Disabled Characters on Television: Auggie on Covert Affairs

A number of people have drawn my attention to the USA show Covert Affairs that recently started airing in the United States, and a few days ago I sat down with the pilot and gave it a whirl. The show centres around Annie Walker (Piper Perabo), a woman who has just joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and almost immediately we are introduced to Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham), the tech expert, who also happens to be blind.

Like a lot of shows focusing on work for intelligence agencies, Covert Affairs wants to impress us with neat technological tricks, so they provide a shot of Auggie and Annie walking down a corridor with Auggie using what I guess I would describe as a ‘laser cane.’ It’s a handheld device that projects a grid which I think feeds back either to his hand or to the earpiece we rarely see Auggie without. Auggie makes some self deprecating jokes about being blind, flirts with Annie, and establishes that he has a very sensitive sense of smell. The ‘blind character with heightened senses’ smells of disability superpower (warning, link goes to TV Tropes) to me, but, ok. It was a reasonably strong scene; Auggie wasn’t desexualised and he also wasn’t depicted as helpless.

There were a lot of things I liked about Auggie’s characterisation in the pilot. He’s a professional, with skills that are respected. Other characters don’t make a huge production out of his blindness when they interact with him. I particularly liked the scene where the characters are out at a restaurant and he started flirting with some women at the next table and instead of a ‘he’s blind! HORRORS!’ scene, it was treated like any other television interaction between young, attractive people flirting with each other.

There were also some things I did not like. I am inherently grumpy with the disabled character as sidekick trope; it looks like Gorham and Perabo are getting equal billing, though, so I’m hoping that he is going to break out of the sidekick position and have an opportunity to be his own character, rather than just support/backup/comic relief for Perabo.

And then we got to the scene where Annie and Auggie are breaking into a morgue. Annie creatively comes up with a way to spoof the biometric scanner at the door, the door opens, she whisks in, and Auggie…is left standing outside, looking confused and disoriented. Apparently we are to believe that the character with heightened sensitivity didn’t hear Annie accessing the biometric lock and opening the door, and despite his keen sense of smell, he couldn’t follow Annie’s perfume as she moved away1.

So, here’s Auggie, looking forlorn, and then he shouts ‘Annie!’ and she looks guilty, darts back, grabs his arm, and pulls him along inside with her. Keep in mind, again, that we have seen Auggie, in numerous scenes, navigating a wide variety of environments without having to be guided anywhere.

Now, this show is using consultants, and Gorham specifically worked with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to get advice from actual blind people when he was preparing to do this role. This puts Covert Affairs a rung above a lot of other shows that depict disability and apparently think they can do so without doing any research because, you know, how hard can be it be, right? So, what did Gorham learn about the experience of being blind?

“I can’t just pick up my cup of coffee, have a drink, grab my pen and get up and walk across the room. I mean there’s literally nothing that I can physically do that doesn’t require me thinking it through, asking, ‘How am I going to do that’?”

“We had our first ‘walk and talk’ through the hallways. Well, the hallways turn. Which is fine if you’re sighted and you’re walking with three people and then all three of you can turn down the same hallway in the middle of the conversation and talk. But if you’re walking with a blind guy and if he’s not physically touching you, and you two turn, he’s not going to know that you’ve turned,” recounted the actor. “We did it for four takes, and I kept thinking, ‘something’s wrong.’ And then it suddenly occurred to me: ‘We have to start over.’ I have to be holding on to her the entire time otherwise it doesn’t make any sense. So things like that happen occasionally. But again, it’s kind of fun, because it’s really new.”

Ah. So this is where talking to consultants gets you.

Now, this was only the pilot, and as a general rule, I do not judge shows on their pilots alone. I’m going to watch a few episodes to see how the characters develop before I weigh in on any final way on how I feel about Covert Affairs. The show is still shooting, so I will be curious to see if Auggie’s characterisation shifts in later episodes in response to viewer discussions of the show.

Did you watch the Covert Affairs pilot? What did you think of it? I focused on Auggie’s characterisation in this piece, but there were a lot of other things going on in the pilot that are also worthy of some discussion!

  1. I really wish I was kidding about the perfume/sense of smell thing, but it came up multiple times during the episode, like in the scene where he follows her into the bathroom by tracking her perfume.

