Braille Monitor                                                                               February 1986

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The Blind Copy Editor

As television viewers know, Mary Tyler Moore has launched a new television show called "Mary." It has a blind character named Tully, who has become the subject of controversy. Sheila O'Leary Zakre is a member of the National Federation of the Blind. Not surprisingly she takes her Federationism with her wherever she goes--not just to her law school classes but to every other activity of her life, including the viewing of television:

Brooklyn, New York
December 12, 1985

Dear Dr. Jernigan:

I am a member of the New York State chapter. I write to tell you about the characterization of a blind man on the new Mary Tyler Moore series, "Mary." The series premiered on Wednesday, December 11. This characterization is the most abusive image of a blind person I have ever seen on television. Worse yet, he is a regular character, so the abuse is bound to continue.

"Tully" is described as a "legally blind copy editor." He is the butt of numerous one-liners, all of which make fun of his blindness. Here are some examples: His boss laments that he has a blind copy editor, to which Tully responds that he can't be fired because he is in the union. At work Tully asks others in his office to keep him from bumping into walls. He mis-sorts mail. Each of these episodes is accompanied by a loud laughtrack. Tully is not taken seriously by any other character in the show. His sole purpose is to be the butt of some "blind" joke.

I have enclosed a copy of a letter I wrote to Thomas Wyman, President of CBS, which carries the program. I hope that you, too, will write them, as well as publicize this outrage within the Federation. I am eager to organize a campaign to stop this abuse, and welcome your assistance and suggestions. It is difficult to really describe how vile the jokes were on paper. The show airs on Wednesday nights at eight o'clock Eastern Standard Time. I will be watching it to see how Tully is treated in this episode and hope that you will do the same.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,
Sheila Zakre

 

Brooklyn, New York
December 12, 1985

Mr. Thomas Wyman
President, CBS, Inc.

Dear Mr. Wyman:

I write with regard to "Mary, " the Mary Tyler Moore series which premiered on December 11. This series disgraces the CBS network. A regular character, "Tully," is the vilest depiction of a blind person I have ever seen on television. In fairness to all of your blind viewers, and to all of your sighted viewers who were justifiably offended, this characterization must end.

In the premiere Tully is introduced as a legally blind copy editor, something the show's writers seem to find hilariously amusing. Tully is the butt of numerous one-liners, all intended to mock his disability. He can barely read the newspaper, so he misses typographical errors. He doesn't know his way around the office, so he bumps into cabinets. He can't sort mail and mistakes one letter for another. Each of these little episodes is accompanied by a riotous laughtrack. Tully is one big blind fool. The only reason he is not fired is because he is in the union. You may protest that the show pokes a little fun at people's differences, and my outrage is an exaggerated response to some harmless humor. But I know better.

As a legally blind law student, the only thing that I have in common with Tully is the way that sighted people react to me. The stereotype accurately catches the ignorance, insensitivity, and discrimination that most blind people have to deal with. In my experience, my disability has been the prejudice I have had to deal with. My eyesight is merely an inconvenience. But discrimination against all disabled persons is so pervasive that it goes unnoticed by the non-disabled population. Thus, characters like Tully can be born without a cry of doubt as to the slander, derision, or contempt of disabled persons that they personify.

For this reason the impact of the Tully stereotype is very destructive. Your network does not merely ignore the exploitation that exists. CBS affirms and reinforces this exploitation by beaming into thousands of living rooms the message that blind people are legitimate targets of abuse, and incompetent workers whom no employer would choose to hire. Have you thought of the blind child, already teased by schoolmates, who gets nicknamed "Tully" and suffers more abuse? Have you thought about the adult who must convince an employer whose only image of the blind is "Tully" why he should be hired? These are not funny images.

Thanks to the civil rights movement, black Americans have freed themselves from this kind of overt discrimination. Is your network telling us that the blind are the new scapegoat?

Blind persons are no worse nor better than sighted persons. We may do things differently. But differently does not mean ridiculous. The media should explore and celebrate our differences rather than scorn them. Programs that are responsive to the diversity of their viewers win in the long run.

What is tragic about the show is that CBS could have made great strides and done a real service to disabled persons had Tully been realistically drawn. NBC had "Ironsides"--and, incidentally, "Julia," the first show to star a black woman. CBS could have merited the praise of blind organizations for being the first network to depict realistically a blind character as a regular on a network series. To the contrary, and most unfortunately, in accepting the totally disrespectful portrayal of Tully, you have lost my respect.

Your network has great power to shape public consciousness, to entertain, and to enlighten. I have enjoyed years of CBS broadcasts, many of which have explored important social issues. As the President of CBS, you now have an opportunity to change an often unquestioned prejudice against the blind. Indeed, you have a responsibility to redress the grievous harm that Tully has already wreaked in promoting this despicable image of blind people.

The character of Tully must be rewritten immediately. Keep him legally blind. He can read print by holding it close to his face, use bioptic glasses (glasses equipped with a small telescope), or read Braille. But make him realistic. His blindness is only one part of him. If you have never been friendly with a blind person, hire a legally blind consultant. Alternatively, mold Tully in the image of one of your sighted friends.

Additionally, you owe your blind viewers an apology. This should be done on the air, between the theme song and the credits at the end of the program. In this way, none of the regular viewers will miss the message. Also, I urge you to let blind people, both the legally and the totally blind, respond to the image on the air. Let us talk about what it is like to be blind in this country, and the ways that sighted people can begin to recognize and combat their discrimination against the blind and disabled.

This message would be of great relevance to thousands of people. How many viewers have aged parents who are losing their physical and mental strength? How many of them will one day also become blind or disabled through age or illness? Will they want, as well, to be scorned and abused? I look forward to your prompt action with regard to the program and to your reply to the issues raised herein.

Very truly yours,
Sheila O'Leary Zakre

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