Three years ago in Disability Thinking ...
Two Down, One To Go
February 9, 2014
Three years ago, it looked like we might be seeing a boom in disability on TV. Three shows premiered in the same season with important disabled characters ... two half-hour comedies and one hour-long police procedural, which was also a remake of a classic series from the '60s and '70s that featured an iconic disabled character. One of the shows, The Michael J. Fox Show, even had a disabled character played by an actor with the actual disability. Growing Up Fischer had an exceptionally talented and well-liked cast, plus some innovative storytelling techniques. The shows all looked promising.
All three series failed though, and they were all so "meh" that I don't remember any anger or mourning in the disability community.
The next big news for disability on TV came a year later. It was American Horror Story, with the season titled Freak Show, about an ensemble of literal early 20th century "freaks"... that is, disabled, physically deformed people ... in a traveling show. "Freak Show" was divisive just within the disability community, even before the first episode aired. Proponents pointed out that some of the disabled characters were played by actors with the actual disabilities, and argued that depicting the real-life historical abuses of "freak shows" could provide a platform for promoting more progressive messages about disability. Detractors countered that no positive "messages" imaginable could overcome the ugly stigma and visceral trauma of watching a show about the cruel exploitation of "freaks."
As it turned out, "Freak Show" was something of a dud, too. It was neither as exploitative as feared, nor as revolutionary as hoped. It had moments of both horror and insight, but the show itself was too flawed in other ways to boost any really positive or even interesting ideas about disability.
I guess that's one of the key things about disability on TV. No matter how "good" the disabled characters and disability stories are, if the show itself is weak, it won't work, and it won't matter.
Today, we have Speechless, a character-driven, family-based comedy that is largely, though not exclusively focused on a nonverbal teenage boy who uses a wheelchair. The show has done a lot to get the disability details right ... including casting a disabled actor to portray the disabled teen ... and the disability community mostly loves the show. But the reason that even matters is that the show is good in general, and it is broadly popular.
I wonder if the creators of Speechless studied the failed disability shows of 2013/14 to identify what worked, and be alerted to what didn't. If so, those disappointments appear to have been worth it.