Tag Archives: disabled characters

‘Selfish’: House, Disability, and Agency

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)?

Representation: Actors With Disabilities Playing Characters With Disabilities

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?

Following Up: Auggie on Covert Affairs, Part Two

Content note: This post contains spoilers for season one, episode seven of Covert Affairs, ‘Communication Breakdown.’

I am nothing if not scrupulously fair to shows I enjoy shredding, so when numerous people informed me that I had to watch this week’s episode of Covert Affairs and write about it, I complied, although I confess I armed myself with a bowl of English peas first so I would have something to throw at the screen. (Loki stationed himself eagerly by my chair in the hopes of hoovering up any dropped peas. He is so helpful.)

As it turned out, this week’s Auggie-centric episode was less enraging, and more encouraging. This episode has been in the can for a while, I suspect, so I can’t credit the change to responding to criticism, which means the show’s developers decided all on their own selves to do more with Auggie’s character, and to take him to some interesting places along the way. I still think that I would prefer to see Auggie and Annie working together, not least because Perabo and Gorham share star billing on the show, so I’m hoping we get to that point instead of ‘five Annie-centric episodes in a row, and then an Auggie-centric one.’

This week took Auggie out into the field. Along the way, we met his Russian ex-girlfriend, and got a little bit more of Auggie’s backstory. One thing I have always liked (and clearly stated, sorry, drive-by trolls, you shall have to look elsewhere for fodder!) about Auggie’s characterisation is that he’s depicted as sexual, and not as a figure of pity or curiosity because he’s sexual. He just, you know, is, like most sexual people in the world. I like that the show isn’t dropping the ball on that, and that in fact, we got to see him being explicitly sexual on multiple occasions in this episode. Yes, folks, a disabled character got to have (implied) sex on screen! Not only that but a tattooed sexual character, which is something I always enjoy seeing, as a tattooed person. So, go Covert Affairs, go.

Auggie also got a fight scene, which I was not expecting. I’m used to seeing the show depict him as a helpless character who does hapless things like not being able to find his obviously carefully positioned cellphone, but, instead, he got a fight scene. A good fight scene. Where he kicked ass. Can I say how awesome it is to see any disabled character get a fight scene, but especially a blind character, in a scene that didn’t amount to ‘his blindness gives him special ass-kicking powers!’ but was, in fact, chaotic and turbulent and messy? Because it was awesome.

This episode did a much better job, I thought, of integrating references to his blindness without making it central to the episode, or central to his characterisation. There’s a scene at a briefing where we see him reading the briefing in braille, for example, but it’s not a ‘and NOW the camera shall ZOOM IN so we can all NOTICE, do we all SEE THE BRAILLE? Ok, good.’ sort of scene. There’s another scene where he goes to drop a can in the recycling, but someone has moved it, and the can ends up on the floor. The sighted lead scenes are starting to look more natural and less contrived, as indeed is his character in general. Little nods to the way disability can be integrated into your life are scattered in the episode, but aren’t played pointedly or for laughs.

I’d say that, if this episode is a sign of things to come, Auggie’s characterisation is improving. He’s filling out more, he’s far less stereotyped, and I didn’t squirm viscerally watching this episode (well, ok, I did, but I’m pretty sure that was something I ate). I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of Gorham, the producers, and the writers getting more comfortable with the character, or all of Gorham’s research paying off, or what, but things are starting to seem like they might have a chance on Covert Affairs.

This fall, we’ll be seeing a number of disabled characters returning to television, including Artie on Glee, Dr. Fife on Private Practice, and Dr. Hunt1 on Grey’s Anatomy. I’m curious to see where all these characters go, and I’d note that two of them have depictions I feel pretty darn good about, which I feel like is a good sign for television; we’re still underrepresented, but at least every disabled character on television doesn’t make me want to scream.

  1. He’s not explicitly identified as a person with disabilities, but he does have PTSD, so I’m naturally interested in his characterisation.

Following Up: Auggie on Covert Affairs

Content note: Post includes discussion of Covert Affairs through season one, episode four, ‘No Quarter.’

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the pilot for Covert Affairs, and discussed the handling of Auggie Anderson, the blind CIA agent playing opposite Annie Walker, the show’s lead. Despite not being very excited by this show, I’ve slogged through a few more episodes to see where the show went with Auggie so that I could follow up. The things I do for you, gentle readers.

