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Talk This Way: Disability on TV

April 4 2013 | by

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I spoke with NPR today on a show called Where We Live. The topic was perceptions of people with disabilities in the media. Apparently I did a good job but I could hardly hear John Dankosky, the radio host; they have a great producer team (Brianna and Catie) who got me some questions in advance, which probably saved the segment. Next time I’ll drive up to the studio in Hartford. Anyway, after I spoke I was thinking about how film and television shows represent disability—both good and bad. A colleague wrote after hearing the piece and said a “good” example is Michael J. Fox’s role on The Good Wife. I agree. Another is RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad. Mitte has cerebral palsy and he even admits to making it seem worse than it is on TV, for effect. It’s not like people with disabilities can just make their symptoms appear on the spot when filming a scene. These are complex characters who also happen to have a disability.

Good parameters to go by when considering whether a role is helpful or hurtful to the disability cause: Is the character disabled in real life? Do they play roles in which they are limited because of their disability? Do they act out in fantasy to avoid the reality of being disabled?

On CSI Robert David Hall plays a coroner. In his spare time he leads a movement in Hollywood to get more disabled actors hired. HBO’s Game of Thrones has Peter Dinklage, who is a little person. You rarely see people of short stature in lead roles (though the fact this is a medieval fantasy show is not lost on me). I think FOX’s Glee should have tried harder to find a disabled actor who can chair-dance for the role of Artie Abrams. There are lots of people who dance in their chairs—there’s a whole TV series in the U.K. called Dance on Wheels. Still, the actor, Kevin McHale, does a good job in his role. But they made up for it by getting Lauren Potter, an actress who has Down syndrome, to join the cheerleading squad, and she’s not treated with white gloves as you might expect.

Reality TV is really helping to raise awareness. It’s not producers in a studio deciding what’s what. On American Idol we’ve seen contestants who are hard of hearing, blind or autistic: They just want to sing! A couple of years ago we saw the first Deaf contestant on The Amazing Race who signed in American Sign Language. Little People on TLC has been running for several years. Push Girls was a new show about four actresses who are paraplegic and live in L.A. The fact that they are actresses living in L.A. is probably what caused the show to get cancelled, which proves that disability really isn’t that exotic after you get past the shock of it.

In the movies, things are a little different. In some ways they’re more representative of the period the movie is set it. Forrest Gump is an excellent representation of having a disability in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tom Hanks plays a developmentally disabled man who got no help but survived on luck and wits. Nobody even calls him disabled. He’s a “simpleton”. There’s a Vietnam War disabled veteran—Lieutenant Dan—who returned home to no services available to him at all. That is as real as it gets, and is what led to the creation of the ADA.

I also think we’re seeing a larger level of people in Hollywood who have kids with disabilities or who understand disabilities and who want to take on this plight and hire more actors. Marlee Matlin, who is Deaf, is now an executive producer of Switched at Birth, an ABC Family show that uses a lot of sign language-based dialogue. Holly Robinson Peete is a spokesperson for Autism Speaks and has a son with Autism. William H. Macy recently played a priest who helps a man with a severe disability in the film The Sessions. Macy said in a recent interview that he took the role because “it is set in the world of disabilities, and yet the script is not about disabilities. It just happens to concern a guy with a disability, which is the way I think we should tell stories.” Touché, Mr. Macy.

 

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