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s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

21 thoughts on “Disabled Characters on Television: Auggie on Covert Affairs

  1. My thoughts, in order:

    1. Great, so the “consulting” basically was just as good as having him shoot with a blindfold on, only not even, because he spends forever thinking about “what would it be like if I couldn’t see” instead of just not seeing during shooting.
    2. Was the consulting that bad, or more likely did he just not listen to a damn word they said?
    3. Wait, if they wanted an actor who could point out the problems of assuming sighted-ness, why didn’t they just hire a blind actor?
    4. What the fuck. Hire a blind actor already!
    5. Repeat 4
    6. Repeat 4
    … (same as 4, 5, and 6)
    50. Why did it take me those first two thoughts to get to what should really be a main thought? Stupid media and the fact that it is far more common for them to have someone who doesn’t have the disability doing poorly than it is for them to just hire an actor with that disability. Argh.

  2. I enjoyed the pilot despite its failings. The only person of color with lines was the professor who was there like 5 minutes maybe. But the trailer for the next episode has Oded Fehr in it so I am hoping he is going to be an awesome regular character on the show.

    I was kind of waiting for more episodes to form an opinion on Auggie other then that they should have hired a blind actor.

  3. I’ve been avoiding this pilot, it’s sitting on my TiVo waiting for me. Chris Gorham and his wife and I chat (more his wife and I) from time to time on Twitter, so I feel like I’m going to be disappointed on a whole different level by this iffily-handled crip drag.

    It seems to me, though, that so long as they are putting a sighted actor into this role, then it behooves the actor and the writers and the directors to have had some intensive consultation, so that when they put these scenes together, they can collaborate on the best way to make it make sense from both an artistic perspective and a portrayal perspective. The writers don’t seem to have done their full homework, and it was their choice to make Auggie blind to begin with. That irritates the hell out of me.

  4. I know this has been said already, but why why why why is it so impossible to hire a disabled actor to play a disabled character???
    Gosh, there must just be not a single blind actor who could have played this part. That MUST be it. AUGH!
    Also, I haven’t seen the pilot, but in addition to the sidekick stereotype, the blind-guy-as-tech-wizard also seems to be somewhat of a TV/movie stereotype.

  5. I was waiting to see this, and like many others I wasn’t disappointed. And when it comes to Auggie, I know from Chrstopher Gorham on Twitter, that he will have a bigger role than they let us believe in the pilot. This was only the pilot, so it was mostly used to introduce us to Annie, she is the main character right? But Mr. Gorham shared with us that he will get out of the office, he will be very active, he even gets fight scenes. Auggie is very smart, very skilled and they will show us that in future episodes. I say you give him and the show a chance.
    As for the sense of smell/perfume thing you talk about, I don’t see it as a mistake. Even if he is blind and followed her inside the bathroom like that, traking her perfume, that’s only what he said. I’m sure he didn’t just smell her, he also heard her before, when she got out of the boss’ office and stormed in the bathroom. And even if he only smelled her, it’s a different thing when you smell perfume on someone indoors: less people, less space for the scent to disipate. But outdoors, things are different. That’s why it was more difficult for him to do the same when they went at the morgue. He might be blind and guiding himself using his other senses, but he doesn’t have superpowers, he’s only human. This is how I see it 🙂

  6. What specifically is problematic about Gorham’s statement? Is it that the things he regards as revelatory (being blind affects the way you interact with physical world) seem so self-evident if you actually think about it, and so it reveals thoughtlessness on the creators’ parts? That his consultant didn’t point these things out to him? Or is there something else that I’m missing?

  7. @Kate: I’m feeling a bit mentally foggy today so someone else may want to weigh in, but the obvious problems I see with this are:

    He is talking about what it’s like for a sighted person to experience loss of sight, not what it is like to have lived as blind for a long time. Which is to say – all the things he talks about are things that a blind person will probably have figured out a different way of doing. It’s the same as the problem with disability simulations – walking around with a blindfold for a few hours does not give you any insight whatsoever into the life of someone who’s been blind for years. Furthermore, he’s apparently trying to come up with his own solutions (like always holding onto someone) instead of talking to actual blind people as to how they do these things. (Isn’t that what consultants are meant to be *for*?)

    And, of course, as a result his performance is probably going to be unrealistic in ways it wouldn’t have been if they’d just HIRED A BLIND ACTOR for the role, argh.

