The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Four Ways To Do It Right

This post contains minor spoilers for West Wing, Joan of Arcadia, Girls with Slingshots, and the first Twilight movie.

I get asked all the time to evaluate some work or another on whether or not it does disability “right”. This is a bit of a problem, of course - despite having opinions (a lot of them, according to someone in my thesis course), I haven’t always seen the work in question. Also, my tastes don’t run mainstream - if I’ve liked a movie, it probably tanked at the box office, and not because it was arty and pretentious. (I liked Last Action Hero. And Push. These are not deep movies, nor are they terribly good, and I think they both fail on every -ism you can imagine. I have no idea why I liked them, either.)

There’s also the problem that I shouldn’t be the final arbitrator of what is “good” and “right”. We didn’t all get together, have an election, and vote me the go-to person on disability representation. But, I have opinions, express them loudly and all over the place, and so people want to pick my brain. I get it.

After a few times of being asked what made disability in pop culture look “right” to me, I made a short list. This list isn’t about acting (two of the actors in the shows I praise are currently non-disabled), but on writing and presentation.

1. Characters with disabilities have storylines and backgrounds beyond their disability.

I haven’t seen all of West Wing, but I did watch a lot of episodes featuring Joey Lucas. Basically, she was a pollster brought in to discuss polling-related things with the President’s team. She was played by Martlee Matlin, and thus, like Matlin, is deaf. Which the show managed to never make a very big deal of.

Oh, sure, Lucas often had a ‘terp with her, and you can’t miss that Matlin has the so-called deaf accent. But there was never a Very Special Episode where we learned about what it was like for Lucas to be deaf. Instead, there were references to Lucas’ religious background, she had sexual tension with one of the main characters, she had a history, she was respected for her skills, etc, etc, etc. Basically, Joey Lucas lived her life as part of the lives of people associated with the West Wing.

It’s almost like she was a fully-developed character, rather than a one-note opportunity for “diversity”.

2. If you’re writing a character that has a sudden disability caused by accident or illness, they’re not the only person who needs to adjust.

It’s always convenient to write a character who has no family and no history, just “car accident, now in wheelchair”, but it’s pretty much the most unrealistic thing I can think of. The way Joan of Arcadia handled this was much better.

In short: Kevin Girardi was the golden-boy of his family, with a sports scholarship and a college (maybe pro?) career ahead of him. Then, he was in a car accident. The show (which focuses on his younger sister, Joan) starts 18 months later, and the family dynamics are painfully realistic. Kevin’s father is awkward and just wants everything to go away, so he pretends that nothing’s changed, just that Kevin now has to do everything seated. Kevin’s mom is determined to learn Everything About Disability Ever and is constantly pushing Kevin to Be More and Do More, regardless of how Kevin feels about things. His younger brother is bitter that Kevin went from getting the bulk of the attention because he was the golden boy to getting the bulk of the attention because of his disability. His younger sister seems to be okay, but since Joan’s the main character, her reactions get to be a bit more complex. To say nothing of the nuances of Kevin’s reactions.

The family dynamics were so true to Don’s experience (although he was born with Marfan’s Syndrome, he was diagnosed with it at 5 - the same year his father was diagnosed with incurable cancer) that we actually had to take a break from watching the show rather than push through the DVD set.

A sudden disability caused by accident or disease isn’t just going to produce one person who has difficulty adjusting to the new situation. Friends and family will also need to adjust, and including that adjustment for everyone gives your story a lot more depth and nuance.

3. If you’re writing disability jokes, the butt of the joke doesn’t have to be the disability.

I’m not actually a fan of Girls with Slingshots and thus haven’t read the whole run, but I did read the recent wedding-related storyline because it featured two new ‘bit’ characters: Soo Lin, who is blind, and Melody, who is deaf. (Sadly, the strips don’t seem to have a transcript that I can find. I’ve written up a transcript for the relevant strips.) [Soo Lin’s first appearance] [Melody’s first appearance]

What I like about the jokes in this strip are that they’re all over the place. Some are about how clueless people can be about blindness. Some are disability-related humour as told by people with disabilities. I think my favourite is this joke about getting a bad ‘terp. There are others, of course.

