We’re here, we’re disabled, get used to it!

So, kudos, I guess, to Saturday Night Live for hiring their first token black female! From what I read, the casting call was not for a talented female actor, but for a black female. So, the hire was based first on gender/race, with talent second. I have not seen her (I stopped watching when SNL stopped being funny), so I cannot comment on her funnitude. But it did make me wonder, when will they hire their first token disabled actor? Disabled people are funny (and not just to watch). There’s Josh Blue, and Teal Sherer of My Gimpy Life. Even DJ Qualls, who plays a guy with MD on Legit, or Kevin McHale (the wheelchair guy on Glee). Sure, these actors aren’t really disabled, like RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad. There’s plenty more, I’m sure. I find myself wondering why there are never (NEVER) any wheelers in TV commercials. Don’t wheelers go to McDonald’s? (Not if they’re smart.) Don’t wheelers eat Cheerios, or Doritos, or drink Coke, Mt. Dew, Bud Light Lime or tequila? Is the American public so offended by, or scared of, or disgusted by people in wheelchairs that no advertiser in their right mind would cast one? Sure, Ironside was (very) briefly interesting (so brief I can’t even find a good link!), and I understand why it was cancelled after only three episodes – it was just another stupid cop show, and don’t we have more than enough of those? Maybe people didn’t like the scene of him getting physically angry at his disability. Maybe he wasn’t funny. Maybe people don’t like seeing angry black men with guns, or people in wheelchairs having sex (WTF, they can DO that?). I would have liked to see the show last a little longer to allow for the character to develop. And while it was way cool to see him, in the first episode, in an $800 Roughrider wheelchair, those three episodes did not even begin to explore the basic difficulties of life in a wheelchair.

When I watch TV, I see sit-coms and dramas and even commercials bend over backward to include people of different genders, races, sizes and nationalities. But no attempt is EVER made to include people with disabilities, with a half-handful of exceptions (please correct me if I’m wrong). Millions of Americans depend on wheelchairs, canes, and other assistive devices every day. That’s a lot of people. Why do we never see them on TV? I’m not necessarily looking for feature roles (tho that would be nice, especially if they are played by actual disabled people), but it would be enough for me to see a customer roll into a cell phone store or a restaurant or at home discussing breakfast cereals. Just a regular scene with an actor who happens to be in a wheelchair. It would be nice to see people like me. There is a new stock photo agency, PhotoAbility, that specializes in images of people with disabilities. There’s not much there yet, but it’s a huge step in the right direction. Pro Infirmis went so far as to assemble a collection of store mannequins based on real people with physical disabilities, and actually placed them in department store windows. (You GOTTA see the video!).

I think the reason advertisers are so careful to diversify their actors with people of different colors, genders and sizes is that viewers need to identify with the people who are telling them what beer to drink or product to buy. Not to mention that there are probably laws requiring them to do it. But I NEVER see anyone like me – never see a guy in a wheelchair sharing a beer with buddies in a bar (with the notable exception of this Guinness ad, which made me thirsty!), or bellying up to the salad bar at Olive Garden. Why is that? Some people have said that it doesn’t make a difference if the wheeler is REALLY disabled. But it does. The same way it would be odd and even offensive if female characters were played by men in drag, or if Ironside had been played by a white actor in blackface. (Can you imagine the backlash?) Why hire a black female actor for SNL? Why not get a guy in blackface drag?

All I’m sayin’, in the end, is that I think it is high time for diversity on TV to include people of disability. And not able-bodied actors pretending to be disabled (I get it why Ironside was played by an able actor, to allow for “flashbacks” from before he was shot by his partner.) I was so excited to see that Guinness ad, and to watch what few little bits of the Paralympics managed to squeeze onto television. I find those few brief glimpses both empowering and affirming. For the same reasons people of different ethic, gender, and orientation types are happy to see people like themselves in popular culture. It’s our turn.


Author: Stephen

Stephen Harris is a writer, painter and a photographer who lives with his family in Maine.

One thought on “We’re here, we’re disabled, get used to it!”

  1. I have seen a few “background” people in wheelchairs, but I’m not sure what was being advertised. I’m glad you brought up this subject — I hadn’t given it much thought before.

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