    I also have issues with the lack of consideration of the social experience of disability and structural barriers in favour of “but how do I pick up a coffee cup???”, but am having problems articulating that. Anyway, the whole section is coming across as “pity those poor disabled people who can’t do X it is so HARD not to be able to do X! They are so brave to live this way!” to me with all the usual issues that entails.

  8. I believe that the show is doing just fine, and it would really be unrealistic to hire a blind actor, because if the actor could actully NOT SEE there would prob be more need for retakes, and if it is true that there is going to be secenes where he is fighting, it would be much harder for a person who could not see to fufill the role. There is nothing wrong with the way the show is going about, they are just trying to be realistic.

  9. Okay, I’m a disabled actor and (former) director, so here’s the thing. It’s inherently going to be easier for a blind person to portray a blind person because they’re blind and they have that actual experience to work with. It’s a pretty poor production team that can’t structure the action around the action rather than visual cues, so as to bring the work together in a skilled way. That is, a production team who know what they’re about will be able to apply their skills in such a way that blind and sighted actors can work together fine. There’s really no reason why there need to be loads of retakes or for the fighting to be so much harder. And even if it is? It’s going to be worth it if the production team and actors are trying to make the best show they can. In any case, limiting jobs for blind actors because they don’t work in the same way as some more visually-oriented sighted actors is a really bizarre and discriminatory thing.

  10. oh well, now that you’ve told us person I guess there’s no need to talk about discrimination or able-ism. I mean, you’ve so helpfully explained that everyone (who thinks that hiring actors who actually have experience with a disability they are portraying might be good) is just being unreasonable.

    Do you realize how enraging it is to have someone write all about why having a sighted actor play a blind character is the most “realistic”? I suppose it’s also more realistic when blind actors play sighted characters? No. Oh, so then sighted people are just inherently better at acting then? Since apparently they are able to more “realistically” play any character out there.

    As to your “more retakes” contention, I think that there seemed to be far more retakes because this actor couldn’t conceptualize how an actual blind person would act. Since I assume that the *majority* of the scenes in the show that include the blind person will include them say, being blind whereas they will not on average *all* be fight scenes, it seems like the least retakes would be made using a blind actor. Not to mention that unless this character is actually MEANT to be a superhero, it makes little sense for him to be able to do things that any blind person couldn’t *possibly* do. Perhaps it makes it a little less, I don’t know, REALISTIC???

  11. Go watch The Wire and pay attention to how S. Robert Morgan plays Butchie. Don’t get back to me on which is more realistic. Don’t bother to continue justifying why currently non-disabled actors should be given preference over disabled actors in casting decisions for disabled (or, gasp, currently non-disabled!) roles. We know all the justifications and they’re insulting, bigoted bullshit.
    kaninchenzero´s last blog post ..expletives

  12. I have worked with a blind actor before. It’s extremely difficult. Every single moment has to be rehearsed to the point of perfection, like clockwork. There is no room for change once it is set. Once the actor has the movements in his body, nothing can ever be different for that shot. This is not conducive for film acting, because timing, emotion, beats, even movement can change at the whim of any actor or crew member – either out of necessity or because the director wants to see something different. Not to mention the complexity and variability of TV sets. I worked with the blind actor in question on a theatrical stage, so he had plenty of time to get acquainted with the set and know it by touch. This just can’t happen efficiently on a TV set, and efficiency and speed are extremely important, considering the tight schedule they’re on. Lastly, there is the “idiocy” of having to touch someone constantly. First, when I worked with this blind actor, he was always in contact with someone. We had over a month to rehearse a two-hour show, and he still had to touch someone to get around the stage comfortably. It’s not completely ludicrous. Also, the scene at the morgue, when Annie leaves Auggie – he doesn’t have his laser-pointer cane with him. It’s because he’s trying to not be himself, just be an average-joe-boyfriend-type. I would imagine it would be a lot harder to navigate without her in a crowded, unfamiliar place. Just speaking from experience. It is, unfortunately, much easier to hire a sighted actor pretending to be blind than it is to hire a blind actor.

