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On The Soapbox About Soaps and Other Shows

Editor's Note: Devon Wilkins is President of the NFB:AE Collingwood Chapter, and Monika Penner is the NFB:AE Office Coordinator and is responsible for magazine layout and production.

If you're a fan of the Young and the Restless, you may recall that a few years ago Nikki Newman met with an accident while horseback riding, and suffered through months of back pain. Surgery would relieve her pain, to be sure, but there was a substantial risk that it would leave her paralyzed. Nikki talked ad nauseam to anyone and everyone who would listen about how hopeless her future would be if she was forced to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Did anyone remind her of the contributions to society being made by people who happen to use wheelchairs, or the active lives that many wheelchair users lead? Of course not.

On another occasion, Victor, Nikki's on-again, off-again husband, also met with an accident, and was taken to a farm in Kansas that was owned by a blind woman named Hope. After wooing her away from her boyfriend, Victor took Hope back to Genoa City, Wisconsin, where they married and had a son. But when she refused the surgery that Victor was sure would miraculously give her the sight she never had, Victor abandoned her for Nikki, and Hope left the show.

Did anyone bother to point out that Hope was functioning very well, thank you very much, as someone who happened to be blind, and that perhaps she was happy just the way she was? Of course not.

Then there was the episode of "E.R." in which Ben Hollander, played by Bob Newhart, put a gun to his head because of the frustration he was experiencing while trying to adjust to a life with macular degeneration. The episode sparked outrage among people working in the field of vision loss because macular degeneration is now the leading cause of blindness among seniors.

Could it be that there was a turnover in the production staff of "E.R."? After all, Dr. Carrie Weaver, who happens to use a quad cane, was with the show almost from day one, and Jeannie, a nurse with AIDS, worked at the hospital for months before her disease became public knowledge. In addition, the deaf son of Dr. Peter Benton made numerous appearances, sign language and all.

However, despite considerable progress made in film and television's inclusion of some marginalized groups, such as African-Americans/Canadians and gays and lesbians, people with disabilities remain one of the most under- and misrepresented groups in the industry.

Even though it is estimated that one in four viewers has a disability or knows someone who does, people with disabilities are virtually non-existent or portrayed in inaccurate, stereotypical or uni-dimensional ways.

According to the British Film Institute, "From the first silent movies, where disabled people featured as figures of fun, evil or pity, to the present day, when non-disabled [or temporarily able-bodied] actors portray disabled characters [which is akin to the old days of 'white' actors painting their faces and playing African-Americans], moving image media have failed to show the reality of disabled persons' lives."

Media critics argue that people with disabilities are often portrayed as flat, single issue characters, rather than as whole and complex human beings. Says BBC Director of Television, Janet Bennett, "We recognize that the widest possible range of voices, people and characters should be seen on our screens, and that disabled people need to be shown less as minorities with issues and problems and more as people with lives as rich and complex as the rest of society."

Similarly, people with disabilities are often relegated to programs that focus specifically on disability issues, rather than being integrated into a wide range of shows and films. Says Alka Johnson, celebrity researcher and booker, who also happens to use a wheelchair, "I noticed that there were very few disabled presenters on television and they were [only] talking about disability issues. I decided to get on the telephone and ask why there weren't disabled presenters talking about fashion, gardening, etc. The response was always nice and sympathetic but nobody was doing anything."

People with disabilities are further marginalized on-screen through persistent stereotypes; these include the "pathetic and pitiable disabled person" (usually weak, helpless, and an object of pity), and the "super-crip" who triumphs over tragedy and/or is considered courageous just because he or she lives with a disability. (The "super-crip" is similar to the patronizing "credit-to-the-race" angle used in stories involving African-Americans.)

Perhaps the only way to ensure that people with disabilities are represented more accurately and consistently in television and film is to have better representation of disabled people behind the scenes, in the industry itself. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Attitudinal barriers by employers have been a major factor in the staggeringly high unemployment rates faced by people with disabilities, and particularly persons who are blind or deaf-blind.

That said, some producers are taking a more proactive role in ensuring a more diverse and inclusive workforce. "Channel Four" in Britain has a specialty database that contains detailed qualifications and experience of over 600 persons with disabilities available for work in television, including directors, producers, presenters, actors, writers and web designers; the BBC has a similar internal database that contains a wide range of people from diverse groups willing to work or appear in television. Currently, there are some 1,000 people with disabilities listed.

So all hope is not lost, and some progress is being made, although not at the rate expected of the 21st century. That said, the disability community--like other groups--does not unanimously agree on which representations are accurate and/or progressive.

For instance, many members of the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality (NFB:AE), a consumer group of blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted Canadians, and other disability rights advocates protested the "E.R." episode, arguing that the "death is better than disability" message (which has even been perpetuated by organizations serving disabled people in order to increase funding) is both dangerous and demeaning. However, some individuals within the blind community defended the content (although not necessarily the manner in which it was presented), stating that lack of support and information combined with sudden vision loss can be very traumatic, and that acknowledgement of this issue informs the public of the necessity of such services as the NFB:AE Mentorship Program.

Whether or not the intention of "E.R." was to educate its audience is debatable; similarly, what message the average viewer actually got from such a show is also up in the air (although we certainly have our own conclusions). However, this example illustrates the very legitimate concerns of disability rights advocates in an increasingly inaccessible world.

Regardless of whether members of the television or film industries are sincerely interested in issues of diversity and justice, they would be wise to listen up. People with disabilities are an increasingly significant part of media audiences, and programs that alienate or offend will be turned off in favour of those that do not. And advertising money goes with the audience--whoever they may be.

After all, having a disability is as much a part of everyday life as having carrot-coloured hair. Writers, producers and directors need to catch up with the 21st century, and make people with disabilities as much a part of the gang as Sue Thomas is on the series, "Sue Thomas, FBI".