Braille Monitor August-September 1986
When a new t.v. show comes on the air with a main character who is blind and who is named Mr. Sunshine, the blind are bound to take notice. With a name like Mr. Sunshine, the show has to be bad news from the beginning. It gets mixed up with overtones of the "light and darkness" theme, the cheerfulness and humor which are supposed to make blind people wonderful and compensate for the loss of sight, and a host of other stereotypes. The program lives up to its expectations. Writing in the January-March, 1986, Minnesota Bulletin (the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota), Joyce Scanlan pondered the matter. Here is what she said:
"Mr. Sunshine" is a new situation comedy show which began on ABC Friday nights at 8:00 beginning March 28. ABC has been receiving the lowest viewer ratings of the three networks. Because the central character in "Mr. Sunshine" is a blind person, all of us must take note of the image of blindness portrayed in this piece of video entertainment. ABC may be attempting to up its standing on the rating scale by introducing "Mr. Sunshine" at this time. It may also feel that it has nothing to lose by tackling a different subject. Does ABC see blindness as a sensitive subject? Or, is blindness regarded as the subject with which ABC cannot fail?
Whenever a person who is blind appears as the central figure in a t.v. show, most of us immediately bristle at the prospect that once again we will be presented as the stereotyped blind person--pathetic, incompetent, likely unemployed, but often with that self effacing sense of humor. "Mr. Sunshine" is directed by Henry Winkler of another sit com, "Happy Days." Those who are familiar with his work might have an idea of what to expect from "Mr. Sunshine"; but as a rare t.v. viewer, I am not acquainted with "Happy Days," and I do not make a practice of watching sit corns. I made a special effort to catch "Mr. Sunshine" when I heard Mr. Sunshine was a blind person.
There are good points in "Mr. Sunshine." He (Mr. Sunshine) is a blind person who is employed in a professional position; he is a college English professor. He might have been a musician or a computer programmer. He seems to be doing the things other people do--going to singles clubs, taking walks, shoveling snow. So far, so good.
As a blind person, Mr. Sunshine comes off as inept--he puts his collapsible cane away and bungles around. His sense of humor and much of his conversation center around his blindness. Sighted audiences may regard him as humorous. Those of us who are blind find him to be commonplace and uninspiring. The lines about blindness are banal and overused. If you believe there are stereotypes among college professors, Mr. Sunshine may measure up. His class lectures are probably boring. His voice drones on and on. His humor is dry, and his behavior is a bit eccentric.
A sighted t.v. viewer said she thought Mr. Sunshine was "realistic," that blind people really do behave as he does, and that his constant references to his blindness are fairly typical. She felt he was "realistic" also in terms of his incompetence with a cane, etc. I was appalled to think how many people believe that incompetence is reality for the blind generally. If lack of proficiency is typical for blind people (and I don't believe it is), what useful purpose can be served by focusing attention upon the ordinary, everyday ineptitude of a type of individual, other than for pure and simple entertainment?
The real mistake the actors and producers of "Mr. Sunshine" have made so far is that, to learn about blindness, they have been in contact with something called the Braille Institute of America rather than with real live blind people. If they had checked with blind people in the National Federation of the Blind, they would definitely be presenting a different story in "Mr. Sunshine." As a means of bringing a positive message about blindness to the public, "Mr. Sunshine" is a failure. The information is negative and harmful. It could be done differently and serve a constructive role in educating the world about blindness. Mr. Sunshine could still be an English professor who is blind, but he could be working and living among his colleagues without the persistent references to his blindness. The stories could be just as exciting, innovative, and more educational.
I suggest that we all make a concerted effort to watch "Mr. Sunshine" and contact ABC with comments and suggestions for improvement of the show. If "Mr. Sunshine" can be altered, it can be of educational value; if not, we should force it off the air. We must help ABC to realize that the misinformation they have relied upon can be set straight if they will talk with enlightened and perceptive people who can help them make a success of "Mr. Sunshine." ABC, the sighted population, and all of us who are blind will benefit.
This is what Joyce Scanlan had to say, but as the weeks have passed since her editorial, the totally negative and destructive character of the "Mr. Sunshine" program has been unmistakably demonstrated. With a main character named Mr. Sunshine how could it be otherwise? As could have been predicted, the damage to the blind has been severe and widespread. Americans take their t.v. seriously, and if Mr. Sunshine can't handle himself on a dance floor, perhaps blind persons should be excluded from dance floors. Under date of May 6, 1986, Sharon Gold (President of the National Federation of the Blind of California) wrote the following letter:
Brandon Stoddard, President
American Broadcasting Entertainment
Los Angeles, California
Dear Mr. Stoddard:
On March 28, 1986, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) began a new television series, "Mr. Sunshine." This series, which is set as a comedy, features as its subject matter the recent blindness of a college professor. Since ABC has a vested interest in airing programs which best serve the well-being of the pub lie-at-large, I am compelled to write this letter to persuade you of the irreparable damage being done by the program, "Mr. Sunshine."
The National Federation of the Blind is a forty-six year old membership organization of blind persons, having more than fifty thousand members nationwide. The NFB has affiliates in every state including the District of Columbia and is organized with local chapters in most major cities. We have come together to speak on issues of importance to the blind and we share a common interest in educating the public to dispel the unfounded notion that blindness is a tragedy from which one cannot emerge. Instead, we know that with proper training and good attitude development, blindness can be reduced to a mere physical nuisance. We know that one in every 500 persons is currently blind. Public polls tell us that blindness is feared second only to cancer, and we know that literally thousands of persons will become blind during 1986.
Let us examine for a moment the title of this television comedy. The main character has been given the name "Paul Stark," yet the title of this program is "Mr. Sunshine." You need only consult the dictionary to find that sunshine brings thoughts of warmth, happiness, cheerfulness, light, and vision. Light is further associated with alertness and keenness of mind while darkness is associated with despair, despondency, hopelessness, lack of ability, and blindness. Since he is blind, Mr. Stark is characterized as unhappy, unable to carry out day-to-day tasks, dependent upon others, and lacking in self-esteem. He is shown to be uncoordinated--dropping a glass of iced liquid in his lap, running into walls, knocking over furniture, etc. He is shown to be imperceptive--reaching for a door knob at eye level, making judgment errors as to who is at his door, and not knowing whether he is in a restaurant or outside. In short, the show title is in reality a facade to cover up the real character of Paul Stark and thus intended to make a mockery of blindness.
The National Federation of the blind spends much of its time and financial resources in an effort to educate the public concerning blindness, to dispel the public's fear toward blindness, and to develop a positive attitude toward the blind. "Mr. Sunshine" emphasizes the negative by such comments as "I'd rather be dead than blind," "I'm afraid to be with someone in the dark," and "I 'm not as active as I used to be." Rather than helping the public, these comments increase the public's fear of blindness as well as being destructive to the image of blindness among the blind. The truth is that blind persons represent a cross section of society and are as active or inactive as are sighted persons, are as fearful of the dark or not fearful of the dark as others, and may wish to be dead but usually not because of blindness.
While the dictionary definition of "to see" is to perceive something by the use of the eyes, the dictionary also defines the word "see" as to experience, to visualize, to perceive the meaning of, to imagine, to take care of, to make sure of, to give or pay attention to, and to grasp something mentally. Therefore, "see" and its synonyms "look" and "watch" need not and should not be removed from one's vocabulary when speaking to a blind person.
By law, blind persons are afforded rights and protections as are other members of the general public, and the National Federation of the Blind actively engages in the protection of these rights of the blind. Such rights include equal access to the streets and sidewalks, as well as all places to which the public is invited--including, but not limited to, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, and places of amusement and recreation. On the evening which ''Mr. Sunshine" premiered, Paul Stark went dancing. As he left the dance floor, Paul fell down the step from the dance floor.
On Monday, March 31, I received a telephone call in the National Federation of the Blind of California office from a Sacramento couple who complained that although they had been dancing in a local nightclub for weeks, they were suddenly told on Saturday, March 29, the very evening following the premiere of "Mr. Sunshine" on ABC, that they would not longer be welcome at the nightclub unless they brought a sighted escort because the nightclub owner was afraid the blind couple might fall off of the dance floor. This exemplifies the type of problem for the blind which may be generated from such a program as "Mr. Sunshine."
In 1985 the National Federation of the Blind provided assistance when a blind foreign language teacher sought a part in a play given by a community theater. This lady went to audition, but she was prevented from auditioning simply because she was blind. This lady has the respect of her community as a teacher, but the community theater management was sure she could not handle daily tasks well enough to participate in the play. Because of discussions between members of the National Federation of the Blind and the community theater management, the lady was given an apology and blind persons in the community are now invited to audition--at least they were before Paul Stark was shown participating in a play and destroying the set.
Similarly, the deception which is shown by sighted people who hide their actions or presence from Paul is incredible. Here is a program which is shown at a time when children may be watching. Presumably, parents are trying to teach their children honesty and sincerity in an effort to develop integrity. Further, many children in this country have blind school teachers or blind parents. What kind of an example does "Mr. Sunshine" set when Paul's own son hides his presence from his father (March 28) and his lady friend motions to an intruder to leave (May 2)? And, while we are on the subject of interpersonal relations, what kind of sensitivity is developed when Paul walks into a cupboard and elicits laughter from the audience?
It hardly seems believable that a television network such as the American Broadcasting Company would want to contribute to the kind of negative change in public attitude toward a class of people which may be brought about by the television series "Mr. Sunshine." We ask that you consider the detriment to the general public, including the blind, which will result from the continued televising of this series. Therefore, we of the National Federation of the Blind respectfully request that the American Broadcasting Company terminate "Mr. Sunshine."
Your attention to this serious problem and your response to this letter will be appreciated.
Very truly yours,
Sharon Gold, President
National Federation of the Blind of Californa
Other letters followed. Typical of these is the one written by Donovan Cooper (a blind Federationist from California) under date of May 7, 1986:
Los Angeles California
Mr. Brandon Stoddard
Los Angeles, California
Dear Mr. Stoddard:
I am writing to express extreme discontent with the television series called "Mr. Sunshine." I know what is good television, and I have a healthy sense of humor. "Mr. Sunshine" is neither good television nor satisfying humor. It is, however, a slap in the face to those of us who have worked for many years to improve the public image of blindness.
If "Mr. Sunshine" would be seen by the public as what it is--a childish spoof-- we might be able to view it with a sense of humor. But the truth is that the show reinforces the long-standing public misconceptions that the blind are less and can do less than others.
In the first show of this season, Mr. Sunshine fell from a dance floor. Within a week of the airing of that show, an establishment in Northern California attempted to close its dance floor to blind patrons. Three weeks ago Mr. Sunshine absurdly demolished a set on a community theater stage. We have sought to improve the performance opportunities of blind actors and have since the airing of this show spoken to several blind performers who have had increased difficulty in getting work. As for this last weekend's two shows, the notions that blind people cannot cook or that we have damaged sexual relations as a result of our blindness are utterly ridiculous. Yet, such misconceptions persist and will certainly be amplified by such irresponsible programming. Knowledgeable blind people and sighted friends throughout the country are calling for the immediate removal of "Mr. Sunshine" from the airwaves. No responsible television network could do otherwise.
We further ask that you not consult with agencies that all too often reinforce poor attitudes concerning blindness in the attempt to justify their own progress. The Braille Institute has repeatedly shown itself to be such an agency. We ask rather that you work directly with productive organizations of the blind, such as the National Federation of the blind. The NFB has had more experience than anyone in changing the misconceptions about blindness. Our media efforts include several award winning puublic service announcements and films. For further information write to: Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, President of the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.
We believe that you will act in good conscience and remove an unpopular and destructive show from your lineup. If you fail to do so, we will carry our message to the show's sponsors, the press, and perhaps to the streets outside the ABC studios.
The bad taste and stupidity do not stop with television. Newsweek has now joined in. Virginia Reagan (a Federationist from Missouri) wrote a letter taking Newsweek to task. In her cover letter to President Jernigan she said: "Statements reinforcing old stereotypes should not and will not go unchallenged":
April 24, 1986
To the Editor of Newsweek:
I am writing to you about an article in the April 14, 1986, issue of Newsweek in the section for Arts/T.V. The name of the article is "Happy Days" by Harry F. Waters with Michael Reese. I will quote from the part of the article about which I want to comment.
"A handful of other producers are reaching for comedy in other situations that are, well, a tad unconventional. ABC's Mr. Sunshine, for example, revolved the antics of a college English Prof., Jeffrey Tamber, who happens to be, no joke, totally blind. This has allowed tv's writers to upgrade tv's taste level with knee slappers about Braille, seeing eye dogs, and truly no joke, the shrine at Lourdes." When the writer says, "a college English Prof, who happens to be, no joke, totally blind," he is showing a lack of information about today's blind people. Many of us are teachers, and we are successful and contributing members of many other professions--and in many aspects of the business world as well.
Like many other minorities, we the blind have come a long way in the past few years, but we have worked hard for the progress we have made. Old stereotypes die hard, and an article such as this one (published in a widely circulated and respected magazine such as Newsweek) means that we will have to work harder.