I’ve been asked to comment on an influential foundation’s report advocating for greater participation by disabled people in movies and on television. In case my comments have broader interest, below is the slightly edited response I submitted.
Thank you for alerting me to this report on the representation of disabled people in movies and television shows.
I wholly endorse five broad recommendations from the report: (1) there ought to be portrayals of many more disabled characters, (2) disabled actors should perform these roles, (3) the roles need to be complex and central to the plot, (4) the plot shouldn’t only be about disability, and (5) philanthropic organizations should dedicate resources to these ends.
The report also correctly suggests the ways in which disabled people are typically portrayed on the screen can be damaging. For example, in movies, as in literature, the villain often has some disability or disfigurement designed to alienate the audience. Disabled people deserve to be presented with the degree of complexity for which the report argues.
I also agree that, just as Taiwanese-American actors should perform Taiwanese-American roles, actors with cerebral palsy would ideally play characters with that condition. That said, exceptional actors have chameleon talents. There will be times when an outstanding actor is willing to take on the role of a character whose disability she doesn’t share. I’d be delighted if Gregory Peck played me, even though he had vision and despite his being deceased!
The report justifiably presents a positive picture of what can and should be accomplished. Here, I’d like to point out some of the complications involved in presenting disabled characters to the mainstream. I do so not to discourage the Foundation—far from it—but to help guard against the project turning into a politically correct rah-rah exercise.
Whenever a socially-minded organization (a museum, local arts council, etc.) advances artistic endeavors, it confronts a fundamental paradox. We need to support those who engage in the arts, but especially when we wish to steer artists in certain directions, the result can be art by committee. Assuming the Foundation goes ahead with implementing this report, it will be incumbent on its people to navigate a path that has, on the one side, a cultivated field of principles, and on the other, the lawless land of artistic freedom.
Prejudice is Ingrained in the Language
As the report implicitly acknowledges, prejudices involving disabled people are deeply ingrained. Even well-intentioned people can’t escape them, just as we’ve come around to recognizing that racism is endemic in us all, however much we may resist.
President Barack Obama moved me, along with millions of others, that night in the Charleston church where a gunman killed several parishioners when he launched into “Amazing Grace.” This hymn contains the words, “Was blind, but now I see.” It’s a line that says that blindness is ignorance and confusion, while sight is the holy grail.
Do I condemn Obama for turning to a hymn with such a line? No. But am I troubled by that line? Yes. It’s one of the negative “blind” metaphors that haunts our language. But our language would be poorer without its ancient metaphors, and seeking to ban them would not only be futile, but also counterproductive.
Likewise, truly artistic programming won’t concede to political correctness. How would the Foundation feel about backing non-PC humor on such programming? Take this joke:
Q: What do you call Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles playing tennis?
A: Endless love.
Or the Family Guy scenario showing a crowd waiting for the deaf team to show up at some athletic event and then shifting to the dorm where the team is staying and the alarm clock is going berserk.
Speaking for myself, I can find a non-PC disability joke funny in one situation and offensive in another. Context can be everything.
What is the Disabled Community?
Where exactly is the “disabled community”? Fair enough, I myself have used the term as a shorthand. But many disabled people have only glancing contact with other disabled people.
Then again, some disabled people cluster in semi-closed residences. An example is a building on Manhattan’s West 23rd Street occupied solely by blind residents. These residences can function as self-reinforcing ghettos.
Deepening this often self-imposed ostracism from the mainstream, many disabled people are employed by organizations whose mission is to assist disabled people. Thus the number of disabled people working for mainstream organizations is even fewer than the already dismal standard employment numbers suggest.
Which Disabled People Get Represented on Screen?
If only successful disabled people are represented on TV and in movies, they represent a small percentage. (By “successful,” I mean gainfully employed, popular, well-informed, physically fit, or other similar criteria.) How about disabled people leading economically marginal lives or sheltered by their families?
The Proud and the Ashamed
Attitudes toward disability vary widely among disabled people. At one extreme are those who celebrate their disability, as in this New York Times op-ed piece: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/opinion/disability-death-coping.html. At the other are those who never adjust.
Disabled people aren’t always honest. After all, they’re human. Often they aren’t honest for a good reason. Sometimes they need to pretend to understand when they don’t, as hard-of-hearing elderly people are renowned for doing. Or they may want to minimize the difficulty of a task in order to stress that they can do it, however differently from the way someone without that particular disability might do it.
If disabled people don’t admit to expectations of failure, they just might succeed. Denial can be a powerful force for good.
Diversity Within Disability
Classifying disabled people as a single group is itself problematical. Those who have one kind of disability don’t tend to mix much with people who have other kinds. At the risk of setting up an awkward cartoon, picture a blind person chatting with a deaf and dumb person. Besides, each disability creates so many distinct challenges that disabled people drift toward the company of others who share those experiences.
