Tag Archives: disabled characters

Where Are All the People With Disabilities?

Crossposted at this ain’t livin’.

I would like you to imagine that you are a film producer, or perhaps a television producer. You are making something, and you have decided that since an estimated 20% of the population consists of people with disabilities, that maybe there should be some people with disabilities in your finished piece. So, you decide to include them. And you do your due diligence; you consult disability activists, you educate yourself about how they should be portrayed, you make sure that their characters are fully integrated into the story, that they aren’t tokens.

This already makes you a standout in the world of film and television production, because, as a general rule, the portrayal of people with disabilities in film and television is atrocious. Some independent films might be better, but mainstream media, for the most part, tokenizes people with disabilities when it deigns to include them, and often manages to be extremely offensive about it.

Now, I would like you to imagine that you are a casting director preparing casting calls for this wonderful new work in which people with disabilities will be portrayed. You’re doing writeups of the characters for release to send out to agencies, or maybe you’re even preparing an open casting call.

Are you going to actively request that actors with disabilities try out for the roles? Or is that not important to you?

Judging from the current portrayal of disability on television, I’m going to bet that our fictional casting director is not going to actively pursue actors with disabilities to play disabled characters. Instead, they’re going to go for the crip face. I was going to draw an analogy here, and ask: If you were a casting director casting a Black character, would you solicit Black actors? Or would that not be important to you? Except that I see blackface continues to be alive and well, so, apparently, the answer again is no, it’s not important that Asian actors play Asian characters, that Black actors play Black characters, that male actors play male characters, that disabled actors play characters with disabilities.

This is annoying.

It’s annoying, for one thing, because I would like to see more people with disabilities on my screen, and because I would like to see them specifically played by actors with disabilities. But no, it’s too hard to find disabled actors. Or, they’re too hard to work with. When an actual actor with a disability is allowed onto a television set playing a disabled character, it’s played like someone’s being done a huge favour, and aren’t we inclusive and progressive, casting a disabled actor to play this part!

I can think of only a handful of disabled characters I like. One is Bonnie on Jericho, played by Shoshannah Stern. Bonnie is Deaf, as is Shoshannah. One of the things that’s interesting about her character is that when Shoshannah tried out for the role, Bonnie was not written as Deaf. Apparently her reading was liked so much that they changed the character. And they did a pretty good job; Bonnie is a fully realized character, her Deafness is not a token, and in fact it proves to be an asset at times.

Bonnie shows how it’s possible to integrate a disabled character into a piece without making a big production out of it, without making it feel forced and fake, without being disrespectful. Her Deafness isn’t framed as a terrible tragedy or a magical special gift from God, it’s just a fact. It’s great to see other characters signing with her, instead of forcing her to read lips all the time, although it’s kind of unfortunate that the DP apparently thought it would be a good idea to not show the hands half the time during signing scenes. It’s great to see Bonnie saying “I’m Deaf, not stupid,” reminding people that she can read lips and that, therefore, it’s not a good idea to talk trash about her because you think she can’t understand you. (Aside from the fact in general that you shouldn’t be talking trash about people even when you know they aren’t around to understand.)

Deafness is part of what makes Bonnie Bonnie, and considering that the character wasn’t supposed to be Deaf at the start, I think that’s a pretty great accomplishment.

But…one disabled character does not a revolution make. Why is it so difficult to add characters with disabilities into the world of film and television, and once they’re there, why is it still acceptable to use temporarily able bodied actors in crip face to play them, rather than, you know, seeking out disabled actors?

There are a lot of superbly talented actors with disabilities out there who do great work when they are allowed to do it. Some of them actually work more in roles for able-bodied characters, because that’s all that’s out there. Some of them might actually enjoy being able to portray disabled characters, were they given a chance.

I want to see people like me when I look at the television. It’s why I watch, to escape into a magical world that I think I might be able to inhabit. And it’s easier for me, as a viewer, to place myself in that world when I see people like me. I think a lot of people feel like this. There’s a distance involved when you can’t connect with any of the characters, experientally.

And when the only people who are like me are introduced as tokens, figures for mockery or abuse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me not want to watch, because if I want to be tokenized, all I have to do is walk out the door.

Recommended Reading for October 23

Reminder! The next Disability Blog Carnival is coming up on the weekend. Get your posts in to Liz! Tell your friends!

In the blogs:

ADAPT in Atlantica, kicking ass and taking names [LONG] [US]

Their goals are, free people from being incarcerated in nursing homes, and kept in there against their will. They back the Money Follows the Person program, which means a person’s benefits are under their control rather than under the control of doctors, social workers, and assisted living facilities (who are a powerful medical-industrial complex much like the prison-industrial complex: powerful lobbyists with a lot of money at stake.) Right now ADAPT also supports the Community Choice Act, a bill which you can see and follow directly with OpenCongress.org.