  13. Well, okay, for a start, please read my comment above. Working with blind actors really doesn’t have to be difficult, but it’s going to be if you work with an approach that visually-oriented and don’t adapt the way things are run to work with how everyone on set or on stage actually works. Again, with a bit of innovation, you can get some gorgeously tactile, physical things going on that don’t rely on sighted ways of pulling together a scene, and that’s a mark of a really good production. It really really doesn’t have to be hard, and there are mixed sighted and blind productions that have gone well. Again, even if it is difficult in a particular case, as I pointed out, making the effort can be worth it for quality portrayals from someone who has the relevant experience! Also, I really dislike how these conversations tend to put the burden on blind people to adapt to sighted ways of doing things rather than do what every other production does (or ought to do): adapt to how different people work and work with that, because theatre especially can be such a collaborative process. Yes, things can be made different for a shot, it’s a matter of communication. There’s no reason why the beats can’t be worked out together, why the director can’t say they want something different. Not to mention that this one actor you worked with doesn’t have the experiences of all blind actors – I’m sure people all work differently! Just… there’s no reason to make these limitations, there’s no reason to run all blind actors out of work from the get go.

  14. @Toria,
    Have you ever worked with a red-headed actor? Or, say, an actor that wore a green shirt? Do you think every other actor who has red hair or wears green shirts is going to do things exactly the same way because of that experience?

    I don’t know if this particular actor you worked with just wasn’t a very good actor or a good match for the cast/crew, or whether the director/producer/cast/crew were, as Chally said, totally unable to go beyond a narrow, limited way of doing things, but do you see how saying, “I worked with one person once who happened to be in this group of people means that all actors who I would group this way (and there are many kinds of blindness, btw) would therefore be exactly the same way” is prejudicial and narrow-minded and really not that well-thought out?

    In my former life where I acted, directed, and wrote plays, I never worked the same way with each actor or each script twice. Disability or no. Making theater is a dynamic process. I have much less experience with film, but this discussion is preposterous. It’s taking all I have not to just scream at my computer. Seriously. I don’t come to a disability blog to read comments that essentially say, “I know nothing about [people with this type of disabilitly] or I had one experience with [someone with this type of disability], and now I’m just going to apply it to everyone with that disability and say how they’re inferior.” That is pretty much the definition of prejudice.

  15. Look. I believe this is all being blow out of proportion. Yes some blind people can act and others can’t. But maybe the reason they chose this guy for the part was because he did an okay job at being “blind” but really sold the script. Personally I think the way he delivers the lines is the best. And who knows maybe in time his acting for the part of a blind person will get better. I’m not sure I am putting this right but look at it this way, if they could find a blind guy who worked well with the cast and crew and he could deliver the lines just as well they would have hired him to make everything seem more real but obviousaly they couldn’t find someone with the right chemistry so they went with the next best thing. I think we should all sit back and just see how the show goes. You can’t judge a show by it’s first two episodes, they are still trying to work things out and get the feel of the characters

    Please ignore any typos I am on an iPod touch 🙂

  16. The proportion is speaking to the greater issues that go on beyond this show: blind actors tend not to get hired because sighted people think, in advance, that they can’t do the job. So that trend makes me think, well, maybe they didn’t even think it was worth the trouble to find a blind actor in this case. On top of all that other stuff.

  17. I don’t think they show is trying to portray Auggie as having a super sense of smell. He tells Annie when he first meets her that many of the women he works with wear too much perfume, and that hers is more subtle. I don’t have super sense, but I can certainly smell the perfume of the person standing right next to me – I think that’s kinda the point of perfume.

    And as for the scene where he follows her into the bathroom – I thought the subtext of that scene made it pretty clear that he hadn’t found her by her smell. He’s not really apologetic when he says “uh oh, perfume! I’m in the wrong bathroom!” He’s joking with her. He knew she’d stomped off into the ladies room and he purposely followed her in there to check on her, then started out with a joke about how he’d entered the wrong restroom.

    Also, the scene at the morgue – He wasn’t using his laser cane out there because he was pretended to be sighted (presumably so as not to draw any attention to himself). She left him standing there in an unfamiliar place, and he didn’t have his cane out. Of course he’s going to call out to her and remind her that he needs her help. And she didn’t pull him inside, she laid her arm next to him and let him find her. From what I’ve seen, all the guiding done in the show has been correct. She never grabs or pulls him – she lets him find her arm and leads him.

    Personally, I thought it was great that she forgot him for a second. I thought it was kinda funny that she left him stranded at the bar, too. Obviously, she doesn’t think of him as some blind guy who needs her help – she thinks of him as a fellow agent. To the point where, I think, she sometimes forgets he might need her help occasionally. I guess I just find it refreshing to see someone forgetting a blind person might need help rather than watching characters automatically assume that the blind character needs help with everything.