As I said in July:

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.

Well, as it turns out, that was wishful thinking. The thing I noticed most about where the show took the character from the pilot was that it didn’t take him anywhere. Annie’s been sent to South America and Europe in recent episodes, while Auggie covers the desks, providing phone support. He has hardly any screen time and in most scenes, we see him from the neck up, on a phone, talking to Annie while she’s out in the field. Auggie’s sole reason for existence is to be a voice on the other end of the phone for Annie, and to occasionally do things with computers that look neat because he uses a Braille display.

Now, office support is definitely an important aspect of intelligence work. Paper pushers are a critical component of field missions and it’s kind of nice to see that depicted on television, instead of only showing us field action. But usually, in a show where two actors enjoy top billing, they are partnered together. Partnered. As in, they are a team that does things together, with, yes, complementary skills, but it’s not a one sided relationship where one is the sole support for the other. Booth and Bones, for example; we see them working together in the field and in the lab. It’s weird to see them apart, although it does sometimes happen. Both characters bring things to the partnership. They are an interdependent team. We would be pissy if it was always Booth out in the field and Bones in the office, right?

So, basically, the way that Covert Affairs handles the integration of a disabled character is by not integrating him and making a point of reminding us that he’s disabled. The most recent episode featured Auggie in a polygraph test, being asked a series of probing questions about whether he resents being tasked to desk duty. Whether he’s angry because of his disability.


I want to like a show that has a female lead like Annie Walker. I do. I like that Walker is an independent thinker, she doesn’t rely heavily on other characters to handle things for her, she is creative, she thinks on her feet. Of course, in the pilot episode, the show had to use the ‘dress up as a call girl to solve the crime’ plot, which means I can’t really point to Covert Affairs as a terrific model for handling female characters.

The way this show views disability has been pretty transparent, from the episodes alone. Add that to the show’s recent partnership with the American Association of People With Disabilities to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A PSA centered around Auggie was filmed to tell viewers ‘…we also know that barriers for people with disabilities remain and we are proud to partner with the AAPD in our Characters Unite campaign to raise awareness and encourage viewers to join the fight against persisting discrimination.’

Yes. Barriers like being unable to find acting work when you are a disabled actor, and barriers like television shows casting nondisabled actors to play disabled roles.

‘…we at AAPD are delighted to partner with the USA Network’s Characters Unite campaign and the ‘Covert Affairs’ team to promote authentic depictions of disabled characters on television,’ says Andrew J. Imparato, president and CEO of AAPD. He goes on to add: ‘This exciting new program will help change attitudes, and the PSA being launched this week will accelerate and amplify the show’s inclusive message.’

Are we watching the same show, Mr. Imparato? Because I don’t think we are.

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.

Representations: Dr. Gabriel Fife on Private Practice

Here in the United States, there’s a depiction of disability that airs on network television every Thursday night, on the Shonda Rimes show Private Practice. Rimes is probably better known for Grey’s Anatomy, a show which has won a lot of accolades1, not least for the ethnic diversity of its cast, but Private Practice is worth the occasional peek, especially if you enjoy infuriating plot lines.

In season three, Private Practice introduced Dr. Gabriel Fife (Michael Patrick Thornton). Dr. Fife is a genetics specialist who works for the rival medical practice in the series, and he’s also a wheelchair user.

Several things are interesting about Dr. Fife. The first is that he’s played by an actor who is also a wheelchair user. And it shows. Thornton is comfortable with his chair and uses it like an extension of himself, illustrating that, yes, it does take practice and experience to learn to use a chair effectively. Since I’m always pleased to see disabled actors in disabled roles, I’m rather chuffed about this particular detail.

But there’s more to like about him. For one thing, he is specifically introduced as a love interest in the series. Perish the thought. Not just a wheelchair user, but a sexy wheelchair user! Yet, he’s not a character who is consumed by his disability or exoticized by it. Dr. Fife is arrogant, he’s pushy, he’s a fully realised and complex character. He just is.

