Last week s.e. smith and several other members of the disability community, including Alice Sheppard (a dancer with AXIS wheelchair dance company), TK Small (a lawyer and disability rights activist), Christine Bruno (who works with the advocacy group Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and Maysoon Zayidd (an actor and comedienne with Cerebral Palsy).
came together on the WBAI show The Largest Minority to discuss Glee and depictions of disability in popular culture. This particular episode of the radio show was inspired by s.e.’s post, A Very Glee Christmas.
The actual show itself doesn’t start until 3:52 in to the program slot.
It’s taken me a while to get the transcript of this done, for which I apologize. I did mean to get this up far faster than I did. I also should note that I had some difficulties always identifying who was speaking, and there are points in the program where the show’s audio cuts out terribly and I’m unsure what they’re saying.
I don’t have a t.v. at home so I don’t actually watch a lot of advertisements, but when I do, there’s one thing I notice: Unlike the rest of my life, advertisements only include people with evident disabilities when they want to make some sort of point.
I’m really bothered by this. I know, I know, it’s advertising. We also don’t get excited about brighter brights in our laundry and aren’t followed around by wind machines when we get new shampoo. It’s certainly not supposed to represent “real life” in any way, because it’s all fantasy to sell you stuff. But part of what advertising sells us is ideas about people. And part of what I think it sells us is that disability is a punishment, a novelty, a metaphor, or a joke.
As we’ve said before, disability never just is.
I think this does immeasurable damage to both our perceptions of ourselves as disabled people, but also people’s perceptions of disability and what it looks like.
Today I’ve pulled up a bunch of US-based advertisements (oh, wait, I added the Quebec advertisement after writing this paragraph – Canada & the US!) that feature people with disabilities. I’m curious about what people’s thoughts are when they watch these. What take-away messages about disability do you get?
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): Disability as punishment.
The video is a bit grainy, probably meant to invoke “home movie”. It opens with tinkly piano music of sadness and woe. A male singer croons: Together…..
The video opens showing a young man sitting on a bench, reading a book. He’s labelled “Your Best Friend”.
The Singer croons: We’re meant to be….
The young man looks up! There’s a woman! She’s walking up to him, obviously excited to see him. She’s labelled “Your girlfriend.”
The camera pans back to show this scene as viewed through a hospital window. The couple – your best friend and your girlfriend – walk off together hand in hand.
The singer croons: Together! Forever!
The camera continues to pan back to show the back of someone sitting in an electric wheelchair, staring out the window. The hospital room is obviously very bleak. This person is labelled “You”.
The screen goes black, and then: “You have a lot to lose. MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”
That’s right, folks: Don’t drink and drive because if you do you’ll become a scary scary cripple and your girlfriend will leave you for your best friend and you will die alone and unloved!
[Of course it’s a terrible idea to drink and drive. But I’ve seen hundreds of anti-drunk driving ads, and they really can send the same message without implying ‘Don’t drink & drive because cripples don’t get no love’. It can be done!]
Berlitz: Bait & Switch
Camera is doing a gradual close-up on a man in a wheelchair. Behind him is a park. The music is the tinkly piano of sadness.
Man: Up until two weeks ago I always said “It will never happen to me.” But today, look at me. Listen to me. Now I speak English fluently.
The screen goes black, and then “Berlitz. In just two weeks.”
I really waffled back and forth on this ad. On the one hand: Hey! It’s a person in a wheelchair and they’re not presenting him as a sad story. On the other hand, the whole point is to “trick” you into thinking he is telling his sad story but it turns out Surprise! He’s not. I feel this falls into the trope of “Disability to titillate”. What do you think?
Michael J Fox on Stem Cell Research (US political ad)
[Michal J Fox has visible tremors from Parkinson’s Disease.] As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me.
“I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”
Pepsi Superbowl Ad: Deaf people tell jokes, who knew?
The entire advertisement is in ASL:
Woman: This commerical was created and performed by EnAble – a network in PepsiCo which supports inclusion, diversity, and the inclusion of persons with different abilities.
Two men are driving slowly down a residential street, looking around and obviously trying to find which house they’re going to.
Passenger: Hey! We’re going to be late. We’re going to miss the kick off.
Driver: Which house is Bob’s?
Passenger: I thought you knew.
Driver: I thought you knew?
Passenger: No I thought you knew!
Driver: I thought you knew!
