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Glee: That’s How Artie Rolls

November 12 2009 | by

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I’m a product of the MTV generation, and last night’s “Wheels” episode of Glee blew me away. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a music video cute boy in a wheelchair roll cooly through a high-school cafeteria in slow motion while singing a Billy Idol song, and then pop and spin through the hall as he rocked out to ’80s music.

Kevin McHale, who plays Artie Abrams, a paraplegic in Fox’s Glee, turned the number into a powerful acknowledgment that having a physical disability can make you feel like an outcast among your own kind. This truth is intensified in high school, where, among the esteemed cheerleaders and football players, you struggle to fit in and find your place.


Artie has a dilemma. He wants to join the rest of the Glee Club for an off-site competition, but the school cannot afford an accessible van. Sure, Artie’s dad can drive him separately, but the teacher, Mr. Schuester, thinks the team should all be together. “You don’t understand the challenges Artie faces every day,” Mr. Schuester tells the kids. To hammer that point home, he borrows a dozen wheelchairs and assigns one to each student, who must use it for three hours each day.

Now that the entire Glee Club is on Artie’s latitude, the real fun begins. The kids set up a bake sale to help pay for Artie’s $600 van. While their dedication is commendable, cupcakes can’t shroud the real fact that having a physical disability is expensive — and costs are not often covered by insurance. If a school doesn’t have money in it’s budget to pay for a van — it amazes me how families must contend with similar burdens.

Also, I struggle to understand why a van that’s accessible costs an extra $600. In America, chartering a van should mean that you have the choice of getting an accessible one, at no extra cost. I wonder if Mr. Schuester could have looked around for a company that understands the concept of good business.

The upside to Artie’s dilemma is that he’s still young. His parents are still in the picture, and his dad drives him everywhere. But once Artie goes out on his own, he will be the mercy of our society, including businesses that still operate under the assumption that their customer lives in a one-size-fits-all body. For example, an adult who uses a chair and cannot drive must hire an accessible taxi or van, and pay $100 or $200 more for the pleasure of a ride — out of pocket. One solution is, of course, government-funded rides, like Para-Transit. But this is like a wheelchair version of a Super Shuttle, with advance reservations and multiple pick-ups.

There are also accessible vans that perhaps the team could have rented. Toyota makes an accessible Sienna mini-van, which fits one wheelchair user and five ambulatory users (and If Artie has his license, he could also drive it!) Of course, a six-seater van would split the team up — but Artie could decide which kids are cool enough to ride with him.

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