Moreover, sometimes the interests of different disabled groups compete. What is beneficial to one disabled group can be harmful to another. Sidewalk corners have been cut to ease the progress of wheelchairs, but these cut corners can be a problem for blind pedestrians who rely on curbs to distinguish sidewalk from roadway.
E Pluribus Unum
Absolutely, all disabled people share many experiences and objectives. How do we transform pity into respect? How do we induce business owners to spend the money required to give access to all people, regardless of disability? Despite the differences that exist among disabled people, the Foundation is right to present this report on behalf of all.
Conflict in Art Versus Tedium in Real Life
We don’t live in a country where citizens are forced to watch officially sanctioned programming. Thus a movie or TV series must engage an audience.
This point has been brought home to me in a personal way. Many of the stories I write have a principal blind character. A playwright friend based in L.A. once suggested I branch out and write about sighted characters. Actually, I do, but I took his point. People who aren’t blind aren’t really interested in knowing too much about the lives and adaptations of blind people.
I ask myself a parallel question: How much time and attention do I care to give to the rigors of daily life in a wheelchair or the isolation that comes from not hearing what people are saying? It’s awkward and uncomfortable to write this, but I think reluctance has to be acknowledged. Our willingness to learn all the details of difficult lives isn’t just about disability. I feel bad for low-income earners who must travel two hours by bus and subway to get to their jobs, but am I willing to watch a show where this maddening burden is depicted in all its tedium?
A compelling story must have conflict at its core. But where is the conflict if much of the frustration is unavoidable and no one is to blame? Also, angry reactions to such frustration aren’t always pretty. We aren’t all heroes, and none of us is a hero all the time. Yet when disabled people aren’t being depicted as either pathetic or villainous, they’re supposed to be heroes.
The challenge for programming supported by the Foundation will be how to make ordinary disabled people interesting to mainstream audiences.
The relatively recent (2014) novel, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is instructive. Although hailed for its blind heroine, she is an impossibility. Here’s a link to my essay discussing this novel and, more generally, how blind people and characters have been depicted in literature and other forums: https://adrianspratt.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/time-to-move.pdf.
Note: I urge the Foundation to look at UC Berkeley Prof. Georgina Kleege’s work on the representation of disabled people in movies. Her work is cited in my essay.
The Tragedy of Stunted Potential
The capacity of disabled people to fulfill their inherent potential can be thwarted by the limitations imposed by their disabilities. Can a deaf person engage in repartee? Can a blind person share a visual joke in real time? At a deeper level, limited access to education and sheer life experience can prevent disabled people from sharing otherwise universal knowledge and experience. Of course, the converse is true: Disabled people have knowledge and experiences that are highly specialized. Still, when anyone is prevented from living up to their potential, their range of expression can be muted.
Promotion Will Require Persistence
After shows have been produced with main characters partially defined by their disability, how are they to be promoted? It would be great if disabled people could get the boost that LGBTQI people did with Ellen DeGeneres, but it may take many poorly received shows before one with a compelling disabled character has a similar impact.
How Will Disabled Audiences Gain Access?
Then there’s the question of how such programming is to reach disabled people.
The report rightly points to the limited availability of audio description. (This term is more accurate than “video description.”) The issue is more complex than may be widely understood. The Federal Communications Commission regulates this area, and the last I read, their requirements aren’t exactly stringent. Beyond that, there are instances where a program includes audio description, but either the network (NBC, TCM, etc.) or the local provider (Comcast, Verizon, etc.) carries it without that audio description. On our system, PBS is the most reliable audio description provider, but it’s hardly available across all PBS programming.
It’s especially ironic that a current TV series, “In the Dark,” whose heroine is blind, lacks audio description. I don’t know if that’s the fault of the producer, the network (CW) or the ISP. We don’t have it with Verizon, nor do friends with Comcast.
Another problem specific to blind people, as recognized by the report, is that the Internet is often an accessibility challenge. I have access to so much more material than I did before the Internet age that I almost don’t want to complain. However, accessibility is clearly lagging. Many websites are hard to navigate.
As a sly example, the PDF file you linked me to doesn’t meet accessibility standards and so required me to do a lot of formatting before I could read it the way I like: by sentence and paragraph.
Internet accessibility is crucial to disabled people’s ability to perform on the job and to interact with the rest of the world. It is also essential if they are to have access to programming about them. How else are they going to find out about new shows? How else post reactions?
If these concerns seem forbiddingly complex, they are also fascinating. The Foundation’s report appears at a historical moment when disabled people have myriad opportunities that were previously inconceivable. Considering its reputation and influence, the Foundation’s involvement is both timely and welcome.
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