Friday, April 24, 2015

Thinking About Disability On TV

Disability.TV Podcast logo with URL disabilitythinking.blogspot.comI doubt there are many people who think there's too much disability on TV. People come up with all kinds of reasons why it’s so rare, and why disability stories are the way they are. However, there is a near consensus that life would be better for disabled people if everyone saw more disabled people in popular culture.

That sounds sensible, though I am skeptical about any definite cause-effect relationship, for the good or the bad. Plus, it doesn’t answer a critical question. Which kinds of depictions do the most harm, and which the most good? What exactly are we looking for in disability on TV?

I love TV, I am disabled, and I like digging into why popular culture is the way it is, and what that means for people in real life. That’s why I started a podcast, Disability.TV, and why I have been participating in some great discussions about this on social media, including Saturday evening #FilmDis Twitter discussions. I’ve got so many questions and ideas floating around, at this point. I think this would be a good time for a brain dump. I’d like to see what others think about the questions I have been hashing out.


Would it be enough just to see more disabled characters on TV shows? What is the relationship between quantity and quality?

Injured man in a fully enclosing futuristic wheelchair
Do we want to see only uplifting disabled characters? Is there any value in disabled characters who aren’t admirable, or do they run too much risk of sending the wrong messages about disabled people?

Do most disabled characters on TV present an authentic disabled person’s point of view, a non-disabled person’s point of view, or a TV writer’s need for something to drive the plot?

What about TV portrayals of some of the terrible ways disabled people have been treated, now and in the past? When does accurate, brave depiction of evil become just more exploitation?

Do we automatically count it against a show if characters on it say things about disability we disagree with? What does it mean when a show clearly wants us to believe one thing about disability, but we see something else entirely on the very same show?

Marlee Matilin as Joey Lucas on The West Wing, signingIs it possible to have good disability portrayals in comedy, without it devolving into mockery?

Are disabled character behaviors that fit into disability cliches and stereotypes inherently offensive?

Is it always offensive for non-disabled actors to play disabled characters? In addition to questions of equal opportunity for disabled actors, is it akin to blackface? Does “cripping up” negate any other value in a depiction?

Is there a correlation between broad popularity and good disability portrayals?

What kinds of disabled characters and disability situations on TV give us joy?

Tyrion Test

Before starting the Disability.TV Podcast, I tried to come up with a simple, clear criteria for judging disability on TV or in the movies. I started with the Bechdel Test, which evaluates how a show or movie portrays women, based on whether it:

1) Features at least two women, who

2) Talk to each other,

3) About something other than a man.

After a few tries, I came up with what I called the Tyrion Test, after my favorite disabled character, Tyrion Lannister on Game Of Thrones:

1) At least one character with disabilities is involved in significant plot developments not centered on their disabilities,

2) Disabilities are depicted realistically, neither less nor more severe than they would be in real life, and

3) Disabled characters are givers as well as receivers … supportive of other characters, not just supported by them.

This is an interesting measure, I think, but it leaves too many angles unexamined.

5-Star Rating System for Disability Onscreen

After several months of podcasting, and conversations about this over Twitter, I decided to come up with a more traditional 5-star rating system, similar to what Netflix and some critics use to rate movies and TV shows. Each TV show can earn up to 5 stars, but each star represents a particular measure.

Authenticity … Are the details of disability portrayed accurately?

Characters … Are disabled characters fully developed, low on cliché, and more than just plot devices?

Messages … Does the work have something to say about disability?

Representation … Are disabled characters played by disabled actors?

Watchability … Is the work overall entertaining and high-quality?

Chief Robert Ironside in wheelchair, with 3 team members
I allow half stars.

The best thing about this system is that it allows full credit for parts of the depiction that work, and takes proportional credit off the score for aspects that fail. Each category is of about equal value. So, since disabled characters are very rarely played by disabled actors, even some very good shows will loose half or a full star for lack of Representation. Similarly, if a show dutifully checks all the speciality disability boxes, but is dull and poorly presented, it’s not going to earn full credit for Watchability, which can significantly impact the show’s overall star rating.

On the other hand, I feel a little like the dour Headmaster in Dead Poet's Society who takes over Mr. Keating's class and tries to teach the kids how to appreciate poetry by use of charts and graphs.

How do you respond to disability on TV? What do you hate to see, and what would you most like to see?


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