TV Portrayals of Disability: Realistic or Heroic?

In cultureShock, Entertainment by Jeff McAllister

We all know that people with dis abilities

are often portrayed as either helpless or heroic on television. However, there are currently people with disabilities being portrayed in a more realistic, if not accurate, way. One thing I should note is that many of the disabled people on television are not actually disabled, rather an able-bodied actor portraying their interpretation.

There are currently seven portrayals of disability (I believe) on the four major television networks, with NBC taking the lead with four. The most popular form of disability on television this year appears to be unidentified disabilities that require the use of crutches.

“ER” (NBC, Thursdays, 10 PM Eastern) features Dr. Kerry Weaver, who quite honestly could lose the crutch and nobody would notice. For the most part her portrayal makes it seem like her disability never gets in the way, which I’m sorry is not likely in a hospital. The writers seem to focus more on her sexual orientation than the more obvious, like what is her disability and what effect it has on her. “CSI” (CBS, Thursdays, 9 PM Eastern) features Al Robbins, another doctor who also uses a crutch, but is only seen limping occasionally and always manages to keep up without any mishaps. “Karen Sisco” (ABC, On Hiatus) features Amos Andrews whose disability is rarely on display because he is usually seated behind a desk. The main theme of these three characters, is that their disability has absolutely nothing to do with their characters and the writers don’t want to go anywhere beyond the faintest allusion to a disability.

All is not lost, however, there are portrayals that actually make disability part of the character. I know of four such portrayals, but I’ll only mention three of them because I have never seen the fourth one, which is the character with polio on “American Dreams” on NBC.

The only character I know of with a disability in a comedy is Stevie on “Malcolm in the Middle” (FOX, Sundays, 9 PM Eastern). I love this character, because he reminds me of what I was like as a kid, doing stupid things without thinking of my disability. He has an unnamed disability, but uses a wheelchair and has breathing difficulties. His inability to express himself quickly often leads to quite a bit of comedy. The character also dealt with an overprotective mother and showed how that was not a good thing for a child of any ability. To me this is realism.

The other two shows are both dramas and also provide a very accurate portrayal of disability, at least from my standpoint. The first is President Bartlett on “The West Wing” (NBC, Wednesdays, 9 PM Eastern) who has Multiple Sclerosis and manages to continue his presidency. His character really does take on the entire disability and really shows the difficulty of dealing with MS under extremely stressful situations. Initially the president hides his disability and winds up embroiled in a scandal for not disclosing it. Ultimately, he comes clean and embraces it. Finally, there is Officer Faith Yokas who is dealing with a spinal cord injury brought on by a gunshot on “Third Watch” (NBC, Fridays, 9 PM Eastern). Her portrayal really shows how life altering a disability can be and how difficult it is to deal with a spinal cord injury.

So, disabilities are appearing on television, but often missing a level of accuracy. For some reason, however, the simplest way of achieving accuracy and realism is often overlooked, that is to hire disabled actors. Let’s hope some of these networks get the hint.