When Josh Blue won NBC's Last Comic Standing last season, he did so with riffs like this: "My right arm does a lot of crazy stuff. Like the other day, I thought someone had stolen my wallet."
It's funny only if you know that Blue has cerebral palsy.
The public image of people with disabilities has often hinged on the heroic or the tragic. But Blue, 28, represents the broader portrait of disability now infusing television and film. This new, sometimes confrontational stance reflects the higher expectations among many members of the disabled population that they be treated as people who happen to have a disability, rather than as people defined by disability.
"What we're seeing is less `overcoming' and more `just being,'" said Lawrence Carter-Long, the director of advocacy for the Disabilities Network of New York City, which last year started a film series, "disTHIS: Disability Through a Whole New Lens," celebrating unconventional portrayals of the disabled.
"More people are saying, `This is who I am. If you have a problem with it, that's your problem,"' he said.
Because the entertainment media often function as a bellwether of changing attitudes, the drive to expand beyond the stereotypes is particularly visible on television. The heart-wrenching movie of the week and fundraising telethons striving for cures have given way to amputees rock climbing on reality shows like The Amazing Race and doing the jive on Dancing With the Stars. Sitcoms and crime shows have jumped onto the bandwagon, too: an actor who is a paraplegic, for instance, depicts a member of the casino surveillance team on Las Vegas.
"It used to be that if you were disabled and on television, they’d play soft piano music behind you," said Robert David Hall, a double amputee who plays a coroner on CSI. "The thing I love about CSI is that I'm just Dr. Robbins."
In film, too, tragic stories starring able-bodied actors, like Million Dollar Baby, are being countered by depictions featuring the disabled themselves, from the wheelchair rugby jocks of the 2005 documentary Murderball to the 2005 Special Olympics romp, The Ringer, by Peter and Bobby Farrelly.
Hollywood's embrace of a franker depiction of disabilities is mirrored in everyday life in trends such as the jettisoning, by both child and adult amputees, of cosmetic covers for prosthetic legs. Instead, prosthetics experts say, many patients wear their legs openly, often customizing them with designs that are flaunted like tattoos.
"Some people say, `That's really cool' and some people don’t act very nice," said Kylee Haddad, 40, a mother of two from Walkersville, Maryland, who decorates her prosthetic leg with palm trees, fish and the American flag.
Haddad, whose right leg was amputated below the knee in 2003 after a car accident, said she has no problem wearing shorts when she goes shopping. Neither does she shy from removing the prosthesis in order to swim at the neighborhood pool.
She said people gawk and some have even tapped her on the shoulder to ask her to put her leg back on. She said she's been told, "It is upsetting my child." But she refuses to hide.
"You either accept me as I am," she said, "or you don't have to look at it.”
Jillian Weise, 25, a teacher and doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, released a poetry book this year to undermine what she called "the stereotype of the disabled as asexual" and "to try to get away from the idea of the disabled as freak."
She titled it The Amputee's Guide to Sex and filled it with deeply personal verses. "You trace the scar along my spine, and I imagine what it must feel like," reads one poem.
Weise, who was born with a rare disease that led to the amputation of one leg below the knee when she was 11, said that in the US "there's a history of don’t look, don't stare, just ignore the disability."
"I'm hoping that there's a middle ground, that this is just another kind of difference," she said.
TAKING THE MICKEY
The hunger to be regarded like anyone else means even negative portrayals can be welcome. When Simon Cowell of American Idol teased a Special Olympics athlete with a mental disability about his weight during this year’s televised auditions, he was widely criticized for having crossed a line. Special Olympics International fired off an open letter. It thanked the show for ribbing the contestant, as it does nearly everyone.
"Whether on the stage of American Idol or on the field of competition for Special Olympics, people with intellectual disabilities don't want to be pitied," the group's statement read.
The drive for more participation is not new, but it is finding strength in numbers. The government census and population surveys have expanded the definition of disability over time to reflect more conditions and impairments, including mental disabilities. The most recent population survey, in 2002, showed the disabled population to be the country’s largest minority: 51 million, or 18 percent of all Americans. Most — 32 million — suffer from a disability classified as severe.
Although this huge and complex group includes both the man with a US$30,000 computer-controlled prosthesis and the brain-injured woman who is immobile, stereotyping and stigmatization are still a problem, particularly for the mentally disabled.
And while public perceptions about the capabilities of the mentally disabled have improved, said Stephen Corbin, a senior vice president of Special Olympics International, they are still "mixed and inadequate."
Nevertheless, the gradual gains in access to education and independent living have allowed many disabled people to take their place in society's mix. Surveys show that people with disabilities are voting and going to restaurants, for example, at rates comparable with the non-disabled. With increased access has come visibility.
The public image of the disabled is increasingly "informed by actual experience of disability rather than an imagined understanding of it," said David Mitchell, an associate professor of disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mitchell, who is also a filmmaker, uses a wheelchair because of a neuromuscular condition. His 1995 documentary, Vital Signs: Crip Culture Talks Back, focuses on the concept of a cultural identity.
But, he cautioned: "We shouldn't go too congratulatory yet. Our progress is largely a measure of the fact that we were so regressive for so long."
The arts have become one of the most visible vehicles for participation. In the last few years particularly, said Kari Pope, the coordinator at the National Arts and Disability Center at UCLA, there has been more exposure of disabled artists "getting out there" through film festivals, dance companies, theater and the visual arts.
In Hollywood, disabled members of the Screen Actors Guild and other entertainment groups are agitating for plots that include more disabled characters and for the hiring of more disabled actors to play both disabled and nondisabled roles. Though jobs are still scarce, the quality of roles and the diversity of characters have improved. Some disabled actors noted that they are no longer relegated to maudlin or villainous roles.
It is a sign of the times that Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress, who won an Oscar for the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God, has been playing roles as varied as a political pollster on The West Wing and the love interest on My Name Is Earl.
Meanwhile, the Farrelly brothers are at work on a pilot for a comedy for Fox with Danny Murphy, an actor who is a quadriplegic, in a supporting role. And NBC may produce the first comedy starring disabled actors to air on network television. The pilot for this show, I’m With Stupid, is based on a BBC series of the same name, which revolves around an apartment building designed for the disabled whose tenants include a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy who speaks via a voice box, and a double amputee with high-tech leg prosthetics.
"All the actors feel this is not a television show, it's a movement," said Wil Calhoun, the executive producer. "People will begin to look at things in a different way."
Calhoun, who was an executive producer of Friends, said the comedy is an attempt to depart from the predictable, but the material is considered risky because of concerns that viewers may find it sad or in bad taste. On the other hand, Americans already have been exposed to fuller portraits of disabled people, especially through reality shows.
"The representations on reality television tend to be much higher-stakes than the fictional narratives because that's how real people behave," said Kathleen LeBesco, the chairwoman of communication arts at Marymount Manhattan College.
She said there's debate about whether some representations are "exploitative or affirmative," but said the depictions parallel the trajectory that gays and racial minorities also tread as they gained more visibility.
Sarah Reinertsen, 31, an athlete who runs with a prosthetic leg, is a member of the hard-charging vanguard. She was a contestant on CBS's Amazing Race last year (her team came in seventh of 12) and has no qualms about competing against the able-bodied.
"Believe me, I get a thrill when I do pass two-legged people," she said.
But she said she never leaves the house without sunglasses.
"People always stare," she said. "It's part of human nature and it's tough to be this animal in the zoo."
But Reinertsen said people have stopped looking at disability as "total tragedy." "People have changed a lot," she said. "They ask, `Are you wearing one of those cool legs?"'
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