series that follows a family coming to the realization that their youngest child has autism.
"I’d always wanted to do something on autism, having met so many children and adults at different points along the spectrum in my teaching days and having kept up with some of them too," British screenwriter Peter Bowker told The Arts Desk. "You get much closer to the families as a teacher when the child’s got special needs – you see how much they’re hoping you can change things for their child, the pressure they’re under."
Praised by The New York Times as both "honest and true," the series has also received positive reviews from families of autistic children. While the main character of Joe, played by a 6-year-old non-autistic actor named Max Vento, is not representative of all autistic children, his story nonetheless draws from themes and challenges experienced by a large majority.
"I really tried to fight the noise in my head about how it would be received," the show's Jerusalem-born creator Keren Margalit told From The Grapevine. "I had a strong feeling it was good because I put a lot of my heart and truth into it. When someone is really honest and offers a window that others can look into and see all the humiliating little things that are built into being a human being, you hope it will work and the audience will identify with it."
Premiering this fall, "Speechless" is a new show about a special-needs teen and his protective, empowering family. Starring British actress Minnie Driver and American actor Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy in real life, the series already has strong word of mouth based on the heart and humor of its writing.
"In real life, I live every day conquering challenges brought on by cerebral palsy," Fowler, who plays a nonverbal character in "Speechless," told The Mighty. "In addition to the physical challenges, one challenge I have noticed is that sometimes people who have not met me seem uncomfortable around me. I hope as people watch 'Speechless,' they get to know JJ as a very normal person, to the point that they don’t even see the disability."
Producer and writer Scott Silveri, who previously worked on "Friends," shared in a recent panel discussion that "Speechless" is not a disability show, but a family one. "At its core, it's a show about being different, not apologizing about being different, and embracing who you are," he said.
'Joan of Arcadia'
Despite only running for two seasons, the series "Joan of Arcadia" was widely celebrated for its grounded characters and family dynamics, earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series in its first year. The series was also praised for its realistic portrayal of a paraplegic character named Kevin, played by American actor Jason Ritter, building a new life in the aftermath of a car accident.
"This is what portraying disability in a 'positive' light looks like to me," Anna of Disabled Feminists wrote. "Making Kevin totally cool with everything that had happened, ignoring the way that families heal after sudden and unexpected changes, would be dismissing the realities of so many people... He doesn’t need to be a hero, or good at everything he tries. He just needs to be a person."
While "Arcadia" left the television scene over a decade ago, fans remain insistent that the show was ahead of its time and would likely thrive on today's streaming platforms. "Ten years on, it's one of the most severely under-appreciated shows of its time," writes Margaret Lyons for Vulture, "and TV could really use another iteration."
'Born This Way'
American television producer Jonathan Murray, famous for having co-directed MTV's reality series "The Real World," brought to the forefront recently yet another groundbreaking series with A&E's "Born This Way." Featuring a cast of seven young adults with Down syndrome, the series embraces "The Real World's" formula by having everyone live together for 20 weeks under one roof.
"The challenge of producing reality today is finding those people who are genuinely going to be themselves and who aren’t giving you something they think you want," Murray told Reality Blurred. "With this cast and these parents, we’re getting an honest look into their lives, in a way you don’t get that kind of authentic reality."
Recently renewed for a second season, "Born This Way" has been widely praised for shattering the public's preconceived notions about Down syndrome.
"We have been overwhelmed and moved by the feedback we’ve received for 'Born This Way' from viewers, as well as people with disabilities and their family members," Elaine Frontain Bryant, head of programming at A&E Network, said in a statement. "It’s rare to be able to present a show that changes the way we see the world; we believe 'Born This Way' is one of those shows."
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