Sun, May 13, 2007 - Page 17 News List

‘Are you wearing one of those cool legs?’

The public image of people with disabilities has often hinged on the heroic or the tragic. Contemporary TV programs and movies are changing those perceptions

By Mireya Navarro  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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."

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