Braille Monitor                                              March 2014

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As Seen on TV

by Grace Warn

Grace WarnFrom the Editor: Grace Warn works with me as an assistant in preparing each issue of the Braille Monitor. She is an English major who is using this job and several others to make a living while she looks for the job of her dreams. She has more than a little interest in the subject of blindness, for one of her best friends is the chapter president of the National Federation of the Blind of Columbia, Missouri.

Grace is a television aficionado. She also likes to do research. Here are some interesting observations about television shows featuring blind people over the last forty years. While her review is certainly not exhaustive, it does represent the gamut of how blind people are portrayed on television. Here is what she says:

The National Federation of the Blind's philosophy is that "the problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist." These days one of the greatest sources of misinformation is television. Ask any cop or person working in a hospital, and they will agree. Shows like CSI, House, or Grey's Anatomy take extreme liberty with the realities of policy and procedure in the name of drama and ratings. As a result there are millions of people who believe a murder investigation is finished within days, that as long as the patient does not outright die or suffer long-term effects, malpractice is not a concern, and other such blatantly untrue myths. Where I'm going with all this is that, to know what kind of misinformation and stereotypes the NFB will be fighting today, in 2014, you have to look at the blind characters the sighted public know, especially if they've never personally met a blind person. You have to look at what TV teaches about blindness and blind people.

On TV there are two forms of blindness and blind characters: Temporary Blindness and the Blind Character. Temporary Blindness is a plot device, more often used in an action or drama series but occasionally in comedies. This blindness affects a main character, but the cause of the blindness is usually cured by the end of the episode. In the comedies the writers are going for the opportunities for humorously mistaken identities and physical comedy bits, but dramas go a different direction with the plot device. In dramas the writers use temporary blindness to show how a beloved character, usually a character known for his physical abilities and general invincibility, handles being physically compromised. Deafness has been used instead several times, but deafness does not portray itself as easily in the visual medium of television. If blindness is used, you change how the character walks into a room, how he or she interacts with friends and strangers, etc. Temporary blindness has been used on a number of shows in multiple genres, including but not limited to M*A*S*H; Hawaii 5-0 (the original series); The Untouchables; The Simpsons; Dynasty; Melrose Place; Futurama; Star Trek (original series); Happy Days; The Incredible Hulk; Family Guy; Walker, Texas Ranger; and King of the Hill.

Bombs tend to be involved in causing temporary blindness, either flash burns that must be allowed to heal before the characters know if the retinas were badly damaged or blunt force trauma, causing the character to lose his vision. In all cases the character afflicted must wait a few weeks to find out if he'll be permanently blind. The audience watches as these strong, independent men struggle a bit with performing a few basic tasks without vision, but our hero is undaunted. And, while the hero is blinded and supposedly an easy target, the villain decides to do him in. Of course, the hero manages to fight the villain off despite being blinded, without taking grievous injury in the process. Then the bandages come off, and he can see again—cue happy tears from the hero's love interest and/or best friend; tune in next week for more adventures.

It's the little things that add up to everything wrong in these scenarios. Sudden loss of vision would be hard to cope with, and learning nonvisual skills takes time. Orientation and mobility skills, even in the smaller and more familiar setting of a person's own home, would likely take more time than the TV shows imply, considering that, at most, these characters are blinded for a matter of two or three weeks tops. Believability is further eroded when these characters are shown being acclimated enough to their blindness to do things such as fight off criminals attempting to finish them off while they are handicapped.

But showing that these characters are still capable is good, right? It shows people that losing vision doesn't mean losing life as you know it, right? I'd say no, not really—because it gives false expectations about the transition from navigating the world using sight to using nonvisual techniques. Coming to terms with losing vision, much less getting training organized and begun, is not something that happens overnight. Seeing a character adjust so quickly gives a false impression about the reality of such a transition.

The blind character who is not miraculously cured is a completely different matter. Some of these characters are blind before the audience meets them, and others become blind during the show's run, but either way their blindness is an element of their character. And before I go any farther, I will say that Geordi LaForge from Star Trek: the Next Generation is on neither list. By strict technicalities, Geordi isn't blind. With the use of his VISOR, Geordi has vision. The VISOR scans the electromagnetic spectrum and creates visual input, and, in the movies, Geordi gets cybernetic eyes. If anything, I would lump him in with those on television who experience temporary blindness, since there is only one episode where his ability to continue to use the visor comes into question. Though there are probably other blind characters on TV, there are six I'd like to talk about here: two that I consider negative examples and four that I would call positive examples.

I'll start with the negative example. Long-time Monitor readers may recall, in the December 1991 issue, an article titled "No Good for the Blind in Good and Evil” by Barbara Pierce. Good and Evil was a short-lived ABC comedy series that was cancelled before it even finished a single season. In fact, at the time of its cancellation, eleven full episodes had been produced, but the last five remained unaired. The reaction to George, the blind psychiatrist, was just that strong and negative.