The jokes are all based around disability, sure. But the jokes aren’t “ha ha ha, look at the crippled person having difficulties getting around!” And at no point is the humour about a very special lesson for anyone else. Soo Lin and Melody are part of the joke, they aren’t the butt of it.

4. A spotlight is not necessary.

There’s this one 5-second scene in the first Twilight movie. I remember it vividly: Jacob (one of Bella’s love interests) and Billy drive up to see Bella and her father, Charlie. Billy’s driving. They park. Without any comment or making a big deal out of it, Jacob gets Billy’s wheelchair out of the back of the pick-up truck, Billy gets into the wheelchair, and the fathers go inside to watch the game while the teenagers talk.

This is, seriously, my favourite scene in any movie I’ve watched in the past two years. There’s no dramatics! There’s no gasp in shock! There’s no “Hey, how is this dude driving when he’s in a wheelchair!” There’s no LOOK LOOK! at how edgy we’re being by having a disabled character!” There’s just… life. As it is.

I haven’t read the Twilight books, so I don’t know how disability was treated there, and I haven’t seen the new movie, so I don’t know if it continues, but I really felt they got it right.

This list isn’t exhaustive, by any means. Word limits mean I can’t go on my rant about research being your friend, or the suggestion that people who want to write a character with a disability actually spend some time talking to multiple people with that disability (since not everyone has the same experience - shocking, I know). I also can’t get into stories that focus on the person with a disability rather than how hard it is for the currently non-disabled to cope. But I hope this gives people an idea of what a “good” work with disability can look like.

What are some of your favourite examples of “good” presentations of disability in media & pop culture?

by Anna Pearce
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

I think Friday Night Lights

I think Friday Night Lights did a fairly good job with Jason Street's arc for the first couple of seasons, even getting into some of the time he spent in rehab following his injury and how difficult the transition back home was for him.

some of my favorites

You are so right on. There are lots of movies I love about the "disability experience" but you know that the entire point of the movie is about disability. Nowadays, I'm much more interested in seeing characters with disabilities in mainstream films and TV. I'm desperately trying to think of characters like this I've seen recently but apparently I remember bad examples more often than good ones.

I just finished Twilight and the book handled Billy's use of a wheelchair in the same way as the film does- a simple fact of life.


Lou, what are some of your favourite movies about disability?

Daryl "Chill" Mitchell

I never watched the show "Ed", but I read recently that when Daryl "Chill" Mitchell was in a motorcycle accident and subsequently lost the use of his legs, the producers rewrote the character he was playing to use a wheelchair also.

Just a few days ago, I saw "Chill" starring in a new sitcom called "Brothers", in which his character and his brother, an ex-football star, co-own and operate a sports bar/restaurant together. I didn't quite catch why they both still live with their parents (yes, I watch crappy television when I'm in a bad mood. Don't judge me).

In the episode I caught, the two made a bet over whether the non-disabled brother could survive for one week in wheelchair. Did anyone else see this show? The whole episode was about Mike's struggles to learn to do what Chill does apparently effortlessly. In true After School Special style, Mike lost the bet, and Chill remained the long-suffering, supercrip who teaches everybody else a valuable lesson. At the same time, it *was* educational for viewers, showing that people who use wheelchairs also do things like wear normal clothes, make bets with their brothers, flirt with people, and even have sex.


I dislike those sorts of episodes. I know what they're trying to accomplish, and I really think they go about them in the wrong way.

I do think there's stuff to be said about people using wheelchairs for a day or a week and getting a real sense of what accessibility barriers there are in every day, even with the US's Americans with Disabilities Act, and the equivalent legislation or requests in other countries. I was aware that Halifax was bad for accessibility before Don got the wheelchair, but it really drove it home once we realized we couldn't go to most of our favourite places with it - just one step, after all!