  18. Thank you, Rae. It was pretty obvious to me as well that the perfume reference in the bathroom was his sly way of letting her know that he was there and knew that she was there too. The man’s been working there for over 3 years; it’s not reasonable that he gets the bathrooms confused.

    The excerpts here about the obstacles in his acting sound totally reasonable to me for a sighted person pretending to be blind. If you’re sighted, it’s not like you can just turn off your eyes without closing them. It’s like asking someone to pretend to be deaf and not react to sudden, loud noises; without a lot of preparation, you can’t do it. If I’m picking up a pen or a coffee cup, how do I do this without instinctively glancing to where it is, or without knocking it over and making an ass of myself? What senses do I need to use, which direction am I looking, can I have it in my peripheral vision without making it obvious I’m using my peripheral vision? He has to process and work with his sight (and portrayal of sightlessness) the same way he would process and work through any other character traits which he does not have.

    Could they have avoided this by hiring a blind actor? Of course! But more than his believability at being blind, I appreciate what he is doing for the character and the story.

    And hey, I just love the refreshable braille thingie. I didn’t even know those existed, so that was the coolest thing I’ve seen on TV in a long while. His position as a techie affords the show the rare opportunity to showcase assistive technology.

  19. “And hey, I just love the refreshable braille thingie. I didn’t even know those existed, so that was the coolest thing I’ve seen on TV in a long while. His position as a techie affords the show the rare opportunity to showcase assistive technology.”

    No. The opportunity to showcase assistive and adaptive technologies is rare on television because so few characters are disabled people. The characters who are disabled frequently make poor use — doing a bad job of the showcasing you’re excited about — of that assistive and adaptive technology because the actors playing them are currently non-disabled and have no experience using it. Auggie Anderson as played by Christopher Gorham will not use a refreshable Braille device as fluently as Auggie Anderson as played by a blind actor (I keep going back to Butchie on The Wire and I hate not having more examples) who uses a refreshable Braille device in ou daily life. Glee‘s Artie is not fluent at using a wheelchair because Kevin McHale is not a wheelchair user and definitely not a wheelchair dancer or ramp sitter.

    There are, as this thread and every other goddamn thread relating even tangentially to cripface has shown, always justifications for hiring currently non-disabled actors to play the parts of disabled characters. These justifications are bigoted ableist bullshit but if you’re not used to thinking of our needs as just needs and not special needs and if you think it’s more important that everyone on a cast hew to a CND-person standard than to work with the abilities of all the actors then it might be hard to fill in the conceptual gaps.

    As for the coffee cup. My understanding (and I am sighted so I could be wrong) is that a blind person wouldn’t knock over ou coffee cup whilst reaching for it because the coffee cup is always in the same place. Environmental control is vital. Which would be why well-intended ‘help’ from sighted folk is often neither helpful nor welcome. (This is actually a more generalised problem; people meaning to help disabled folk often do so in ways that fuck things up for us. They tend to be surprised and hurt and offended when we are insufficiently grateful.)
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  20. I think if they could have used a blind actor, they would have tried to do so. Only way to know for sure is to ask the production company or someone from the crew, I guess.

    There’s more than one criteria here: We have to believe that this person is fit/agile enough to seem to have been an active agent/special forces op as little as 2 1/2 years previous, as the character states. We have to buy that this character could conceivably be able to do some ops work in the field, which is his stated goal in later episodes, to return to what he feels is a more effective role in that world. We have to also accept that he is a bit of a player (again, part of the character as developed, so far), which means he’d have to be at least somewhat attractive. Not to mention that they wanted someone who can act well.

    Put it all together, and it might be harder to find the right blind actor to fit that role as written. Maybe if they’d found the right blind actor, and *then* written the part, it would be easier. Something for the community to work toward, anyway.

  21. I myself am a blinded vet who is in the technology profession, well, studying to be. I have yet to sit down and watch one of these episodes with a sighted friend, but as far as the Auggie goes, I think they are doing a good job.
    The laser cains are not that common but do exist. I just bought a Braille display and they are very expensive! $3000, yes thousand, for a display that displays 40 letters at once!
    I have been amazed by the bigitry that exist in our society torwards people with disabilities.
    I am very excited seeing this character being portrayed as strong, independant, and smart.
    I would have ask Anny to return and help in the morgue scene. I can’t smell but my blind friends simply apay more attention to smell than a sighted person normally would.
    So much that I want to say but I am in a rush!

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