I have to admit here that I'm writing about this character (forgive the pun) blindly. I would have been about seven when the show aired, and this type of comedy never appealed to my mother. I have to rely on written reviews. Aside from the article in the Monitor (really, go read it; it was a wonderful article that articulated in exquisite detail what was wrong with George and how the NFB reacted to his existence), there are two websites I trust to give me information about this sort of thing: IMDB and Wikipedia. If these sites don't have information on it, the show wasn't good enough to waste time on. IMDB stands for Internet Movie Data Base, and it is a great tool to use in finding a show, movie, or actor's filmography. Using the service, participants can also leave reviews about movies or television series and rate them. As you can imagine, the number of reviews or users who rate the series is a good indicator of popularity and/or quality.

Only eight users have taken the time to write reviews of this show, and only three of them make mention of George. Most of these reviews sing Terri Garr's praises for her role and praise the "non-politically-correct physical humor" or describe it in terms like "irreverent, zany, madcap, and hilarious." In other words, these reviews loved one actress out of the entire cast and enjoyed the most ridiculous, stupid, slapstick humor. The low number of reviews, combined with the complete absence of any reviews that either hate or thought the show was only okay, says a lot about how many people still remember or care about this show. A glance at Wikipedia confirms it: this show didn't and still doesn't have a lot of fans. While there's a decent synopsis, there's nothing in the section about the cast and no episode list. There's a three-sentence discussion of the unaired episodes, mostly summarizing the ending of plot arcs begun in the episodes that did air. Tellingly, the Wikipedia entry does include this, "The ineptitude that blind George demonstrated in attempting to navigate his surroundings, frequently demolishing everything in sight with his red-tipped white cane, led to the picketing of ABC's offices by members of the National Federation of the Blind." In other words, George was the walking embodiment of just about every negative stereotype of the blind, wrapped in an extra-klutzy package for maximum laughs and excused as "parody done to the extremes." It might be worthwhile to note that Mark Blankfield, the actor who played George, went on to portray another "comically" blind man. Two years after Good and Evil, Mark played Blinkin in the Mel Brooks film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Let me talk now about Mary Ingalls. Others may disagree with me in labeling her as a negative example of a blind character, but this was the reaction I had to her as a kid when I watched the show, and it's the impression of her that has lingered on in the years since. I will say she's light-years better than George, but I still can't bring myself to call Mary Ingalls as portrayed in the Little House on the Prairie series a really good example of a blind character. And let me be clear on this point: I'm not talking about the actual woman, and I'm not talking about Mary as her sister Laura portrayed her in the Little House books either. I'm talking about the character played by Melissa Sue Anderson on the long-running TV series with Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert. In fact, I liked Mary in the books, and that's probably the primary reason why I don't like her in the TV series.

In the books Mary leaves her family to attend the Iowa College for the Blind. Unlike any of the rest of the Ingalls girls, Mary goes to live four hundred miles away from her family and stays there for a year. Even Laura doesn't spend as much time away from the family as Mary; she comes home most weekends to visit from her teaching jobs. And in the decades since I first read them, there are a few lines from These Happy Golden Years when Mary comes back from Vinton for a visit that have stayed in my memory and sum up to me exactly who Mary became at the Iowa College for the Blind. When she first arrives from the train station, Carrie asks her sister if she had been afraid to come by herself on the train. "'Oh, no,' Mary smiled. 'I had no trouble. We like to do things by ourselves, at college. It is part of our education.’ She did seem much more sure of herself, and she moved easily around the house, instead of sitting immobile in her chair.” (page 124) That confidence, both in traveling independently across two states and in navigating her own home, was an element of Mary's character from the beginning. While Mary might never have been as impulsive or wild as Laura, she'd always been confident and sure in what she did. Adding to the feeling that the college was giving Mary back her confidence is another comment from two pages further on: "Mary had often smiled, but it was a long time since they had heard her laugh out, as she used to when she was a little girl. All that it had cost to send Mary to college was more than repaid by seeing her so gay and confident." She moves around the house, she laughs, she writes Braille with a slate and stylus with ease and speed, and she plays the organ for the family. Mary comes home from college a poised, polished young lady with a number of skills she is confident and eager to display as she is portrayed in the original books.

When I watched the TV series as a child, I didn't see that poise and confidence. Yes, Mary went off to the school for the blind. Yes, Mary went on to become a teacher and then head of that school with her husband. Yes, Mary got married and had a child on the TV series. And, when ruffians came to the school during the night, or Mary had to walk to find help after a stagecoach accident, she managed to cope with events and find her inner strength. But for every moment we see her being strong and coping, there were long moments of Mary standing around in or near tears, wringing her hands saying, "I can't." As an adult I can look at this and recognize that some of this is to create drama. Some of it is the real loss of confidence a young woman might feel after losing her vision. But I still hate to see a girl who was the confident, determined, voice-of-reason older sister turn periodically into a weepy, wishy-washy wife. I really don't think it gives a good impression about how vision loss will shape and determine the rest of a person's life or that her blindness explains why she is so often afraid to take action.

