Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Television Characters with Disabilities

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.  

Timmy & Jimmy, South Park. (not related) This may be an odd choice, since the cartoon tends to make fun of everything in the world. And, Timmy & Jimmy may not be portrayed in the best light. However, at the same time, the characters do give a little light as to 4th grade disabled children. Timmy has mental and physical disabilities, including having a very limited vocabulary (less than ten words, I believe). His exact condition has not yet been mentioned. One reason I included him is because South Park struggled to get him on televison - Comedy Central wasn't sure how their audiences would respond to a character with cognitive disabilities. Jimmy is added later. He stutters and has a muscular disorder that requires him to use crutches to move. His parents blame themselves, thinking that their child is disabled because they used to make fun of disabled people. Jimmy has a very positive outlook on life, his peers often come to him for advice, and he is actively trying to create his future as a stand-up comedian. He also competed in the Special Olympics (though he did have a steroid problem, but that's a separate issue).

Corky Thatcher, Life Goes On. Many people remember Corky as the first major television character to have Down Syndrome. The show began with Corky struggling to enter mainstream high school, having been in special classes up until then. His parents fight for him, counsel others with Down Syndrome children, and face various issues because of their children (though only Corky has Down Syndrome, Becca falls for a guy with HIV, Paige deals with commitment issues, and they have new baby Nick in the middle of the series). They even lose out on a restaurant because the owner felt Corky would lower business. Corky deals with finding a job (he becomes an usher at a movie theater), having a girlfriend (and then wife), and wanting a baby, among other things. The show didn't have the best wrap-up, but it may be assumed that Corky went on to lead a life like he wanted, albeit near his parents and others who could keep an eye on him.

Artie Abrams, Glee. Perhaps the most popular disabled character currently on television, Artie is a paraplegic who uses a manual wheelchair. Artie wasn't born disabled but was in a car accident when he was eight that injured his spinal cord. Artie is played by an able-bodied actor, and that has been the source of criticism from many. Although it is a younger show, we've already had several plotlines devoted to Artie and his disability, like how he needed to come to terms with the fact that his dream of becoming a dancer would need to be altered. He also deals with the same things that the other teens are encountering - from his first kiss to his first intercourse. 

Martin Crane, Frasier. Marty was able-bodied for most of his life. He only became disabled when he was shot in the hip while on duty as a policeman, in his late fifties or very early sixties. However, he walked with a cane before Frasier began, and for the entire run of the show - he did not regain full use of his leg. While it's a minor disability to some, it drives a good deal of Martin's storylines on the show. The entire reason that his character exists is because he became unable to live alone, so Frasier takes him in. And, his disability is the reason that Daphne's character is there, too. She began as a home healthcare worker, to help Martin with his physical therapy, among other things. We see Martin's cane affect his love life, we see him go to the hearing for his shooter's parole, and we hear him talk about how his lifestyle changed. 

Joe Swanson, Family Guy. Joe has a successful career as a policeman. He has a loving wife and a young daughter, along with plenty of friends. His son died in Iraq. If there's a disabled character on television who does everything that those around him do, it's Joe. Of course, he is animated, but he still goes waterskiing, takes out the trash, and fights crime, among other things. It's unclear how he came to be in a wheelchair, as one episode shows him falling off a roof fighting the Grinch, but others show him much younger and still in a wheelchair. Joe isn't completely a great guy, and suffers from anger management issues, which sometimes surface as a result of him being unable to do some everyday tasks.

Dr. Kerry Weaver, ER. Kerry was on ER for twelve years, first appearing as Chief Resident and eventually becoming Chief of Staff at County General. Kerry has a limp that causes her to need a forearm crutch to get around. She was very secretive about her personal life, in fear of discrimination. It is later revealed that Kerry was adopted, and she feared that she was given up for adoption because of her disability, congential hip dysplasia. Turns out, her birthmom (who Kerry meets in Season 11) knew nothing of the disability, but remains distant to Kerry because Kerry was openly lesbian by that point. Kerry suffers a miscarriage, her partner births a son, and Kerry fights for custody after Sandy dies. Notably, she has surgery to aid her hip dysplasia in Season 12, and later appears to move around without needing the crutch. Although she was an ambitious and professional doctor, Kerry leaves the series to go into news reporting in Miami.

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. 

Stevie Kenarban, Malcolm in the Middle. Stevie is Malcolm's best friend, though they aren't always on the same side on things. Stevie uses a wheelchair, but also has a pulmonary issue that causes him to only be able to speak a few words between breaths. He's in accelerated classes with Malcolm, and they share an interest in comic books. He keeps up with the other kids, going to fairgrounds and into sewers, and flirts with girls just like Malcolm and Reese. When his parents divorce he turns to a computer to speak for him, though that doesn't last forever. All in all, Stevie is well-adjusted, even using his wheelchair to his advantage in getting attention and enacting revenge.

Gregory House, House. As with Martin, House was born without a disability. However, when he was around forty he ended up requiring surgery, and before long he suffered from muscle death in his leg. Much of that muscle was then removed, leaving him hobbling around, his leg unable to bear weight. However, while Martin was ultimately able to accept life with a cane, House does not. Throughout the series he tries multiple things to regain use of his leg. And, all the while, he deals with a Vicodin addiction, a divorce, and various legal troubles that stem from his negative attitude toward life because of his leg. While it's not clear that House was ever a "nice guy," it is implied multiple times that he became embittered following the loss of use of his leg, and that is the drive behind every move he now makes.

Tom Bowman, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. We have not yet learned too much about Tom's childhood, other than the fact that the Bowmans adopted him. Tom has Down Syndrome. When the show began, Tom was already done with school, but didn't appear to have much of a life, though he lives at home. Though only 67 episodes have aired thus far, we have seen Tom think about life in a larger way several times. Tom longed for a girlfriend, had one, but she eventually left him and is now married to someone else. He also tried to solicit a prostitute, but that didn't work out. Then, Tom got a job, though I'm still not sure that anyone realizes what it is he truly does... he's supposed to be in charge of firing people for the city, but everyone who comes into his office ends up quitting instead. Now, Tom is in search of another girlfriend, and has moved into his mother's guesthouse to become more independent, and he has started taking the bus to work, rather than relying on his sister and her friends.

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.
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Katie said...

Glee also has Becky with Down Syndrome

Amy K. Bredemeyer said...

good point, Katie! I've only seen one episode with Becky so I kinda forgot about her.

Hope said...

Joan of Arcadia had Kevin, he was in a wheelchair and paralized after being in a car crash where his best friend was driving drunk.

Anonymous said...

Mary and Adam on Little House on the Prairie, along with Jimmy on Degrassi the Next Generation are some more examples.

polyanna said...

k if i remember correctly almost every soap opera has had a disabled character for at least a season or 2 as a side character. No I can't name them all but I know general hospital had at least Alan Quatermain (a main Character) deal with nearve ddammage and loss of fine motor controle in his hands for at least 2 years. his dad was in a wheelchair from the early 80's when i started watching till they had the character finally die of old age after the elderly actor got ill and no longer felt he could work. there have been others as well though prime time may never have as many at least it seems to be trying to include them some.