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ROLLING ROLE MODELS ON TV – By Ben Mattlin

September 19, 2017

Recently, an important anniversary passed quietly. Important to me, anyway. It was 50 years since the TV show “Ironside” first aired.

I was four at the time. My mother wanted me to watch. Back then, the only people in wheelchairs on TV besides Chief of Detectives Robert Ironside were, well, Jerry’s kids.

Chief Ironside wasn’t exactly your typical role model. He was gruff and grumpy and completely unrealistic. But he was also larger-than-life and fully in charge. Unlike Jerry’s kids. Guess which example I preferred?

Today, wheelchair-riding kids have a lot more choices of media portrayals of people who look like them. Not enough, still, perhaps, but when you take the long view it’s pretty clear there’s been significant improvement.

“Speechless Says It All”

The best example nowadays is probably JJ from the ABC sitcom “Speechless,” which returns to the airwaves on September 27. If you haven’t seen it, it’s your basic half-hour family-centered sitcom about an unusual but lovable household, the DiMeos, who somehow manage to get themselves out of preposterous fixes every week. JJ, the oldest of three children, has cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair, and is nonverbal. Perhaps one of the best and most unusual fun facts is that the actor, Micah Fowler, actually has CP and does use a wheelchair. He’s not speechless in real life, but his disability does affect his voice.

I don’t love every moment of every episode—and to date I’ve seen them all—but some are nothing short of brilliant. I’m not just talking about their comic appeal, which is often laugh-out-loud good. I’m talking about the important points scored. For instance, no show or movie or book that I’m aware of has ever before made so plain, so accessible, the way people with disabilities can be exploited just to make other people look and feel good (“inspiration porn”), or how some disabled folks occasionally take advantage of other’s pity to gain perks. Stuff like that.

Zach Anner Brings Humor

But “Speechless” isn’t the only disability icon for today’s young crip. I’ve just finished reading a funny memoir by comedian Zach Anner. It’s called If At Birth You Don’t Succeed. My daughter introduced me to Anner’s numerous YouTube clips, which are hilarious. Apparently he also had a short-lived series on Oprah’s OWN cable channel. The humor may at times be sophomoric, but scattered throughout the book and videos are important messages about the assumptions people make where disabilities are concerned–assumptions Anner finds annoying but often deconstructs till they become springboards for comic skewering. In his mind, bad attitudes and obstacles become the raw stuff of satire. I particularly like the YouTube clip about attempting to ride New York’s mostly inaccessible subways in search of the perfect bagel.

In his book, Anner is pretty frank about how he’s always used humor as a defense mechanism. But he never lets his story become overly sentimental. At no point is this a clinical examination. Rather, it’s a story of how a young entertainer found his place in the world.

“Not So Different…” talks to kids

Similarly, the popular blogger Shane Burcaw has an uproarious memoir out about his young life (he’s still in his early 20s) called Laughing At My Nightmare (Square Fish Books). Burcaw has spinal muscular atrophy and runs a nonprofit that raises money to help others with similar disabilities pay for vans and ramps and wheelchairs and such. The book is a fairly straightforward autobiography, aimed at a young adult audience. This November his new book, Not So Different: What You Really Want to Ask About Having a Disability (Roaring Brook Press), will be out. I’ve had an opportunity to read an advance copy. It’s aimed at children, with amusing photographs of Burcaw in his wheelchair, interacting with friends and family. And it’s sure to be a winner with kids and their parents. (Full disclosure: I had a very small hand in editing this book.)

To be sure, offensive stereotypes about disability are still easy to find. TV’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show” is rife with examples. Movie villains today often have limps or prosthetic limbs or facial scars. In fact, the stereotype of the disfigured villain is so ingrained in our culture that any current example can almost be taken as an homage to the monstrous villains of an earlier era. Think of the Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Phantom of the Opera, and you’ll get the idea.

Not to mention the whole idea of the “psycho killer,” equating mental illness with a mark of the demon. Psychological disabilities often get the worst wrap of all.

But my point is not to list the numerous offensive images of people with disabilities, nor the dearth of adequate role models or fair representation. Rather, it’s just that, when you start noticing, you realize there are examples of people with disabilities throughout the media. The difference now, though, is that some writers, directors, producers, and other creative types are actually trying to right the wrongs of the past. Some of the modern-day portrayals are actually promising, accurate, and fair-minded.

When you see a portrayal of disability that you either like or don’t like, please do let the publishers and producers and writers know. How else can we hope for continued improvement? Let the industry know that there is an audience who cares, and a valid market for non-ablest portrayals.

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