Other characters sometimes struggle with how to relate to him, and he’s well aware of that, and I like that too. It’s not that Private Practice is erasing his disability or making it into a Big Production or patting themselves on the back for featuring him. On the contrary, they’re doing a really good job of showing that for his character, it’s just part of him, and for other characters, it’s something which makes them feel awkward and confused. Which I think is very true to life; a lot of people don’t know what to do around wheelchair users and it never occurs them to actually try interacting with the person in the chair.

This is an example of the kind of depiction of disability in pop culture I like. He’s a character who happens to be disabled. Sometimes he does things which really piss me off and I hurl popcorn at the screen, but these are things his character does; I’m not getting infuriated because of how he’s characterised, but because of who he is. Sometimes he makes great points, including points about disability and objectification, and I chortle with delight. His interactions with other characters within the context of the show speak to actual lived experiences. I don’t feel like he’s the embodiment of a trope; he’s just a person, like all the other people.

There are a lot of problems with Private Practice, and I am thinking particularly about how the show deals with mental health and the plotlines surrounding children and motherhood here, but this is one thing which I think the show has going for it.

I recently heard an interview with Thornton where he was talking about disabled actors, and he said some things that, well, we’ve been saying here, but it’s nice to hear them airing on National Public Radio [transcript at link]:

“Do they consider us equally for parts?” Thornton says, “Obviously no, because disabled actors are so underrepresented on stage and screen.”

…His ideal acting job would be one in which “nobody ever mentions the chair.” It would be just a feature, in other words, like having red hair or being pregnant — part of who the character is, but not the sum total.

In the season finale, which just aired in the US, there was some interesting stuff going on with disability which I don’t want to talk about in detail in case there are readers who haven’t seen it yet (feel free to discuss the finale in comments, though), and it was…interesting to see how that played out. Two rolls forward, one roll backwards, it seems.

  1. Our Lauredhel recently wrote about some problematic stuff that occurred on last week’s episode, pointing out that all is not sunny in Grey’s land.

Quoted: David Levithan in ‘Will Grayson, Will Grayson’ on ‘Mental Health Days’

i think the idea of a ‘mental health day’ is something completely invented by people who  have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying ‘i don’t want to deal with things today’ and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or the other…

One of the eponymous Will Graysons in Will Grayson, Will Grayson says this when he is trying to articulate how he feels about the concept of ‘mental health days.’ You can read my review of Will Grayson, Will Grayson at this ain’t livin’ if you’re interested in seeing more quotes from the book and reading my thoughts on it. (And feel free to discuss it here or there!)

Doctor Who and the Evil Wheelchair Users of Evil

Also see: Davros, Daleks, and Disability and Bloody Torchwood.

Contains minor spoilers for Doctor Who from “Voyage of the Damned” through to “The Next Doctor”.

I’ve been compiling a list of all the characters who are wheelchair users in New Who. For everyone who has no earthly idea what I’m talking about, I’m referring to British television show Doctor Who (which is well worth watching by the way) specifically the episodes airing since 2005 after a long hiatus. The show had, shall we say, not the world’s greatest history of representing disability up until that point. I’d noticed a trend of characters who are wheelchair users (or users of SF-ish devices meant to echo wheelchairs) in recent years, and some rather sinister commonalities. Here they are (though if I’ve forgotten any, do add them in comments):

  • Davros: The creator of the Doctor’s enemies, the Daleks. Evil as they come, wanting to destroy reality itself at the end of series 4!
  • Max Capricorn: The villain of “Voyage of the Damned,” who wanted to crash a ship into Earth and frame his former cruiseliner company for mass murder.
  • Mercy Hartigan: I can’t remember “The Next Doctor” so well, but seem to recall her being wired in a chair in the CyberKing towards the end, shortly before her death.
  • John Lumic from “Rise of the Cybermen” and “The Age of Steel”. Dying and desperate to stay alive, he invents the parallel universe version of Cybermen, kidnapping homeless people to experiment on and seeking to “upgrade” all of humanity. Cybermen convert him into one of them against his will.
  • Timothy Latimer: From “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”. A noble and brave young man who saves the day, we see him as a old man in a wheelchair towards the end of TFoB.
  • Colonel Hugh Eddison: From “The Unicorn and the Wasp”. He reveals himself to have been faking needing a wheelchair for many years in order to keep his wife at his side (presuming she’d do so out of obligation or pity, I guess).

