As someone who has been involved in the trappings that come with the label of disability, I have desired to see more ‘true’ life examples of disabilities being played out in the entertainment field of TV.
I remember growing up watching Life Goes On (1989-1993) where one of the main characters (Corky) a high school boy had Down syndrome. At that time I didn’t think much beyond the show as I was too young to understand the nuances that were being portrayed regarding a family with a child of Down syndrome. Now looking back I realized how amazing it was that this show actually had a main character who was disabled- visibly. Plus, with something that cannot be faked, as perhaps an actor being wheel chaired bound could (see Glee). At the time, the producers of Life Goes On were light years ahead in the dealing with some major issues. Even today, it is hard to find a show where someone with any form of disabilities –that’s acknowledged and discussed on the show, is a main reoccurring character. But, I am eager to see where two new shows will take the disability issue.
One of them, Parenthood, is dealing with the realities of having a child with Asperger’s syndrome , an autism spectrum disorder. Now, while the child (Max) is not a true main character, his struggles are a side focus for the producers, with it coming into the forefront when dealing with a particularly thorny situation where the Asperger’s is the main focus. But, the actor does not truly have Asperger’s. So even though they have at least two consultants (behavioral psychologists) to help Max react correctly to a situation, does it help the audience realize what actually goes on in a mind that has to deal with the difficulties of the syndrome? I don’t think so. As with most shows that has a disability ‘issue’ it is about ‘normal’ people looking in and wanting to fix the issue, not about the person who has to deal with the ignorance of the ‘normal’ person. I have watched NBC’s Parenthood for the last two seasons because they are actually attempting to bring the issue of Asperger’s into the realm of the audience and hopefully create understanding as well as acceptance for those who have the disorder. It’s a TV show that is trying it’s best, but they can never get it exactly right, though I applaud the producers for taking on the subject.
~~To see Parenthood, (which is dealing with a lot more than just the Asperger’s syndrome issue) www.nbc.com/parenthood/
~~To learn more about Asperger’s Syndrome along with other Autism spectrum disorders, a good place for medical information is: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/aspergers-syndrome/DS00551
The one other show is Switched at Birth, which has just premiered a week ago. While, once again, the disability is not the main focus of the show, it is a major issue. I hope that they do a good job with dealing with the intricacies of the Deaf community. As someone who took Sign Language from a Deaf teacher, I had an extremely small peek into the community that has been built around a common disability. Due to the stigma that has clung to those with deafness in ages past, they have gathered together, building schools as well as whole communities where they can just be themselves.
I am excited to see that the producers have actually employed actors who with varying degrees of hearing impairment, though ‘Daphne’ the daughter who is Deaf in the show, is not actually Deaf. Though her friends from the School for the Deaf are indeed Deaf, so they have at least employed actors who are living this out in real life. As I have only seen one episode as of yet, I will withhold my judgment on how the interaction of the hearing family/ new school is played out with the Deaf daughter. I know that they will be dealing with many of the stereotypical aspects that come with the misunderstandings of people who have never been around Deaf people, nor have witnessed the beauty of Sign Language. Two thorny subjects they are jumping into right now(in the first episode) is the integration issue, (removing Daphne from the Deaf school to place her in a private hearing school) as well as the Cochlear Implant vs. Deaf issue (a device that is surgically implanted into the brain to help with auditory function).
I am cautiously optimistic in my hope for this new show. I love the fact that they are addressing the disability so head on, but I also hope that they treat the issue with respect and pay special attention to showing the audience the truth about deafness.
~~To see ABC’s Family’s Switched at Birth please see: http://abcfamily.go.com/shows/switched-at-birth
~~To learn more about the Deaf Community please see: http://www.deaf.com/
As with anything, when portraying it within a TV show or a movie, not all the aspects can be correctly interpreted onto the screen. Producers can only do their utmost best try to portray it correctly. The military, law enforcement, doctors, school teachers, truck drivers, bomb squads and so many others will always find the flaws within the show, because they know what they do, the people on the other side of the camera are just making a piece of entertainment. Disabilities will never be portrayed 100% correctly, but at least they are starting to appear in better roles than the character with a bit piece that people are meant to pity or to find humorous.
Here’s hoping that people learn something with these shows.