Passenger: No! I thought you knew!
He shrugs and starts honking the horn.
HONK HONK HONK
Lights in all the houses start to come on. A dog starts barking. People look out their windows annoyed.
One house stays dark.
Driver: That’s it!
Passenger: Yeah, ya think?
They go up to Bob’s house and push the doorbell. The lights flicker. Bob opens the door. Across the street he catches his neighbour’s eye.
Creating an inclsive environemnt for people with different abilities.
Quebec Society for Disabled Children: Give children wings!
[An animated young boy walks onto the screen, looking sad.] It’s not always fun being a child.
[He sits down into a drawing of a wheelchair.] Especially when you’re disabled.
[A butterfly flies around him, and he begins to look happier.] Disabled children are just like any other children.
[The butterfly lands on his finger. He looks overjoyed.] When you open your hearts, you give them wings.
[The butterfly carries him up into the sky.] Please, help them spread their wings. Thank you for helping the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.
What are these advertisements saying about people with disabilities? What examples of people with disabilities have you seen outside of drug commercials? And what impact do you think these sorts of advertisements have on our perceptions of ourselves, and each other?
I am slowly catching up on all the television I missed while AT&T left me without phone service for over a week (long story), so this writeup is actually about an episode of Private Practice that aired, uh, two weeks ago, but it filled me with rage, so, there you go. Spoilers ahead! Additionally, please be advised that this post talks about rape as well as abuse of people in institutions.
The A storyline in ‘All in the Family’ involves a woman believed to be in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband thinks she can be revived1 and asks for a consult with Amelia. Amelia does some screening, Addison notes that the test results reveal the woman is pregnant.
I thought ‘is Private Practice actually going to talk about rape and abuse in long term care facilities?’ And then I looked at the way the husband looked at his wife during the ultrasound and thought ‘oh, no, they are not.’ (Although Sam did helpfully tell us ‘this isn’t that kind of place’ when supporting the institution’s director in his pleas to not call the police to report the rape of a patient. Fail the first, Sam.)
Addison can’t even bring herself to say the word rape. She says ‘had sex with’ and ‘impregnated,’ but she doesn’t say ‘rape.’ The R-word did not cross the screen once during this episode, although at one point Addison mentions ‘consent.’ This is an episode that revolves around rape, and no one ever says the word.
Here’s where things start to get infuriating. Addison maintains that this is wrong, full stop. Ultimately, she calls the police to report that the husband molested his wife. If you are in a coma, you cannot freely consent to sex. If you are married to a person in a coma, your marriage license is not a marriage license for sex any time you want it. Georgie, the patient, was raped. No one says this, and everyone fights Addison on it and vigorously opposes her decision to pursue this to the fullest extent of the law.
Sam attempts to separate work/home life, not understanding why Addison is so enraged. In one scene, she tells him to go home because she has no intention of having sex with him while he’s being a disgusting rape apologist (I would say ‘I do not plan on having sex with you ever again‘ myself, but, hey, that’s just me). But, don’t worry, at the end of the episode, they kiss and make up, even after Sam informs her that she was wrongity wrong wrong and that poor husband was just a troubled man who needed some counseling, that was all. He’s not a rapist or anything, ew! (Although of course they don’t say that word.) And makes sure to let her know how angry he is, and how they will fight about it later.
Personally, I find the thought of being in the same house with someone engaging in that level of rape apologism (or any level, really) utterly abhorrent, let alone having sex with that person. The takeaway from this episode was that Addison was just being oversensitive and unreasonable; Sam says over and over again that she was wrong, the director of the institution wants to avoid culpability for a rape that occurred in his facility on his watch, and Sheldon even says ‘[Georgie’d] be appreciative about everything you’re doing’ to the husband, because evidently there’s nothing women appreciate more than being raped.
Private Practice completely stepped over and elided the very real problem happening right now of rape in institutions, where pregnancies of institutionalised women do occur, when the facility doesn’t insist on sterilising them or putting them on birth control against their will. It completely ignored the very real problem of martial rape, suggesting that marriages and relationships are like sex contracts, whether you are Georgie, comatose and unable to consent, or Addison, having sex with your partner even though he is a dirty dirty rape apologist scumbag. The conflict between Sam and Addison is treated as ‘a work-related spat,’ instead of what it is, which is a fundamental ideological problem; Sam believes it is ok for people to rape people, and Addison does not.
