Thursday, May 16, 2013

Disability TV icons

Some thirty years ago Geri Jewell made TV history. She was a comedienne with Cerebral Palsy who landed a recurring role on American prime-time sitcom, "Facts of Life". Apparently there was some talk to have her part expanded, but it never materialized. Some say, her presence made viewers think it was going to be another "very special episode" where characters in a very popular trend for 1980's television were faced with some then current social or health problem. I believe Jewell herself later explained that she had problems with her agents. I didn't know of her when the show aired in America, I was 4, maybe 5 at the time and it wasn't shown in Poland. When I was 12, I would watch the show on British channel Sky One, every day. It was one of my favorite things on TV and by watching it (and Diff'rent Strokes, Bewitched, Mr Ed and I few others) I've learnt to speak English. Quite honestly, I didn't not read about the impact Geri Jewell had, or might have had on television and pop culture. I wasn't really thinking about it until recently, when we started following each other on Twitter. Her story obviously hits close to home. She may not be in a wheelchair, but like I she has Cerebral Palsy. But think about this. This was thirty years ago. So many things have happened, so much time have pass. Still, Geri Jewell and her role on "Facts of life" is about the only example that people can think of- if they can think of one- of an actor with a disability present in our pop culture. We talk about awareness, we talk about inclusion. We have passed the ADA. Still, decades later- we don't really see individuals with disabilities rolling up the red carpet or gracing our TV screens. And I don't mean just my disability.Pretty much any physical condition  would do. Don't we have actors with disabilities? Have we  made no progress at all? Yes, we have characters with disabilities on TV popping up from time to time. They are played by able-bodied actors, so that when it's convenient, they can get over it, jump out of that chair and do a fully choreographed staging of "Safety Dance". The actor who plays Artie on Glee is apparently the best dancer of them all. I know I've touched on this before, but I find it odd, how they make him stay in the wheelchair for all the live performances and interviews if he doesn't really need it. Yes, I know they all stay in character, but it still feels like it's cheapening the concept. For me, a wheelchair is a device, an accessory that I use- not by choice. But I'm fine with how I am, and I'm happy with my life. And I always said that perceptions of disabilities will change through pop culture. Why is having a disability still such a big deal? The more we see something, the more "normal" it becomes in my mind. The more accomplished, successful people in wheelchairs, on crutches, with limp you see, the more likely it is that message gets through, that we are not all depressed, sad and lonely praying for cures all day long. To get there we need to see diversity- also in terms of mobility. I'm bringing this issue again for a reason. Michael J. Fox, another 1980's icon who has developed Parkinson's since his days on "Family Ties" returns to TV this Fall with his new show. I expect it to be hailed as a breakthrough and iconic like Jewell's role was. In fact I hear that it was already picked up for a second season without airing a single episode. Perhaps I can forgive NBC for cancelling Smash, just because of this (Although probably not- Save Smash!), but I hope that this opportunity will not be wasted, and that it will pave the way for more personalities with disabilities in our media

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