But <em>of course</em> it's difficult for someone who's not used a wheelchair before to have difficulties doing a lot of things the first week. The first week Don had his big electric chair he crashed it into walls, had tons of difficulties getting over curb cuts, and every time the thing started to tip backwards - <em>like it's supposed to!</em> - I would try and catch it from behind. As though I'm going to be able to catch a 224 lb electric wheelchair and the 245 lb man using it.

I think these sorts of episodes present having a disability as a lot worse than it actually is, because it focuses on the experience of the able-bodied person having difficulties that aren't the same ones that someone who was a regular wheelchair user would have.

*shrug* I haven't seen the episode - here I am critiquing pop culture and I've been so busy I haven't had any time to watch much. I can't really speak to how it's been handled there, but it sounds like the show could show all of those things without doing "let's put the able-bodied brother in a chair for a week!"

PS: No judging of watching shows here! When I can't sleep, I hunt down old episodes of the NKOTB cartoon. ;)

Degrassi: TNG

A question to Anna_Palindrome: Have you ever reviewed Degrassi: The Next Generation? Aubrey Graham played Jimmy Brooks who was paralyzed in a school shooting during season four. Just wondered what your thoughts were.

This is wonderful. Thank you.

This is wonderful. Thank you.

No, woe :(

I've not watched the next generation of Degrassi. What can you tell me about the presentation?

Sure. Jimmy Brookes was a

Sure. Jimmy Brookes was a star basketball player at Degrassi until he was paralyzed in a school shooting. Most episodes that touched on his disability were his experiences with wheelchair basketball, the frustrations with the physical elements of his relationships, and when he decides to get stem cell implantations. The character that plays Jimmy is Aubrey Graham, who is not disabled.

Sounds interesting,

Sounds interesting, Sarah_Mac. How do you think it was handled?

I ask because a lot of it is very subjective. Did you think the point was Very Special Lesson territory, or was it just "Here's a story that involves this person"?

Gosh, it's been so long since I watched any Degrassi. I remember the Very Big Deal with one of the twins got pregnant in Degrasi High.


I was gonna post on this

yay West Wing!

Joey Lucas is one of my favorite "side" characters on the West Wing. I agree that the way they handled it was excellent (like most aspects of that show!). I don't know if you saw this episode, but there was one where...


... Josh tries to go ask her out and finds that she is already having a sexual relationship with someone else (a peripheral character) -- specifically, he knocks on her hotel door and she's in a slip, and the other man can be seen in the background. I liked that part because it established her as a (gasp!) sexual being, someone who can sleep with whomever she chooses, without tokenizing it or anything. Points for feminism and disability!

That is one of the first

That is one of the first episodes I saw. I'm a huge Marlee Matlin fan (and yet, have not seen Children of a Lesser God. I fail at movies, forever), and that totally got me into the show.

And yes! All of that! :)

I loved Matilde, the heroine

I loved Matilde, the heroine of A Very Long Engagement; she's always our hero, very definitely a sexual being, and often uses the fact that people pity her for her wheelchair to wheedle information out of them for her investigation. And there's some interesting social commentary--her wheelchair options improve vastly after WWI, when veterans have become a big market. (The book is set in the 1910s & 1920s.) I was disappointed that in the film they got rid of her wheelchair and gave her a limp.

Have you read the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series? Some very interesting use of disabilities, especially learning disabilities, in that YA series (basically an American answer to Harry Potter, which has sold very very well among the tween reader set). It's about to be made into a film, too. And Elizabeth E. Wein has a great essay analyzing the use of disability in that series ("Not Even the Gods Are Perfect") in the collection Demigods and Monsters.

The other disabled hero who comes to mind is Miles Vorkosigan of Lois MacMaster Bujold's series; he's a charismatic hero, but it's been so long since I read any I can't comment on how his disabilities are treated.

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