I don’t think of you as Black, disabled:

I mean, seriously. That’s so naive and so painful. You are my friend. Come ON. I mean, I didn’t whiten up or lose the wheels. And it isn’t like other people don’t notice my differences, either…. They exist. We both know they exist. When we go out together you notice that I am treated differently from you; we both guess that race is the likely factor; it makes no sense to say that. What on earth are you saying? When we go out together and we’ve spent the past hour or so trying to deal with access questions — to your house, to the store, to the restaurant. What are you saying? And what the hell do you mean?

The best I can figure is that you are trying not to say something like, “In my eyes, your difference is not a barrier to our continued friendship.” Or perhaps it’s, “You don’t seem to have the usual pathologies of people with your condition, race, etc. We can continue to be friends.” Or perhaps it’s, “I’m big enough to handle whatever problems your difference brings.” But it could also be, “I don’t think in terms of these categories; it is a point of pride with me that I am not racist/ableist…” Hopefully, it is a miscommunication for, “We aren’t the same, and I like you just as you are.”

Small Victories:

I saw something in this past Sunday’s Kansas City Star that gave me a tiny bit of hope, both for our culture in general and the ongoing atrocity that is the Judge Rotenberg Center in particular: the Thayer Learning Center*, a boot-camp-style institution for “troubled teens,” which has accumulated a fairly long list of complaints of abuse and neglect of its inmates since its opening in 2002, has closed, and been sold to a Cheyenne Indian educator named Lakota John, who plans to open a new, very different kind of school on the old Thayer grounds.

The new school will be geared toward Native American young people of all tribes, with emphases on sustainable agriculture (using traditional, Native American farming methods), outdoor skills, and Native American culture, art and spirituality.

[Blog] Woman Arrested for Assault While Having a Seizure:

It should go without saying that paramedics have the right to do their job without being assaulted, and to call for help if they are assaulted. But it should also go without saying that having a seizure and struggling against (allegedly heavy-handed) care while in a state of confusion do not count as assault. And I find it difficult to imagine any circumstances under which it could possibly be okay for police to arrest someone currently in a state of medical emergency, and then not obtain medical care for her for nine hours.

Kourtney Wilson is a black woman, and it seems extremely unlikely that race had nothing to do with this case, and that a middle-class white woman would have endured the same treatment. Wilson indicates the same belief herself about racial and class bias, and her roommate Tiffini Williams suggests, “They come to the hood, see a girl on the floor, and they think she’s on drugs.” The idea sounds extremely plausible, and while it’s appalling that anyone would endure such treatment if their medical condition was the result of drug use, I don’t doubt that it’s a common occurrence.

All this week was Disability History Week in New York. I’m slowly generating a post on this (my thesis is in this area), but feel free to talk in the comments about your favourite thing that you think comes under the umbrella of “disability history”.

Lauredhel has a described-image up that’s Disability Week Fail at its finest.

Lastly, I’m using my big megaphone: Come help us generate a list of YA/Children’s lit with a character with a disability at my Dreamwidth account.

Yes, it DOES make a difference

(Cross-posted at three rivers fog.)

I wrote this yesterday in an extreme fog and do not have the spoons to rework and polish it. Apologies for the brainspill, but these days it’s the only option I have.


For background, see Ouyang Dan’s post on the problematic aspects of the TV show House. Don’t tell me that people realize this is fictional. Don’t tell me that people know how to maintain that separation. Some do. Many don’t. And they’re everywhere. At the bottom of the totem pole… and in positions of power over the very people they are prejudiced against.


I was called back to work two weeks ago. I work at a government office that provides certain assistance programs. (Once you go to work for one government agency, you realize there are a whole lot more of them than you ever thought before.) I really don’t want to go into it any more specifically than that.

It’s been very rough on me. Last winter, work was physically draining. I basically have two whole hours every day that I am awake and not at work, preparing for work, or traveling to and from work, and semi-conscious. Not only am I so physically exhausted that I go to bed three hours after work ends, I am so physically exhausted that my brain just cannot be pushed any further. I have trouble comprehending the blogs and news sites I normally read; writing is usually out of the question. Of course, we won’t even talk about anything more physical than that — even preparing a boxed dinner for myself is too difficult. My apartment is even more a mess than usual, because I don’t have the energy to pick up the clothes that I shed as soon as I get the front door shut, the mail and personal items that trail after me from the couch to the bedroom…

Unfortunately, so far this year, it hasn’t just been physically draining. I’ve been dealing with a sudden onset of severe migraines, and not the type of migraines I’ve had since childhood and have an intimate knowledge of — these are more classic migraines, the nausea, the aura and vision distortion, the intense pain and pressure behind the eyes… The pain is not as overwhelming as my normal migraines (where a twitch of the toe makes me want to scream or cry or at least moan, but the movement and force of emitting any noise at all would hurt even worse, so I just curl up and remain frozen in misery), but the experience is just as miserable because it block’s my brain’s ability to function, even to process the smallest of information. I’ve been having trouble writing six-digit numbers on the top of each application. And normally I work faster than the worker next to me, but the past two weeks she’s been cranking out work three times faster than me.

It’s frustrating. I’ve been doing everything in my capacity to do to fight these headaches off. Everything. And no, I don’t want any helpful suggestions. But regardless, even with all the desperate measures I have been taking, they persist.