As we can see, the trend with wheelchair-using characters in this show is that they’re evil and must die at the hands of our charming able-bodied hero. Of the two exceptions, one is a Faker™. The other is only shown in his wheelchair right at the end; he’s allowed no dialogue.

Doctor Who makes me sad because, as much as I love it, those running the show clearly have a fair bit of contempt (or contemptous indifference) regarding PWD. We’re represented very narrowly: when real, when having agency, wheelchair users (because disabled characters are always wheelchair users) are bitter villains. The very few disabled characters aren’t allowed to be anything other than caricatures. There’s nothing grand or beautiful or important or good about them, they just exist as plot points to help the story along or to be obstacles for the Doctor to overcome.

Film Review: Beyond Words

Beyond Words is an Australian short thriller directed by Armand De Saint-Salvy, one of 16 finalists for Tropfest 2009. (Tropfest is the world’s largest short film festival, involving more than 600 filmmakers each year!)

The two main, unnamed characters in the film are a deaf woman1 (Charlotte Gregg) and a blind man (Gyton Grantley). The film alternates between their perspectives, which makes for interesting (and probably not absolutely fantastic, but I’ll get to that) viewing/listening. During the deaf character’s parts, the sound adjusts to fit her perspective, and during the blind character’s parts, the visuals adjust to his.

Before we even get to the tension/conflict of the piece, there’s some really well done setting up of PWD perspective. We begin in a gym, in a yoga class that doesn’t really accommodate either of the main characters, so they follow the instructions as best they can. It’s a really lovely centring of PWD without a sledgehammer. As the class finishes up, he tries to talk to her but of course she doesn’t hear him: the motif of communication difficulties has expanded to fit the conflicting communication styles between PWD themselves. He tries to go after her, and the cutting between perspectives is such that we only learn later that this is because she has left her car keys. I quite like that the source of the drama at this stage isn’t a result of the usual dynamic of “brave PWD tries to cope! in an abled world on abled terms! the brave little soul!” Instead, we’ve got a difference in the needs, communication methods and experiences between PWD. We proceed entirely without reference to abled experience, which is pretty novel.

On the way to her car, the woman is grabbed by a man who wants to steal the car. As she scrabbles in her bag to find the keys that aren’t there, our friend from yoga comes by, hearing noises that sound like sounds of struggle. During the struggle, there’s rapid switching between their two perspectives. For me, as a sighted and hearing viewer/listener, it was a fabulous way to heighten tension, a very good climax. Doubtless for some people that would be very confusing or disorientating, which I guess goes to show a limit of the film’s translatability to, you know, actual disabled people. The attacker runs off soon after our main male character makes a noise (so to speak!). It never quite gets the feel of vulnerable woman saved by a man – for me personally, at any rate – maybe because her assailant runs off of his own accord, after the protests of both main characters.

After the attacker runs off, the sound and visuals change again: we’ve got a gelling of the two perspectives, with sound and vision both coming on in a conventional film sort of way. Which is all good with the inter-disability harmony in a way and more accessible for sure. I’m also feeling slightly disappointed about this stage of the film because resolution and harmony seem to equal moving beyond a disabled perspective. That is, resolution comes with film techniques more aligned with an abled perspective. So: here the two find a way to communicate, with the woman speaking verbally, asking the man to show her his lips so she can lip read. They walk back to the gym to get her car keys, the end.

I must admit that I am wanting a yay!disability message here. There are messages other than “we have different experiences of the world, and now we are banding together” to be gained from this film. I am bothered, for example, by the idea that it is entirely possible to read this as “man tries to get attention of woman, who is then punished for not paying attention”.

And then. I know Gyton Grantley isn’t blind, and I’m pretty sure Charlotte Gregg isn’t deaf. (Not because I’ve got any particular evidence of her being hearing, more because I can’t find references to her deafness, which I think would have been emphasized in most references to her I could find!) I think they both do a pretty good job, but it would of course be nice if more disabled people featured in films. On the upside, they actually had consultants on the film, the deaf consultants being Caroline Conlon and Richard Aarden and the blind consultant Zak Nikolic.

I’d also be interested as to how accessible this film is. I myself have a promotional/freebie version from the paper which isn’t very. I’m sure it’d be quite disorienting to some PWD, and I’m wondering about subtitling and such in any official DVD releases and how the film was displayed at Tropfest itself. After all, positive messages about disability oughtn’t to just be for the reassurance of the abled folk!

