If you blinked last summer, you probably missed the limited Paralympics coverage on U.S. television, something which frustrated a lot of disabled sports fans who were hoping to see more of themselves on TV. The lack of representation mirrored the general problem with disability and Hollywood, though, namely that disabled characters are few and far between and when they appear, they’re often very stereotyped. And even fewer of those roles go to actual disabled people — most are played by nondisabled people in cripface.
This fall, we’re starting to see the first sign that might change, with two shows on NBC featuring disabled characters in the lead, one of whom is played by an actual disabled person. They’ll be joining the slim ranks of disabled characters on TV, gradually increasing representation and providing more of a range of disabled experiences for people to observe on television.
On the Michael J. Fox Show, starring the actor of the same name, we’ll be watching a television announcer with Parkinson’s manage his condition while also trying to work and raise a family. The show is being pitched as a comedy, which is major news for disabled people, because the fact is that disability can be funny, and it sounds like Fox will definitely be taking that approach with this show. His disability will obviously figure in his characterization, but it’s not being made into the stuff of drama or inspiring moments with dramatic music: he’s just a guy with Parkinson’s, trying to do his job.
Meanwhile, Ironside features Blair Underwood in the iconic role as the disabled detective using a wheelchair for mobility after being shot on the job. Underwood will be in cripface for the role, but it has potential to show something rarely seen when we encounter disabled characters: a disabled person at work, focusing on his job, much like Fox. While Ironside is a drama, and will follow a traditional cop show format, it will be interesting to see if it touches upon issues like access and accommodations and the kind of hostility disabled people can encounter in the workplace.
Both shows offer a great opportunity to provide balanced and interesting depictions of disability to members of the public that aren’t designed to be inspiring or to cast their characters as saints. Ironside and Fox, as characters, have a lot more going on than just their disabilities, and hopefully the writers on both shows will make sure their disabilities don’t consume them or come to totally define their characters. I’m looking forward to seeing Fox having fun with Parkinson’s, much like real-world comedians have fun with their disabilities on stage, and to seeing how Ironside interacts with the high-pressure world of police work as he adjusts to his impairment.
It’s possible we may also see some disability on The Following, Fox’s serial killer drama, given the gory ending of the season finale; both of the leads were badly injured in a vicious knife attack, and they may have injuries severe enough to result in permanent or temporary disabilities. As on Grey’s Anatomy this year, the incident could open up an opportunity to talk about the tough adjustment period some people experience with new impairments, and could show us how the characters adapt. Furthermore, if Claire (Natalie Zea) survives the attack — and I’m betting she will — she’s going to have some serious post-traumatic stress disorder to deal with.
Which means we could have a chance to see mental health explored on television. Claire Danes in Homeland gave us a taste of television’s potential for handling mental illness in a way that can potentially be responsible, showing us the real-world lives of mentally ill people and the potentially serious consequences of attitudes about mental illness. Seeing Claire process her experiences on The Following could open up a larger national conversation about PTSD, recovery and mental health services.
They’ll be joining Max (Max Burkholder) on Parenthood, a character with an autism spectrum disorder; Dr. Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) on Grey’s Anatomy, a doctor adapting to an amputation; Dr. Albert Robbins (Robert David Hall) on CSI, a disabled medical examiner who also happens to be played by an actor with the same disability; and Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale) on Glee, one of the most high-profile disabled characters on network television, along with Becky (Lauren Potter), a character with Down syndrome played by an actress who shares the condition.
That’s a pretty slim list, considering the number of lead and recurring characters on television overall; these two shows alone are increasing the number of regular disabled characters by 1/3, and they’re the only lead disabled characters. Could the fall 2013 television season be a sign of a shift in the direction of more representation for disability?
Photo credit: Official Navy Page