The episode closes with a scene of Charlotte King being pulled into her office by a stranger, who hits and abuses her. As the lights dim, the implication is that she is being raped. The following episode is All About the Rape and How Everyone Deals With It, and even involved consultation with RAINN, evidently. This makes this episode all the more horrifically distasteful; you do an entire episode about rape and apologism in which the word ‘rape’ is never used and the characters identifying it as nonconsensual sex are pooh-poohed, and then you follow up with a Very Special Rape Episode For Ratings and Awards?
Spot the differences here: One episode involves marital rape, the other involves stranger rape. Private Practice, trolling for ratings and praise, goes for the stereotypical stranger rape storyline (featuring, as an added bonus, a mentally ill rapist) while completely erasing a marital rape, even though it’s estimated that less than one third of rapes involve strangers (and that people with mental illness are far more likely to be rape victims than rapists). Thanks, Private Practice, for reinforcing the idea that the only rapes that ‘count’ involve mentally ill strangers who physically assault you.
Are you fucking kidding me, Private Practice?
A not unreasonable thing to think, given the revelation earlier this year that this condition is often misdiagnosed. ↩
Content note: This post contains critical plot elements from ‘Massage Therapy,’ the fourth episode of season seven of House.
Watching the House episode ‘Massage Therapy’ and approaching the grand denouement, I got ready to be infuriated. The storyline involves a character, Margaret, with schizophrenia. She conceals it from her husband and when she gets sick, the medical team spends an extended period of time puzzling over what’s going on until they finally figure it out. What I expected from this episode was much brouhaha, followed with a brisk round of ‘you can totally leave your partner for being disabled!’ What happened surprised me.
Now, I am not a fan of keeping secrets. I am, in fact, fairly strongly anti-secret. And I do not think that concealing very significant information from your spouse is an ok thing to do, even if I understood exactly why she did it, fearing the stigma associated with schizophrenia. It wasn’t really explored deeply in the episode, but it seems possible that they started dating and she never brought it up, and it got to a point where she couldn’t figure out how to say anything. So, I sympathise with what the character did, even if I don’t agree with it.
I expected House, who is kind of known for being a jerk, to support the husband in wanting to leave his wife because of her mental illness. But that’s not actually what occurred. Instead, when the husband follows House out of the room, looking for justification and vindication, House basically gave him a stern talking to. He pointed out that, yes, marriage and love and relationships are hard, and that, no, it’s actually not ok to decide to leave your partner because you just found out she has a mental illness.
‘This is not who I married,’ the husband says. House points out that this is wrong; Billy, the husband, married a woman he loved very much and shared a lot in common with. That hasn’t changed. She’s not a different person now that he knows about her mental illness. She’s the same person, and she’s someone who could probably really benefit from the love and support of her husband right now, while she works on finding a treatment method that works for her.
‘It’s too hard,’ Billy says. Well, I’m with House on this one. Life and relationships are hard. Concealing information is definitely a problem, but it’s worth exploring why she felt the need to conceal that information for so long, why she tried so determinedly to hide from her husband. Given his reaction, of wanting to leave her because of her mental illness, I think it could be argued that she had pretty sound reasons for her decision; this is something I have encountered myself, and that some of our readers probably have too, that once you disclose a mental illness, suddenly you’re not as desirable. You’re ‘too much work.’ And the person who was happily dating you, who had a lot in common with you, who was really excited about being with you, stops calling.
I’m not saying here that people should be forced to stay in relationships they don’t want to be in. What I am saying is that wanting to leave your partner because you just found out about a disability is a shitty thing to do. Wanting to leave your partner for keeping a significant secret, being concerned about the lack of trust there, is valid, but deciding you want to leave not because of the secretkeeping, but because the secret was a disability? Not so much.
Disability complicates relationships, for all parties. Recognising when a relationship is not working and being honest about the role disability plays in that does not make people bad people. In this case, though, the husband just decided that the relationship wouldn’t work on the basis of his wife’s schizophrenia, and wasn’t even willing to try and put in the work; despite the fact that their relationship had been working well before, he suddenly determined it wouldn’t any more.
Granted, I disclose before I’ve been married to someone for several years, because my mental illnesses are an important part of who I am and I want people to know about them. But I can certainly understand why some people choose not to disclose. What surprised me in this case was an incidence of pop culture showing a nondisclosure in a sympathetic light, and reinforcing it with House’s speech. Usually, episodes like this end with the husband marching off into the sunset, Deeply Wounded, and everyone castigating the evil secretkeeping wife and talking about how she deserves it.
