Something to cheer about

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 18, 2016

In what has become one of the most violent, socially chaotic, and politically bizarre year in U.S. history – not to mention Donald Trump – no one in the non-disabled world seems to have much time for the concerns of Americans with disabilities. I guess you could call Trump’s precedent-setting move of making fun of a disabled reporter on national TV something of a landmark moment, but even that gaff has gotten lost in the disturbing events of the last week or so. The gyre has turned. Race and violence are again front and center.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t recent advances in the perception, if not the status, of people with disabilities. The progress of such change is so glacial, so imperceptibly slow-going, that many of us, present company included, wonder what all of the effort by millions of advocates in the last twenty years has really accomplished. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the enactment of the ADA, one disabled man on the street, asked about the big changes in his life post-ADA, said that people no longer gawked at him like he was one of the pod people. That may be progress, but it’s not the same as increased employment for people with disabilities, which simply hasn’t happened.

Just when it’s time to throw in the towel and spend the rest of your life watching Netflix, something comes along to wake you up and put a smile on your face. This is clearly a year when it seems like America is coming apart at the seams, but also a year to mark some significant milestones, or firsts, in the history of disability. And, keep in mind, you can’t have seconds or thirds until you have firsts.

Here’s the big one for me, something I only found out the other day from a professor friend at Chapman University. For the first time in American history, two – count ‘em, two – candidates with disabilities are vying for the same Senate seat in Illinois. One is Democrat Tammy Duckworth, already a star in the disability universe as the double-amputee/war hero currently serving in the House of Representative. Her Republican opponent, Mark Kirk, the incumbent junior Senator from Illinois, is a stroke survivor. Felled by an ischemic stroke in 2012, he’s had to reprogram his brain and is now back in his office while dealing with ongoing mobility and fatigue problems. Double-amp vs stroke survivor. Maybe America is becoming slightly more accepting of people with a disability in public life.

The second first has been written about extensively but still merits repeating. With the Broadway premiere of a largely deaf version of the play, “Spring Awakening,” produced by the of LA deaf theatre group, Deaf West, actress Ali Stroker became the first wheelchair user to star in a Broadway show. My first response to this breakthrough was, “Really? In the entire history of Broadway?” The first black performers to star on Broadway appeared in black-written shows in 1898. That’s a 118 year time gap. As I said, progress is tortoiselike.

My third first is an upcoming TV show that may not be THE first, but sure feels like it. You might say that almost every TV show that features a performer with a disability is a first or near first – for instance, the cable series, “Fargo,” featured the first deaf, brutally violent contract killer a couple of seasons ago. This new series is called “Speechless” and is probably the first network half-hour comedy to star a teenager with aphasia, meaning the inability to speak, on top of advanced cerebral palsy. No spoiler alerts here, but I do know that the character, played by a young actor with CP, communicates by using a light beam attached to his helmet which he shines on a language board. In this deftly realistic portrayal of disability, we aren’t in “Glee” Land anymore.

Due to his firecracker of a mother played by Minnie Driver, our hero lives a completely mainstream life. Beyond that, my lips are sealed. If I say anymore, the TV police will arrest me and make me watch every episode of “Honey Boo Boo.”

“Speechless” will begin airing in the fall, in the middle of the middle of prime time, 8:30 on Wednesdays on ABC. If it’s a big hit, then it will definitely be one for the books.

There have been TV firsts before – Gerri Jewell, with CP, as a regular on “Facts of Life” in the early 80’s and Jim Troesh as a quadriplegic lawyer for three seasons on “Highway to Heaven” in the late 80’s. Neither of these famous benchmarks caused a sea change in the casting of performers with disabilities. On the other hand, they may be the very reason ABC is willing to take a chance on a show like “Speechless.”

Let’s see… an Illinois senator with a disability, guaranteed, a Broadway star in a wheelchair, and an aphasiac teen in prime time. Not to mention the current chair-using governor of Texas, also a first.

Maybe they are all one-offs or maybe not. Personally, I prefer to think not. I’m cheering.

© 2016 Allen Rucker

Purchase Allen's book:

The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life