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Wheel Of Misfortune?
(Family Circle, October 16, 1990)

As a person who gets around in a motorized wheelchair, I've always considered television my friend. After all, it kept me company during many long and lonely stints in bed, both at home and in the hospital.

Maybe it has something to do with getting married seven years ago, but now that my stints in bed are no longer lonely, I've become more critical of my old friend. In fact, there are times when I view television as my enemy.

This change of heart began subtly. One Sunday in the fall of '84, my husband and I tuned in to ABC's coverage of the New York City Marathon. The sportscasters took frequent breaks from the race itself to introduce us, "up close and personal," to noteworthy contenders. After getting some interesting glimpses into the strategies of superstars like Greta Waitz, we saw a piece about several runners who had physical disabilities. With pride, I leaned forward to listen.

What I found myself listening to was missing from all previous segments: music. Not the energetic fanfare of Chariots of Fire but the sappy violins of a tearjerker. The message was clear: The sight of a marathon runner with crutches should bring tears - not cheers - to our eyes.

Soon after, I caught a segment on NBC's Today Show about an American doctor's dedicated work with Mexican children who had contracted polio. And there it was again: that sappy music, audible only when the youngsters were in view.

When subtle signals like violin music shape our impressions of people with disabilities, I get annoyed. When blatant words replace the music, I become alarmed. Phil Donahue stunned me when he opened a show on "Coming Back from a Handicap" by declaring, "Next time you feel sorry for yourself, you might remember the people that we are about to talk with on our program today." I imagined millions of viewers absorbing that statement and remaining under its influence long after the program ended, believing that nothing - including child abuse, rape and terminal illness - is more pitiful than missing a limb or using a wheelchair.

The question is: Why did Donahue set the stage with such melodrama? His five guests clearly conveyed a more upbeat message. Halfway through the show, Donahue himself said, "People with handicaps do not want pity. That's the first commandment." What could have possessed him to break that first commandment?

The answer, I contend, is television's first commandment: Thou shalt not endanger the Almighty Nielsen rating. What better way to keep those viewers glued to the tube than with an opening line like: "Next time you feel sorry for yourself, you might remember the people that we are about to talk with on our program today"?

Donahue is not alone. The program which boasts one of the highest Nielsen ratings, 60 Minutes, has also treated disability as tragedy. When Morley Safer covered the historic computer-assisted steps that paraplegic Nan Davis took to receive her college diploma, he stated, "Nan Davis [and other paraplegics] are in wheelchairs now, prisoners of their own bodies."

I beg to differ. If anything, a wheelchair expands one's world, liberating its user from a stationary existence. Four wheels do not a prison make.

Don't get me wrong. Given the choice, I'd rather stroll than roll. But since I don't have that choice, what becomes important is how I and others choose to view my disability. And that's where television comes in: It has the potential to clarify so much concerning disability, but all too often, it merely distorts the picture.

If news-oriented programs misinform us about disability, television's entertainment shows can often do more harm. A PBS special for young people, Walking On Air, featured a boy in a wheelchair who mails NASA an unusual request: "On behalf of me and my friends, we would like to become astronauts. So far, present rules exclude us from going to the only place where we might have a chance to feel free." In First Steps, a CBS prime-time movie inspired by 60 Minutes' Nan Davis report, the attractive heroine breaks up with her boyfriend, explaining, "I'm not getting married until I can walk down the aisle."

Perhaps unintentionally, TV shows like these promote myths that people with disabilities have been trying to shatter for decades. Young people watching Walking on Air might believe that life on gravity-laden earth is unbearable for those whose limbs are paralyzed. And the millions who watched First Steps absorbed some highly misleading messages:
  • People may be bright and beautiful but if they can't walk, they'd better forget about marriage.
  • Until they can walk like everyone else, people with disabilities had better hold off on reaching life's other goals.
  • It's just not acceptable to get married if one wheels, but can't walk, down the aisle.
I've grown up with television and, perhaps at a slower pace, television has grown up with me. The stereotypes that abounded in Amos and Andy and Charlie's Angels became a vague memory when the Eighties brought us The Cosby Show and Cagney & Lacey. I now wait for television to grow up some more. And in all fairness, signs of enlightenment are on the horizon. Disabled characters appear in wonderful commercials pitching everything from beer to blue jeans. There's Benny Stulewicz, a messenger on L.A. Law who is mentally retarded. There's Linda Bove, a Sesame Street regular who is deaf. And there's Corky Thatcher, a teenager with Down Syndrome on Life Goes On.

Will the Nineties be the decade when television stops handicapping people who have handicaps? I hope so. I miss my old friend.



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