Like a lot of people, I signed up for automatic emails from the various political parties in Canada. Because I live in Nova Scotia, the main federal parties that run here are the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Party, and the New Democratic Party (often just the NDP). (If I lived in Quebec, I would also have the option of voting for the Bloc Québécois federally.) I dutifully signed up for all four of these parties, so I could be informed about the issues they think are important.
One thing that seems to be very important: YouTube videos! Each of the parties maintains their own YouTube channel, and they stock these channels with videos. Every week or two, I get another email from a political party that really wants my vote (or at least my money), and they often include links to the YouTube channel, or even embedded video. And every week or two, I respond like clockwork, asking them to please provide captioning and/or transcription of the video.
So far, the response has been silence.
I wonder if the reason for this is simply because there’s the new Auto-Captioning service at YouTube, which attempts to automatically subtitle a video a video. Surely this will provide a good working set of subtitles, right?
Ha ha. Ha ha ha.
In alphabetical order, let me show you what the YouTube auto-captioning displays when I try to watch political messages from my current or potential political representatives:
The Conservative Party of Canada:
Image: Screen capture of a YouTube video, with subtitles that read “You don’t think that’s a whole group called american this country and you have to decide”
Actual quote: Voice Over: “Adopted Britain as his home. Called America his country.” Ignatieff: “You have to decide….” (This advertisement is discussing Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s past.)
Here is leader of the Green Party, Elizabeth May:
Image: Screen capture of a YouTube video, with subtitles that read “we’re on Friday evening breeze through across Canada will gather”
Actual Quote: Elizabeth May “…Where on Friday evening Greens from across Canada will gather.”
I will totally admit the Green example is not as terrible as the others. The Greens don’t have a lot of advertising at the moment. (Non-Canadians, this is in part because they’ve not got an actual member in the House. I count them as a national party because they run in all 308 Federal ridings, and May participated in the Federal Leadership Debate.)
The Liberal Party of Canada:
Image: A screen cap from a YouTube vid. Caption reads “the prime minister’s their lives for stroger’s we have a garden”.
Actual quote: “… The Prime Minister is there to inspire us to do our best, and we have a guy who….”
The New Democrats:
Image: A YouTube screen capture. The caption reads “costs are skyrocketing so why does is Stephen harper dead”
Actual Quote: “Heating costs are skyrocketing. So why doesn’t Stephen Harper get it?”
This is what I wrote in one of my last emails to my MP about this issue:
I know disability and accessibility are things you care about too, Megan, so I hope that you will pass along my concerns to the NDP Leadership: Transcribing and subtitling/captioning of video and audio content is an accessibility issue. Providing both a transcript and subtitling allows for more Canadians to be able to access the message of the NDP. As well, it shows a commitment to accessibility and to including Canadians who prefer or require transcripts and subtitling, for whatever reason. As this is something I believe the NDP values, it would be helpful for the party, at all levels, to provide transcription and subtitling for all the videos that they produce.
Of course, subtitling your video (and providing a transcript) are not only for people who are d/Deaf or hard-of-hearing. They’re also for people who have audio processing disorders, who have difficulties understanding spoke English, who don’t want to turn up their volume, or even don’t have speakers or headphones on their computer. They’re for people who just want a transcript or subtitling because it makes their lives easier today. (For example, I have an ear infection and subtitles are the order of the day.)
Every political party in Canada “cares” about “the disabled”. They really do. Each one has a little subsection of their website dedicated to explaining how they “care” about “the disabled”.
I think it would be awesome instead of telling me how much they cared, they’d show it. And one way of doing that would be subtitling their ads, so everyone can know what their message is.
I’ve been rather behind on my television viewing lately, and I only recently caught up on ‘Selfish,’ the second episode of the new season of House (please be advised that this post contains significant spoilers for said episode). After watching it, I needed several weeks to ponder it before I could write about it, because it was an awful episode, and it had a whole lot of problems going on with it. I knew I wanted to open up discussion about it here, but had trouble getting a handle on how to begin.
The episode opens with a scene of a skateboarder in an indoor facility, showing off tricks for a group of wheelchair users and seemingly nondisabled adults. ‘Shredding for a Cure,’ a banner hanging in the facility alerts us. The skateboarder comes to a halt and volunteers to push one of the wheelchair users, who turns out to be her brother, around.
