Thursday, February 20, 2014
We recently received a screener of the pilot episode of the upcoming NBC sitcom Growing Up Fisher, which tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy and his blind father. In the pilot, the blind character, Mel, and his wife get a divorce, and their son struggles with no longer being his father’s guide when Mel gets a guide dog. Early on it is revealed that for the past several years, Mel, who appears to be totally blind, has not admitted his blindness to anyone besides his family, and has enlisted his son in an elaborate deception. Mel has a successful career as an attorney, but he has been fooling his colleagues and the rest of the world into thinking he is sighted by using his son to tell him pertinent facts about his surroundings. When Mel gets divorced and moves out on his own, he is shown as asserting his independence by getting a guide dog.
Growing Up Fisher generally portrays a positive view of blindness, but unsurprisingly, since it is a sitcom and not a documentary, there are still some problems with its depiction of a blind person. While Mel is portrayed as a successful attorney, a good father, and a competent blind person, his blindness is often used as a comic device. There are several scenes in which Mel attempts to do things that society does not expect a blind person to be able to do, such as parallel park a car or use a chainsaw to chop down a tree. These scenes are played for laughs, mainly by focusing on the reactions of his family, whose members are shown as being skeptical of his abilities and concerned for his safety. Mel does accomplish both feats successfully (which was not surprising to us, as we know many blind people who safely use chainsaws and perform many other tasks that society may not deem fit for a blind person).
The most problematic part of the pilot is Mel hiding his blindness by having his son surreptitiously convey information to him. In the National Federation of the Blind, we know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines a blind person or his future, and it is not something shameful that needs to be hidden from the world. It is promising that in the course of the episode Mel realizes that he needs to self-identify as a blind person and assert his independence by openly using a guide dog instead of covertly using his son, but the show would have conveyed a more positive message if Mel had never hidden his blindness.
The Growing Up Fisher pilot also briefly addresses discrimination against blind people by way of a plot point in which Mel’s guide dog is refused admittance into a hotel. Mel references the California legal code that permits him to have his service animal with him and threatens litigation against the hotel if it does not comply. While this short scene cannot possibly scratch the surface of the discrimination that many blind people sadly still face on a daily basis, it is nonetheless an important inclusion in accurately representing the life of a blind person.
One of the largest issues that we face in the NFB is battling society’s misconceptions about the capacities of blind people, which we do by spreading the word that the blind are normal individuals who can compete on equal terms with their sighted peers. Growing Up Fisher portrays a blind person who is a successful parent, attorney, and contributing member of society. That rings true with what we know about the capacity of blind people. However, Growing Up Fisher, at least in its pilot episode, also reinforces some of those common misconceptions about blindness, the most pervasive and harmful one being that blindness is something shameful and terrible that needs to be hidden from the world. Growing Up Fisher may make for a funny sitcom, but it does not tell the unvarnished truth about blind people. The best source of information about blindness remains the National Federation of the Blind.