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Are Disabilities Ready for Primetime?

December 11 2008 | by

Mary McDonnell

Wednesday’s New York Times Well column, written by Tara Parker-Pope, talks about celebrities and mental health. It’s a timely topic, as Ms. Pope points out. Lately, celebrities from Britney Spears to Dennis Quaid have spoken out on behalf of medical conditions in an effort to raise awareness, which in turn, also makes good tabloid copy. As many of you might have picked up on, there’s more prevalance of disabilities on primetime TV, particularly non-verbal learning disabilities. Grey’s Anatomy (perhaps in an effort to boost lagging ratings) has just introduced a surgeon, Virginia Dixon, who has Asperger’s Syndrome — a form of high-functioning autism — and a popular resident, Izzie Stevens, may have a brain tumor. Boston Legal’s Denny Crane is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Several other primetime characters are also suspect of falling somewhere along the autism spectrum, including Dr. Temperance Brennan of Bones, two children of Vic Mackey on The Shield, Jerry Espenson on Boston Legal, Dr. Greg House on House, M.D., and many more. Less prevalent, however, are physical disabilities such as blindness and deafness. When these characters do appear, they’re generally stuck with disability-specific plot lines, which gives them little room to expand as characters. How fascinating would it be to watch a blind bartender mix exotic cocktails and chat up pretty women, or watch a deaf undercover specialist (remember Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye?) fight terrorists? Until then, celebrities and primetime TV can do much to elevate the disability discussion. We can look forward to more in 2009, so long as there’s potential for more headlines and higher ratings.

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