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The new show 'Speechless' strikes a chord with parents of kids with disabilities

The cast of the new ABC sitcom
The cast of the new ABC sitcom "Speechless," premiering on September 21, 2016.
Kevin Foley

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five Americans live with a disability.

Half of those describe their condition as severe. But you don't see those numbers reflected on the small screen.

Few TV families feature kids with disabilities, and shows that do tend to be dramas.

This week marks the debut of a new comedy on ABC called "Speechless"about a 16-year-old named J.J., who has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal. 

The show struck a chord with Neil Genzlinger, TV critic with the New York Times.

Genzlinger's daughter has Rett syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leads to loss of speech, movement, and cognitive processing ability.

"It's hard, really, to think of any characters with disabilities from the first 50 years of television," Genzlinger says. "So for half a century, it's as if families like mine and people like my daughter just absolutely didn't exist, if television was your gauge of what real life was like."

That's begun to change in recent years, with more characters with disabilities showing up on television. But often the characters are in secondary roles, not leading ones. 

What makes "Speechless" even more unique is that the show is a comedy, and not a drama. Genzlinger says that's another thing he loves about the show.

"In a scripted TV show it's very tempting to use a disability as the peg for a show that's about suffering and loss and sorrow," Genzlinger says. "But I don't view my life or my child's life or our family's life as nonstop suffering and sorrow. It's hard, but we do laugh occasionally. Almost every day in fact."

To hear the full interview with Neil Genzlinger, click the blue player above.