In a recent piece for his weekly blog for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Media Access Awards co-chair Allen Rucker expressed his thoughts as to why so few disabled characters seem to appear together in movies and TV.
Despite the fact that research statistics don’t show a lot of progress, there are many more characters with disabilities on TV, in film, and on stage than ever before. Primetime shows like “The Good Doctor,” “Speechless,” and “NCIS: New Orleans” have central characters with disabilities, as do major current films like “A Quiet Place” and “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning plays like this year’s “Cost of Living.” It bothers many people, disabled or not, that many of these roles are played by non-disabled actors, usually to increase the star value of the production. A sticky wicket, for sure, but at least the stories of disability are increasingly becoming part of the bigger American film/TV story.
What you rarely see, if ever, are two characters with disabilities on screen who are friends or neighbors. Disabled figures in TV and film tend to be isolated stand-outs in a universe of non-disabled “normal” people, trying to fit in, be understood, and accepted. On one hand, this may be more reflective of the real world than we think. People with disabilities are often isolated in the social world, the only crip in the room. Rarely do I enter a party or a bar or virtually any public gathering where I see another person in a wheelchair, let alone a group of chair users who invite me to join them for a drink. If you want to mingle with fellow travelers, as it were, wander down to the local VA or maybe attend the right kind of AA meeting. You won’t bump into them at the multiplex.
To know someone who shares your physical if not psychic reality is undoubtedly a good thing. Over the last twenty-two years, I’ve found two such partners in crime.
Robert Slayton is an award-winning historian, author of at least eight books you can pick up on Amazon, and history professor at Chapman University. A few years back, he contracted the disorder, transverse myelitis, my own diagnosis, and looked me up after reading my memoir of paralysis. He functions as a hemiplegic, meaning the left half of his body is paralyzed. This is a condition twice of complicated as my own, but I never hear a word about it. We regularly have lunch, always the only two wheelchairs in the place, and he launches into a subject we hit upon, and by the end of meal, I walk away smarter. I’ve lectured in his classes on occasion. He is a born teacher, born scholar, and born mensch.
The other guy I got to know and love has just retired as the long-time, long-admired editor of New Mobility magazine, Tim Gilmer. Way back in 2008, he asked me to write an article about Iraq-Afghan vets returning with severe SCI injuries and to quote the movie, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Tim is not only an accomplished writer/editor – and also runs a fruit and vegetable farm outside of Portland — but also a bit of a role model – yes, even guys in their silver years can have role models. He’s been in a wheelchair for 52 years from a small-aircraft crash when he was in college. There is no para-related problem, body or soul, that has happened to me that hasn’t happened to him ten times over. He’s a constant source of advice and encouragement.
There are two points here. These are two friends I would hopefully had made in any condition but would have never met if we all weren’t rolling around in wheelchairs. It’s a small sign that the randomness of existence can lurch both ways.
Also, these are real, complicated, talented humans in chairs who have yet to show up in the media version of disability.I look forward to the day when I turn on the TV and there is a character with a disability – never mentioned, never a plot point – who is an ace journalist cum truck farmer or a brilliant history professor. Disability, even in the best shows, is still a pronounced theme in popular media, not just an everyday fact like baldness or being tall and lanky.
Television still has a long way to go to catch up with reality.