People with disabilities are often invisible in movies and television shows, or, if visible, depicted in demeaning and stereotypical ways: as powerless, child-like, isolated victims, as bitter, sometimes psychopathic misfits, or as the "super-crip," who overcomes a disability with some extraordinary ability.
Moreover, storylines featuring people with disabilities inevitably resolve with a "cure" rendering the character "whole."
One trend-setting television show changing audience perceptions about people with disabilities is NBC's "ER." In a recent storyline, one of the lead characters, played by Eriq La Salle, is a doctor who has a young Deaf son. The production company conducted an extensive search to find an African-American baby who was Deaf.
This is just one of many examples of the inclusion of disabilities into the fabric of the show:
Recently, The Disability Messenger (Zara Buggs Taylor) spoke with creator and executive producer John Wells.
ZBT: What got you interested in including characters with disabilities?
JW: In "ER" we have tried generally to portray what America really looks like, and what hospitals really look like, racially and in other ways. Our shows are based on the general notion that society is diverse.
ZBT: Do you often base your characters on real people?
JW: The Laura Enders character [Dr. Carrie Weaver] was conceived when I met one of the attendings at a local hospital who was East Indian or Pakistani and who had had polio and used crutches. He worked 12-hour shifts, and his disability didn't interfere with his job. We try to include people on "ER" that you regularly meet in everyday life with honesty, integrity and realism.
ZBT: Very often your characters are just people who happen to have disabilities. The story does not necessarily focus on the disability. Was that a conscious choice?
JW: The way we tell stories on "ER" differs from the older, traditional medical shows of the past when people came in with specific medical problems. This approach made them seem like "the other," who the viewer is happy not to be.
We consciously chose to integrate the show in every way. Dr. Weaver, for instance, is a complicated character - not particularly lovable. Through the storytelling, we know about her strength and her abilities without telling the audience outright that those strengths were shaped by her disability.
She doesn't discuss her disability - not because she is ashamed of who she is but because it is such a part of who she is that it doesn't come up. Her attitude is "This is me, if you're curious or don't like it or are made uncomfortable by it, tough."
Frankly, I forget she has a disability. That's how it should be. We need to stop judging people by outward appearances and decide how we feel about them based on who they are - not their skin color or social status or physical appearance.
I'm glad the show is making a positive difference in the attitudes and perceptions of the viewing audience about people with disabilities.
Zara Buggs Taylor is the Executive Administrator for Employment Diversity at the Writers Guild of America, west, an entertainment labor union representing writers for the film, television, cable and broadcast industries (213-782 4549; www.wga.org).