by Amy K. Bredemeyer
I got the idea for this post about a month ago, when I was surfing the internet. I came across an article on Geri Jewell, who was the first disabled person to have a recurring role on a television series. And, while I knew that she had cerebral palsy when she played Blair's cousin Geri on The Facts of Life, I did not know that she was the first disabled person have such a role. I started watching the show when I was fairly young, and remember being fascinated with how different Geri was, yet how normal she was treated much of the time. Of course, like many children of average ability, my exposure to those different from myself was pretty limited. Unfortunately, while I have learned about dozens of disabilities through meeting people over the years, many people don't know much about different issues that others cope with. Television doesn't help... there is a severe lack of attention paid to the disabled.
This post was difficult to create for two reasons... first, there are not that many disabled characters that I know of on television. Some basic searching pretty much confirms that fact. The second reason is that many of the disabled "characters" appear on reality-type shows (um, TLC much?), and I decided that it's too difficult to narrow down all of those characters. There are a half-dozen dwarfs alone that have had substantial coverage on the network (and not just the Roloffs on Little People, Big World). Another problem I found is that there are characters "written off" once they become disabled. Like Shane West's character from ER... after an accident leaves him a double-amputee, he pretty much left the show, though we do see him guest with prosthetic limbs. So, the list compiled below focuses on characters that are regulars, have disabilities of one sort or another, and are non-reality programs. This actually means that I left Geri Tyler from The Facts of Life off this list, since she only appeared in twelve episodes over three years. And, the first entry is really a two-in-one.
Jake Malinak, Becker. Jake is a blind man who sells newspapers in The Bronx. He's the best friend of the main character on the show. He gets taken advantage of on more than one occasion, notably when his girlfriend of two and a half years takes all of his possessions and moves away. He's also robbed at gunpoint. Jake grew up sighted, only becoming blind due to a car accident that wasn't too long before the show began. The friend that caused the accident shows up at one point, begging forgiveness. One of the shorter storylines involves Jake contemplating the idea of breaking up with a girlfriend because she is also blind. His disability often causes him to question his actions, such as when he accidentally held the door open for a bank robber. He is an excellent Scrabble player, and when the show ends, his character moves to Chicago to go to college.
So, who's missing? I'm honestly intrigued to find out more about how television is portraying people of all ages with disabilities. With Switched at Birth premiering next month, bringing an actress with degenerative hearing loss playing a deaf characer to the small screen, I hope that next season finds a few more disabled characters to television.