On top of it all, my endometriosis has decided to flare up at the same time. So I get double nausea, extreme abdominal cramps, persistent pelvic pain and other symptoms.

I’ve been in a lot of pain.

I take a lot of medications. For pain. I take medications that have no effect on people who do not have a specific type of pain disorder. And I take medications that people who are not in pain popularly take to get high. (I do not, for the record, take anything to get high myself.) And I put up with a lot of shit to continue taking one of few medications that works and that enables me to work.

(I guess I could give it up and therefore be putting up with less shit. But then I’d, you know, not be able to work. And for so long as I have the option to be able to work, I’m taking it. Because I may not even have that option forever. Situations change, bodies change, and bodies change how they react to medications over time. I’m doing what is necessary for myself and my family at this point in our lives.)

So, at work today.

I sit on the far side of the first floor of our building, along with all the other people working in my particular program, the people working on another program, and a couple stray general clerks across from all of us. The other program’s supervisor and one of the other program’s workers (OPS/OPW hereafter) were talking about a certain case, a woman who was being denied medication and needed help obtaining it. This was before lunch, it was a general talk in a work context, that is how to get the problem solved.

My husband and I went home for lunch, as we do regularly, given that we live less than five minutes from our workplace. It takes half the lunch period but it is worth the spoons because it makes the workday so much more bearable — two four-hour chunks rather than one long nine-hour one. We sit around, watch The People’s Court reruns, eat our lunch and laugh at the cats who get in silly, hyper, meddling moods around that time.

I returned from lunch, feeling a lot better having had a break from the fluorescent lighting and ambient noise of the HVAC system. And a few minutes after I got back, sitting next to the OPS scanning documents into the computer system, OPW wandered back over and began talking again about the client from before.

The medication? Oxycontin. Her doctor has been prescribing it to her for over 15 years.

And the conversation? Went like this. (As typed soon after in an email to my husband, as close as I could get to what they actually said, given how stunned and hurt I was while it was happening.)

OPW: do you watch house?
OPS: no not really
OPW: well he has some sort of leg injury, but he takes that other one, what is it? vicodin
OPS: uh huh
OPW: and they sent him to rehab, and he just had to find something to occupy his mind so he wouldn’t think about it
OPS: yeah they get addicted so easy
OPW: and now they put him on regular pain killers and he’s doing just fine
OPS: yeah a lot of the time tylenol or advil works just as well, people just want the high
OPW: exactly, and their doctors prescribe it to them and they hand it out to family members…

And the conversation went on like this for a couple minutes, with the two of them walking back and forth fetching printed documents, attending to the scanning etc.

I just… I’m not terribly private about my condition. I don’t bring it up, but if it’s relevant I talk about it. I do try to avoid telling my coworkers that I take narcotic medications (as opposed to just “medications”) but I have gone over it specifically with HR as it can be a security issue in some agencies.

I was sitting right there. OPW sits on the other side of me, and had to walk around me to get to where OPS was at the scanner. I was sitting right there.

They were talking about me.

They weren’t thinking of me, of course. They’d never make that connection. I’m young and thin and pretty enough. They know I work hard. Most of my office loves the hell out of me.

But if I had spoken up — rather than sitting there holding my breath trying not to cry — how would that opinion change? Would they start seeing me as lazy, as slacking off? Would they whisper about me every time I went to the water fountain for a drink? What was I taking? What was I doing with it? Would they start taking certain behaviors as symptomatic of addiction? If I passed too well one day, appearing to be just fine (to them; I am good at covering up my pain) — would they take that as evidence that I couldn’t actually be in pain and couldn’t really need that medication? And if I didn’t pass well one day — especially these days, when I’ve been stopped more than one time as someone remarks on how deathly pale I am and asks if I’m OK and tells me to take a break — would they see that resulting, not from my pain, but from the supposed addiction?

They were talking about me. They didn’t even know it. But I am that person on that medication. Pushing through the pain to keep working.

The difference is, Dr. House is a character.

I’m real.

And that woman. These were the attitudes of the people who were helping her resolve an issue. As much as I wish otherwise, workers do have some degree of latitude in deciding how they are going to approach a case, and can apply the law in different ways for different people, even if it appears pretty strict on paper.

I am that woman.

I have been there. I am there. I have to deal with unsympathetic figures in obtaining my treatment. Doctors, nurses, office staff, pharmacists, insurance reps, welfare reps, other reps. I have issues I have to call to have resolved. I have that person on the other line who’s promising me on the one hand to resolve the issue — but on the other hand …? How can I ever know?

I don’t know what was going on in this woman’s life. I don’t know if she’s dependent (there is a difference). I don’t know if she would be better off on another course of therapy. Or whether she’s tried all those other courses and they’ve given her awful side effects or they’re contraindicated given her particular condition or they’re unavailable to her due to income or access. I don’t know.

Maybe she’s abusing. Maybe she’s handing it out on the street corner.

Maybe she’s just like me. Just one person trying to power through this world as best she can. And this is the best way she’s found to do it.

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