My hackles went up pretty much immediately. House, like seemingly every other show on television, can’t wrap its head around the idea that wheelchair users play sports. A quick YouTube search turns up a whole slew of videos of wheelchair users skating, and the opener would have been dramatically different if we’d seen someone using a wheelchair instead of a skateboard. But then, of course, we wouldn’t have had the neat hook, allowing the skater to collapse while pushing, thus setting up the medical mystery for the episode: What’s wrong with her?
Over the course of the episode, a series of diagnoses are tested and discarded. At one point, they think she needs a bone marrow transplant and a discussion about harvesting marrow from her brother is held. He, of course, is naturally excluded from this discussion, and she refuses to ask him for a donation because she thinks he ‘has it hard enough already.’
Eventually, it is determined that she has sickle cell trait. She also needs a lung, because during her rapid onset of illness, one of her lungs was very badly damaged and replaced with a transplant that started failing almost immediately. Lo and behold! Her brother is a match for a partial lung donation, but is a poor candidate for the procedure because he has muscular dystrophy, and losing a lung would shorten his life and probably degrade his quality of life.
Della, the skater, insists that she doesn’t want to ask her brother for a lung. He eventually overhears an argument and insists on donating a lung to her. Ah, how heartwarming!
Throughout the episode, her brother is repeatedly denied agency. He is told to leave her room when they discuss the need for a lung, and the parents of the children have a ferocious debate about whether they should ask him to give a lung to his sister; no one considers approaching him to talk to him about the situation and ask him how he feels about it. I am reminded that in the United States, minors have no rights when it comes to medical care, and can be compelled to undergo procedures even if they don’t want to.
There are a whole slew of issues with the framing of this episode. Let’s start with Della, who claims to be ‘living the life her brother can’t,’ reminding us all that being a wheelchair user is The Worst Thing Ever and you are Completely Useless for Life if you use a wheelchair, but, hey, at least you’re inspiring. Obviously he could never do things like joining the science club or playing extreme sports! House reflects social attitudes when it comes to framing and thinking about disability, and this episode is a prime example of exactly the kind of message I wish pop culture would stop sending: That disability is a tragedy, that you will never be able to live the life you wanted if you are disabled, that everyone around you will have to live for you because obviously, you can’t live your own life.
And then there’s the issue with the complete denial of autonomy and agency to Hugo, the brother. He is excluded from all discussions about his sister’s medical situation that might involve his participation. People talk about him, about whether he should be asked for marrow and later a lung, about how they feel about it, but they do not talk to him. He is left to sit in the corridor. They say this is for his ‘protection,’ completely eliding the fact that he is a human being, capable of making his own decisions. Likewise, Della is denied a lot of agency; House refers to her as a ‘mindless teenybopper’ and says she’s clearly incapable of making decisions about her body and medical care.
This is not the first time House has depicted minors as patients and has made sure to remind viewers that minors are all clueless and completely unable to make sound decisions, even if they were legally able to exercise control over their medical care. It usually goes very badly, and there’s usually something infuriating and disability-related going on too; I’m reminded of the episode featuring a Cochlear implant, for example, where the patient’s mother forces her son to go through surgery even though he doesn’t want the implant. On House, disability is always terrible, and minors are always subjugated by their parents ‘because it’s the right thing to do.’
I’ve barely scratched the surface with this episode here, in the interests of not producing a small novel; if you watched it, what did you think of it? What other issues in the episode troubled you? And was the week of 27 September the worst week ever for disability on US television (House was not the only show running a disability storyline and doing it very, very badly)?
Spoilers for Farscape: the third part of “Liars, Guns and Money” in Season 2 and, in Season 3, “Season of Death” and something you really really really won’t want spoiled for the second part of “Self-Inflicted Wounds”.
I like to keep DVD boxsets on hand for my study breaks, and my latest show is a 1990s/2000s Australian/US television show called Farscape. It’s a really fun show about an astronaut who gets sucked through a wormhole and is forced to align himself with a bunch of aliens in some far-off part of the universe – watch it, do! – but that’s not what I want to talk about.