It’s quite a good film, so do give it a go if you can.

  1. The film doesn’t make it clear whether the character prefers deaf or Deaf; I’m thinking deaf is the most appropriate usage for the purposes of this review and within context, which is why I’ve used it.

Talking down disability while talking down to young people

Contains spoilers for A Darkling Plain, so be warned!

I’ve just finished up Philip Reeve’s Hungry Cities books. They’re really good, and I’d recommend them to any young adults reading, or anyone else who is into YA. Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain are full of complex female characters in a well-realised world, engaging with lots of ethical meatiness. The story is essentially about a future time in which there are mobile cities that move around finding smaller cities to “eat” for resources. Anti-Tractionists, meanwhile, live in static settlements and fight against the Municipal Darwinists. I have a few problems with the books, but I’ll keep it brief and address the rather irritating disability fail that starts off in Infernal Devices and runs through A Darkling Plain.

General Naga is the head of the Green Storm, which is the dominant Anti-Tractionist force for a good portion of the series. He has sustained war injuries and now an exoskeleton-type device allows him to move around. It’s emphasised that he’s a good and honourable man, gracious to all and working for peace. Well, up until he thinks Lady Naga has been working for the other side, at which point he is violent towards her, imprisons her and turns back to war. Almost inevitably, there is disability fail. To focus on the last book, (because that contains most of the references to General Naga, and because that’s the only one I have to hand!) alarm bells were ringing for me on page 35. Here is what goes through the mind of young Anti-Tractionist Theo Ngoni as he converses with General Naga’s wife, Lady Naga (aka Dr Oenone Zero):

‘He had seen Naga; a fierce warrior who clanked around inside a motorized metal exoskeleton to compensate for his lost right arm and crippled legs. He could not imagine that Dr Zero had been in love with him. It must have been fear, or lust for power, that had made her say yes.’

At this point, I thought, of course not. It’s going to turn out that she really loves him and married him for who he is, and this is just to set up breaking down that perception of unlovableness, right? Wrong. ‘She did not love him. She was just grateful for his protection, and glad that the leadership of the Great Storm had passed into the hands of a decent man. That was why she had been unable to say no when he asked her to be his wife.’ Naturally, a woman marrying for security. Part of my mind says that plays into the complexity of the relationships in these books, and it’s good to read something written for young people in which the happily ever afters aren’t really. Another part is thinking about how this sort of thing happens over and over again in popular culture, you know, where a disabled character isn’t being loved despite their being disabled or something.

And it goes on much like that, really, with lots of references to the crippled man! with his unrequited love! and he’s ‘half a man, wrapped up in clanking armour,’ according to one character, did we mention?

General Naga sacrifices himself in the end for the greater good, which frees young, unblemished Lady Naga from her horrid situation (tripping the sarcasm detector there). This “the cripple must die” dynamic that comes up so much in popular culture is really troubling, because its prevalence is just another betrayal of the societal view that disability is totes the worst thing ever and how can you live like that and why won’t you die and stop messing up my pretty world?! At the same time, he dies a hero, saving the people of London, following an illustrious career. Which is not exactly nice, but something.

What stories like this do is assume an abled readership. At least, I hope so, because consciously putting all this stuff onto young disabled people is a bit much. If a good part of writing fantasy/SF/spec for young people is to assist them in escaping and building up their imaginations and experiences, where are disabled youth to live out fantasy lives? Disabled youth are quite as deserving of an imaginative playground in which to develop their minds and thought as anyone else. In fact, I think it’s particularly vital that people so marginalised in the world be given opportunities to work at rich internal lives. What stories like this do is present full worlds and characters, contrasted with a bundle of cliches making up the one stock disabled character, and in doing so put disabled readers in their place: not deserving of anything more than that, and aren’t you glad you got represented at all? (Hello Doctor Who!) Which is not to mention that one dimensional characters represent another way of talking down to younger people. Younger people are quite capable of relating to characters outside of tired stock character types.

And at the end of the day, I find that these representations take me out of a story and just distract me. It’s poor storytelling, often inconsistent with the quality of the writing otherwise. It’s insulting to the audience, disabled and abled, young and old and in between.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone]