Several television series debuting this fall will feature an unprecedented number of lead characters with disabilities or severe medical conditions, a welcome advance that many disability advocates hope will dispel stereotypes and spotlight disability issues.
Blair Underwood as Ironside
Photo courtesy of NBC
A new version of “Ironside,” which will star Blair Underwood as a detective in a wheelchair, will debut Oct. 2 on NBC. The original “Ironside,” starring Raymond Burr, debuted nearly a half-century ago, in 1967.
Other series debuting this fall include “The Michael J. Fox Show,” premiering Sept. 26 on NBC, a fictional series that will make a character out of the famed actor’s Parkinson’s disease, and “Mind Games,” premiering mid-season on ABC, where Steve Zahn plays a bipolar man who, along with is brother, run a firm that helps solve clients’ problems using psychological manipulation. NBC also has slated “Growing Up Fisher,” a comedy featuring J.K. Simmons as a blind man who does not let his disability slow him down, for mid-season.
Television commercial breaks also are sure to continue the focus on disability issues. A new advertisement by Guinness (below) depicts a wheelchair basketball team playing a rigorous and intense game. It is not until the end that the viewer realizes that just one of the players is actually paralyzed, after which the beer company inserts the tagline: “Dedication, loyalty, friendship: the choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.”
The commercial, which now has nearly 2 million hits on YouTube, combined with the fall television lineup, signals a demystification of disabilities in society, said Sherman Gillums, associate director of veterans benefits for Paralyzed Veterans of America.
"Because a lot of people have taken to the commercial, it says something about where we are as a society as far as disability is concerned,” Gillums said. “We have so many disabled veterans in front of us, and we can’t avoid looking at them. We can’t just turn away; we have to deal with how many of these men and women are disfigured and still trying to live their lives.”
In 2010, NBC Universal cosponsored with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy a Hollywood Summit that brought together representatives from the entertainment and disability advocacy communities called Lights, Camera, Access – A Call to Action. The goal was to discuss strategies for improving representation of individuals with disabilities both in front of and behind the camera.
“Given the network’s early attention to this topic, it is not surprising that these new television shows would debut on NBC,” said Susan Prokop, associate advocacy director at Paralyzed Veterans of America. “However, while most disability advocates will applaud the ‘Michael J. Fox Show,’ they would no doubt ask why the producers of the new ‘Ironside’ were unable to find an actual wheelchair user to fill that role.”
That is the question that has many disability advocates scratching their heads. Of the actors featured in the shows premiering this fall, Michael J. Fox appears to be the only actor who actually has the disability he will portray. And even despite these welcome advances, individuals with disabilities still remain underrepresented on television in comparison to real life.
David Fowler, national vice president of Paralyzed Veterans of America, contended that while he understands Hollywood’s quest to draw an audience with big-name actors, he believes the producers of “Ironside” specifically could have found a number of qualified actors living with spinal cord injury or disease to play the lead role.
Still, the key to dispelling stereotypes about individuals with disabilities will show in whether able-bodied actors like Underwood accurately depict the characters they portray, Fowler said. The movie “Avatar,” for example, featured able-bodied actor Sam Worthington playing a Marine veteran and paraplegic, yet he did not use a specialized cushion in his wheelchair – a detail too easily noticed by many Paralyzed Veterans members, Fowler said.
“It’s important for Underwood to be as accurate as possible in his portrayal as someone who has spinal cord injury or disease simply because the community of people with disabilities will focus and catch on to the little mistakes he makes,” Fowler said. “I really think it’s critical that he does the role and gets it right.”
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.