Towards the end of the second season, a minor recurring character called Rorf loses an eye to an enemy, to put it in the least graphic terms possible. I started to get a sense of premonition, although I wasn’t sure what it was about just yet. Rorf is killed in battle towards the end of the episode. At the start of the third season, Zhaan, one of the main characters, saves the life of Aeryn, another key character, at the cost of her own health. She’s dying, she tells her fellow crew members for a number of episodes. No, they say, we’re going to get you to a planet, not too far away, where you can be healed. No, she says, I’m going to die. And, good as her word, she ends up sacrificing her life for the good of the crew before they can get her to a planet where she can be healed.
What I got out of these two instances is the idea that injury is a symbolic prelude to death. That, if you’re altered from what you have been, life isn’t worth living anymore, that you’re only good for giving up everything for those who are “whole”. That’s a pretty distressing message to be putting out there.
Have you found similar representations of disability or injury in popular culture?
Here in the United States, the 2010/2011 television schedule is kicking off, and my mind naturally turns to representation for people with disabilities. I decided to compile a list of actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities. This list is not necessarily complete; there are probably characters and shows I am forgetting about and unaware of, and it is entirely possible that actors with undisclosed disabilities are appearing in disabled roles.
One thing I note about this list is that these actors all share disabilities with their characters; we have, for example, Shoshannah Stern, a Deaf actress, playing a Deaf character.
And, although this list is in the US, fans of shows airing outside the US who want to add more representations, please do so!
Michael Patrick Thornton, who has a spinal cord injury, will be returning as Dr. Gabriel Fife on Shonda Rhimes’ show Private Practice. I’ve written about Dr. Fife here before, and I am looking forward to seeing more of him. Evidently he will be returning later in the season because he was working on a play when the first half was being shot.
Luke Zimmerman, an actor with Down Syndrome, will presumably be reappearing as Tom Bowman on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, an ABC Family drama. I haven’t caught very many episodes of this show so I can’t speak to how well the character is depicted, but I do not that Bowman is a sexual character and he appears to be a fairly complex character, rather than a one dimensional stereotype.
The Fox drama Lie To Me has hired Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern (whom I adore after her work on Jericho) for an unspecified number of episodes where she will be appearing as a graduate student assisting Dr. Lightman (Tim Roth) with research. Evidently, her presentation on the show revolves around concerns that because she is Deaf, she will have difficulty doing the work, but Dr. Lightman decides to hire her anyway. I think this storyline could either go really well, or really badly. I guess we’ll find out!
I think it’s safe to assume that both Lauren Potter and Robin Trocki will be reappearing on Glee. Lauren Potter as Becky Jackson has been spotted in some promotionals and an appearance has definitely been confirmed for the season opener. Robin Trocki, playing Jean Sylvester, will presumably show up at some point as well, undoubtedly in another ‘touching’ scene designed to humanise Sue Sylvester.
Long-running CBS hit CSI will be bringing back Robert David Hall as pathologist Al Robbins. One of the things I like about Robbins, although it has been a number of years since I watched CSI, is that he plays a character who happens to disabled, rather than a character who is all about his disability. His disability rarely comes up and while he walks with canes on the show, a big production isn’t made about his disability or how he acquired it.
These representations span the map in terms of how well they depict disability. I think they pretty neatly illustrate that any representation is not necessarily a good representation. However, when you contrast them with roles where nondisabled actors are playing disabled characters, the picture changes; these depictions are fairly positive, while nondisabled actors in disabled roles are not so positive and in some cases heavily criticised for setting depictions of disability back. Clearly the cripface is a problem in these roles, but is that the only thing? Obviously, the writing of these characters is also a major issue, as is the research (or lack thereof) that goes into those roles, and it’s not always clear how much influence actors have on the writing of their characters; is it that shows using disabled actors put in a little more effort?
When we talk about pop culture at FWD, we tend to get a slew of trolling comments claiming that we don’t want to see disability on television at all or that we never want to see nondisabled actors in disabled roles. On the contrary, I want to see more disability on television, I just want it to be good depictions. Since the bulk of the good depictions are played by disabled actors, it begs the question: Can nondisabled actors appear in good depictions of disability, or are there inherent barriers that just make it impossible? Are there some depictions of disability played by nondisabled people that stand out in your mind as good depictions?
The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon (also known as The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon and The Jerry Lewis Stars Across America MDA Labor Day Telethon) is hosted by actor and comedian, Jerry Lewis to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). It has been held annually since 1966. As of 2009, the telethon had raised $2.45 billion since its inception. It is held on Labor Day weekend, starting on the Sunday evening preceding Labor Day and continuing until late Monday afternoon, syndicated to approximately 190 television stations throughout the United States.
