Tag Archives: private practice

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?

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.

Recommended Reading for November 12

Private Practice Takes a Bold Stance against Decent Behaviour

There’s a new doctor at Naomi’s practice, Dr. Fife, a genetic engineer who uses a wheelchair who pressures Naomi into agreeing to select for an embryo for two patients with dwarfism to allow them to created a baby who also has dwarfism. Naomi is reluctant but agrees until she learns that these embryos will also give the future baby a 40% chance of developing some kind of cancer (which Lauredhel over on FWD points out, is the baseline cancer risk for the US population).

18th Down Under Feminist Carnival

This Carnival has an optional caring theme, thanks to Australian Carers’ Week (which was October 18 to October 24). The theme for this year was “Anyone, Anytime, Across Australia”, which I modified to “Anyone, Anytime” for the purposes of the DUFC.

Denmark Strips Away Right To Privacy from Blind Voters

On Wednesday I read that one of my blind friend’s in Utah just experience voting by himself for the first time thanks to his voting machine having built in text to speech. On that same day, I also read that the blind in Denmark not only don’t get to vote by themselves, they have to have a council member present when they’re voting. This rule was supposedly implemented to make sure that the sighted helper wasn’t pressuring the blind voter to vote in a particular way, but what it really does is just strip that voter of their right to privacy.

On being “Crazy”

Crazy is something altogether different. Crazy is delusion, psychosis, mania, schizophrenia. Insanity, in the depths of society’s psyche, is jabbering in tongues rocking back and forth in a padded room. It can’t be trusted. It is the serial killer, the mother who kills her children, the man who laughs while committing the most vile crimes – this is what “crazy” conjures up in the minds of the general public.

This terror, this nightmare looming in the dark places of our collective consciousness is harmful. Incredibly so. It means that people who are not neurotypical are stuck with the paradoxical choice of lying or being mistrusted. Perhaps more importantly, it makes us less likely to seek help when it is needed. It took me years to admit, even to myself, that my brain was fundamentally different than most. Because I didn’t want to be crazy.

In the news:
Vatican post office issues stamps with raised dots to honour inventor of Braille system

The Vatican post office says it has issued its first Braille stamps to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Louis Braille, the French creator of the writing and reading system for the blind.

The stamps feature a portrait of Braille and his system’s raised dots that spell out Braille, Vatican City State and the price.

Don’t forget, we’re also doing some guest blogging at Bitch Magazine! Check out meloukhia’s introductory post about disability! (Yes, I do write up recommended reading in advance.)