Television stereotypes everyone and everything. So why should it be different for disabilities?
Amputees have gotten a bad rap; for example, witness the notorious one-armed slayer of Dr. Richard Kimble's wife on "The Fugitive." And just as ultra-sensory perception or "smellavision" defined blind characters, bitterness for years was the prevalent distortion attached to those in wheelchairs.
It went this way: You were injured, and miserable about it, until jolted from your stupor by a wise (and, of course, able-bodied) rehab mentor, who motivated you to get on with your life.
TV is nothing if not cyclical, however, and may be in a renaissance when it comes to portrayals of disabilities.
"There was a lot of progress in the mid-'80s, but then there was some backsliding," says Tari Susan Hartman, an L.A. marketing and media consultant who was founding executive director of the Media Access Office, a casting clearinghouse for actors with disabilities. "Now we're seeing a resurgence in grass-roots communities demanding more authentic and savvy portrayals, and more performances by people with disabilities."
That includes increased visibility in commercials for kids with Down syndrome -- a legacy of Chris Burke earlier gaining fame on ABC's "Life Goes On" -- and prominence in series for others.
Robert David Hall, who landed the role of "CSI" coroner Dr. David Robbins on CBS, despite losing both legs and suffering severe burns in a 1978 car accident.
Daryl (Chill) Mitchell, now playing the bowling alley manager in NBC's "Ed" a year after a motorcycle accident paralyzed him from the mid-chest down.
Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, as a pollster in NBC's "The West Wing."
Allison Cameron Gray, who has cerebral palsy, playing a character like herself in an episode of "Family Law."
Tony-winning deaf actress Phyllis Frelich appearing in a "Boston Public" episode that Fox says will air Nov. 25.
Earning especially high praise from activists, though, is "Anna's Dream," a new movie about a teenager in a wheelchair that aired on PAX-TV earlier in October, which is National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month. And they also salute the new PAX weekly series, "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye," which is drawn from the life of a former bureau worker whose lip-reading skill was utilized in surveillance. It began its run Sunday.
"Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" is TV's first series based on the true story of a deaf person, and Deanne Bray (who speaks very clearly, by the way) is the first deaf actress in the title role of any series.
In a refreshing departure, the mentor in "Anna's Dream" was a peer counselor who was in a wheelchair himself. After her devastating injury in a fall as a gymnast, Anna dreamed poignantly that she could "fly like a bird, like Superman." After some setbacks and sadness, the story showed her accepting her disability and even flying down the road joyously in a hand-powered cycle.
Much of "Anna's Dream" was turgid, unfortunately, and the zaftig actress playing gifted gymnast Anna (Lindsay Felton) about the size of two Mary Lou Rettons. Nor was "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" any more fluid when opening stiffly with Thomas going to work for the FBI as a lip reader deluxe. That, too, is a stereotype, going back at least as far as George Arliss working uncanny magic with his eyes after going deaf in the 1932 film "The Man Who Played God."
But stereotype, shmereotype. More notable, say disability activists, is how these productions address misconceptions, such as "Anna's Dream" essentially rebutting the message of famously wheelchaired Christopher Reeve.
Reeve, the "Superman" actor made quadriplegic by an equestrian fall in 1995, vexes many in the disability community by publicly stressing walking again.
They claim that by appearing uncomfortable in his own skin, Reeve leaves the impression that people with paralysis dwell obsessively on entering a phone booth and emerging free of disability. They believe he nourishes a public view that useless legs make useless lives, even though his own aggressive lobbying for the wheelchair crowd tells a different story.
What's the beef? After all, the guy just wants to walk.
No one faults Reeve for that, said Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Assn. "The concern is that he may be giving false hope to people who are new to spinal cord injury" while implying also that inability to walk "is a fate worse than death."
"Anna's Dream" preaches that one can lead a full life seated, "Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye" that deafness is not crippling.
Although both messages are sturdier than the drama underpinning them, they need to be delivered again and again, for biases against disabilities are deeply rooted. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president from 1933 to 1945, for example, he so feared a public backlash to the extent of his polio-caused paralysis that he did his best (with help from a pliant press) to hide his wheelchair dependence from America.
Although played by able-bodied actors, meanwhile, recurring characters with disabilities are also featured, however imperfectly, in Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," CBS' "Becker" and the WB's new "Birds of Prey," whose former Batgirl still kicks butt after being rendered paraplegic when gunned down by the Joker.
There's also "Pelswick." That's Nickelodeon's appealingly bent animated series from quadriplegic John Callahan, who uses comedy to deflate stigmas attached to people in wheelchairs. As in Pelswick calling himself "permanently seated."
Like PAX's Anna, adolescent Pelswick wants only to be treated normally. "People with disabilities focus on the same issue that people without disabilities do -- being fulfilled as human beings," Hartman says. As for formulaic stories depicting those with disabilities overcoming all barriers, she adds, "they don't really triumph over adversity because it's not a triumph over society's prejudices and lowered expectations. If anything, people with disabilities are politically challenged."
As some of television remains creatively challenged. However flawed as entertainment, what PAX is doing is to be commended. Here's hoping that one day execution matches good intentions, and that the quality of these works soars as Anna did in her dreams.
"Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye"
Where: PAX-TV (KPXN)
When: 9 p.m. Sundays
Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.