On the surface this probably looks like a good thing, but digging a bit deeper: For many people, this is one of the few times they’ll see images of people with disabilities on their t.v. screen (and from a noted authority and beloved celebrity), and the entire thing is one drawn out pity parade.
Since 1991, protesters, including Laura Hershey and Mike Irvine, have tried to raise awareness about the way that the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and Jerry Lewis himself, treat actual adults with disability, and have discussed how these sorts of pity parades affect the public perceptions of people with disability. In 2001, Hershey wrote:
As we in the disability-rights movement keep trying to explain, our biggest problems come not from our physical conditions, but from a society that fails to accommodate us. Lewis’s telethon plays up the problems, without suggesting their sources or solutions. For instance, those sappy vignettes will make much of an “afflicted” person’s inability to wash his own hair, or get herself to the toilet, without any discussion of the urgent need for publicly funded personal assistance, or of the problems posed by the architectural barriers designed right into the layout of most private homes.
Trouble also arises from the fact that thousands of families dealing with disabilities in the U.S. and Canada are denied adequate medical care and equipment – necessities which should be basic human rights, not handouts accompanied by a drum roll and tally.
Many people with disabilities have written about their perceptions of these telethons, and the damage they do, as well as the issues with giving a humanitarian award to a man who treats actual people with disabilities with such disdain. Hershey’s most recent columns are Speaking Out against the MDA Telethon and Laura’s Labor Day Weekend Column. Liz Henry wrote last year about her dose of morning rage regarding the telethon, and there are many links there that highlight the issues around Jerry’s Kids. There’s also the 2007 Blogswarm, Protest Pity, which features more than 35 blog posts about the Telethon and the Protests. You can also read From Poster Child to Protester, which may be the first thing I ever read about the protests and the Issues with Jerry Lewis.
Sometimes, though, the best way to combat the pity parade is to show people with disabilities talking about their lives, and their lived experience. Laura Hershey made this video as part of the “It’s Our Story” Project. Transcript follows:
The ‘It’s Our Story’ titles roll while tinkly piano music plays. White symbols of sign language and a person in a wheelchair flash against the background, which is suggestive of a US flag, with the continental United States in the blue square instead of the usual 50 stars.
The video opens on Laura Hershey, a powerchair user wearing a nasal cannula and glasses. The title of the video is “Jerry’s Kids”, and I believe she’s referring to the group “Jerry’s Orphans”.
Laura: That’s actually a group that was started in Chicago by Mike Irvin, Chris Matthews, and several other people. And I worked with them a lot organziing these protests nationally. I think what the name says is that Jerry Lewis doesn’t have the right to claim us as his quote “kids”, especially as he’s not interested in our perspective. He completely trashes people who question or challenge the telethon approach. He’s attacked us in the press, calling us ungrateful, claiming that he bought us our wheelchairs which is, you know, completely untrue.
You know, whatever ego trip he gets thinking of himself as our saviour, or our daddy, or whatever it is he thinks, we reject that.
We’re not his kids, we’re adults, and we’re our own people. We don’t belong to him.
I’m watching “Dating in the Dark,” an ABC show in which contestants, yes, date in a completely dark room. They go on some number of group and individual dates – all in the dark room, all displayed to us with night vision goggles or somesuch – and then decide whether or not they will date each other. It will totally show us whether or not true love is blind! And force people to focus on personality rather than appearance!
Well, not so much. First, all the relationships are of course hetero and all of the contestants are conventionally attractive. Conventionally very attractive, actually. And then they spend the entire time speculating about what the other people look like and outlining, definitively and without a sliver of compromise or doubt, their exacting requirements for the physical appearance of their potential mate. One man talks only about weight, saying that a previous girlfriend “blew up like a tick” and so he had to dump her. (This is what he’s saying to a potential girlfriend. On a “date.”) One of the women is thrown completely when her beau is revealed to be a chiseled lifeguard male model looking guy and wearing a small earring that she finds wildly objectionable.
All I could think, over and over again, was that at least they hadn’t cast anyone with a visible disability to serve that topic up for clearly well informed and considered discussion by these contestants. This is one show on which I’m more than happy to accept the underrepresentation of people with disabilities.