It happens all the time: People shockingly tell me how “beautiful” I am. Does that ever happen to you? The experience is so strange when it happens to me. It must be my wheelchair. Odd how that works. If you’re attractive and able-bodied, that’s nice. If you’re attractive and a person with a disability, that’s news. People with disabilities should look . . . well, disabled.
For years, people with disabilities were hidden from society. We were placed in nursing homes “for our own good.” Or we were forced to stay home for lack of rails and ramps anywhere else. But once the ADA was enacted in 1991, much changed. We left our houses, abandoned our nursing homes and escaped our special ed classrooms to join the world at large. But sadly, many of us are still regarded as curiosities.We’re long overdue for a change.
Consider the way people with disabilities are portrayed in popular entertainment. Too often, we’re shown as child-like, uneducated or a bit “slow,” no matter what our malady. Or, going in the other direction, we’re cast as geeky nerds, savants more at home with equations and computers than people. And almost always, we’re portrayed as asexual—people whose lives end at the waist. (And if we are to have sex, that introduces a whole new set of problems.)
Take “Artie,” for example, the paraplegic character in the popular television show, “Glee.” On one hand, I applaud the show’s creator, Ryan Murphy, for Artie’s inclusion, as disability ensemble characters are rare enough on television. But it does seem strange that he is played by an able bodied actor. Unlike the characters played by Sam Worthington in “Avatar” or Terry O’Quinn in “Lost,” there’s no deeply compelling reason for Artie to leave his chair. As fine a job as Kevin McHale does in the role, it seems like a part that could have gone to an actor with a disability, like RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy and plays Junior in the award-winning series “Breaking Bad.” Ryan Murphy should have casted Artie just as RJ Mitte was casted to show paraplegia in an accurate light.
Then, of course, there’s Artie’s character itself. Does he really have to be the only nerd in the glee club? Couldn’t someone besides the student with a mobility impairment have the honor of being the socially handicapped for a change? The guy can’t seem to catch a break. In one episode, Artie gets set up on a prom date with—what else?—a girl who is also wheelchair bound. Why? Because society and the media are ignorant enough to think that this is a perfect match. This is all very touching, especially as the show closes with our chair bound couple checking into a motel for some implied intimacy. Unfortunately, the show’s writers kind of miss the point here. How do two such people manage the deed? Trust me on this. Two paraplegics are not necessarily a match made in heaven. Someone needs to think these things through. Think of the statement “the blind leading the blind” and you’ll understand why this is not a match made in heaven.
The well intentioned ought to do a little thinking in real life, too. I can’t tell you how many times utter strangers have come up to me offering to introduce me to “the perfect guy.” Why so “perfect?” Most were in wheelchairs. Some were blind. One had been blown up in a terrorist attack and left with only half a face. Another was a creepy old grandfather, forty years my senior looking for, no exaggeration, “casual sex.” And another was a pedophile and fugitive who had violated parole and was looking for a new wife. I cannot make this stuff up.
Fortunately, people with disabilities are beginning to do better on television. Sometimes I even encounter characters whose disabilities prompt me to see a bit of myself in them. That’s encouraging.
“House” immediately springs to mind. Played knowingly by able-bodied Hugh Laurie, the irascible, brilliant, cranky and often downright nasty doctor gets about on a chronically painful leg whose nerves and muscles were mangled in a botched operation. Though hobbled, House will not be stopped or even slowed, and deals with his disability using a cane, felonious fistfuls of Vicodin and lots and lots of attitude. He has his shortcomings (glaring faults, actually) which is why he has so many fans among people with disabilities. He’s not some idealized poster boy for people with disabilities, but a real living, breathing person (to whatever degree a television character can be). House is one of us and he is making it.
Then there is Robert David Hall, the actor who plays medical examiner Dr. Al Robbins, on “CSI.” He may only be playing a doctor on television, but his disability is very real: Hall lost both legs in an accident in 1978. Nonetheless, he gets around just fine on his prosthetic legs—often without crutches—as so many amputees do. Hall’s role is written such that the cast rarely cites, or even acknowledges, his disability. He just “is,” and is treated just like anybody else by cast and audience alike. The show’s producers deserve recognition for casting him, and its writers kudos for the way he is portrayed. A disabled actor playing a disabled character . . . who leads a normal life. Imagine that.
The time has come (actually, it’s been here for a while) for people to set aside their expectations of how people with disabilities “should” act. Stereotypes do not benefit us or you. We are neither noble heroes rising above our infirmities, or pathetic wretches seeking sympathy. We’re just people trying to get by in the same world as you. But, this is the 21st Century, and popular perceptions are fueled by popular culture. Like it or not, we are what we see on television. Be informed by what you see, but also be aware. We, people with disabilities, are more like you than you think.