Moving on to the more positive portrayals, there is a comedy series that didn't use the blind guy as an excuse for crude slapstick comedy. The CBS series Becker featured the character Jake Malinak in the main ensemble. Jake was blinded in a car accident several years before the events portrayed in the series. Jake’s accident and resulting blindness are never really a major topic in the show, except in an episode in season two, "Blind Curve," when Jake's former best friend and driver in the accident that blinded him comes back to town looking for Jake's forgiveness. There are relatively few references to the fact that Jake was born with vision. Instead, Jake is a fixture in the neighborhood and the diner. He owns and operates a small stand inside the diner that sells gum, candy, and newspapers, and he seems to be a fairly well-known and well-liked guy.

Jake is played by actor Alex Désert, who does a good job of playing a man who is blind. While frequently wearing sunglasses (easy trick to hide that the actor's eyes are tracking when the character's wouldn't), in scenes without them he does a good job of keeping his gaze unfocused but close enough to whomever he is speaking to make it clear they are the object of his conversation. Désert also uses body language well, moving more like a blind man, moving his hands and head in ways that a person with sight usually doesn't. Jake uses a cane to navigate, and either Désert observed actual blind people or spoke to a mobility and orientation teacher, because he uses the cane and sighted guide in a fairly realistic and proper manner.

One of the best parts of Jake, to me, is that he is an equal in the show. He's sarcastic, he has a smart answer for a dumb question, and he is in no way exempt from the diatribes and misanthropy of the title character. He may try to keep a positive outlook, but he's not Pollyanna. And, best of all, none of the other characters avoid his blindness. If the setup is good, they make the joke about him, and Jake jokes about it himself. When another character is trying to get reparations for being 1/64 Native American and says the rest of the main characters don’t know what it's like being discriminated against, Jake's response is, "Yeah, I'm a blind black man, we just sail through life." In other words, Jake is a normal guy in the world of this sitcom, no different from any other character, no better or worse because of his blindness.

Moving from comedy to action/adventure, NBC's Covert Affairs gives us another strong, blind character: Auggie Anderson. Auggie is a young man, former special forces, who was blinded some years previous to the series start on an op in Iraq. He is sometimes still bitter about the fact that he is no longer in the field, but it's done very realistically. Auggie has had several years to come to terms with the changes in his life, but occasionally events will remind him what he can no longer do, and that loss is still fresh enough to sting. Auggie uses a cane and exhibits mostly proper technique with both the cane and a sighted guide. The only thing my blind friends and I don't really care for is the fact that he uses a short cane. His cane comes up only to the middle of his chest when held upright, which is a shorter cane than any of the blind people I know use. But considering that Auggie works in a demanding job and mentors young agents and is shown as incredibly capable and independent, I'll call that a minor quirk.

In a case of fiction following life, there's the character of Pete Thornton in MacGyver. The actor who played him, Dana Elcar, began losing his vision during the third season. His daughter convinced him to speak to the producers, because he could not continue to do some of the stunt work he'd done before. The producers came back to him saying that this was natural so they were going to have Pete go blind on the show, too. In 1991 Dana Elcar even spoke at the National Federation of the Blind's national convention about his experiences, and his speech was printed in the October 1991 issue of the Monitor.

Despite losing his vision, Pete didn't lose his place in the show, remaining the only regular character other than MacGyver himself. He might not have jumped out of helicopters or run around the woods quite as often, but Pete didn't disappear from Mac's life, either. Pete kept his position as director of operations at the Phoenix Foundation. Pete does use a guide dog to navigate, but in many ways that is the largest change for his character that the audience sees after the onset of glaucoma.

Surprisingly, one of the best, most realistic blind characters has to be Mike Longstreet in the show Longstreet, which aired in 1971, more than forty years ago. An insurance investigator is blinded by a bomb blast at the beginning of the pilot, and the majority of the first episode describes his adjustment to blindness as he lives at a residential facility called Oakhurst. Much of the pilot episode deals with Mike as he works with a doctor who helps him learn to function as a blind man. His training doesn’t begin with instruction in using a cane or a dog. First a doctor walks around with him, making Longstreet learn to pay attention to sounds and teaching him to interpret what the sounds mean. The show frequently makes a special effort to highlight cues that Longstreet would pay attention to, playing what would normally be quiet background noises much louder so that the audience pays attention to the fact that he's hearing a man walking through the grass or the panting of a guide dog walking with an older woman on another path.

Students at this facility are shown learning archery, playing horseshoes, running relays along guide ropes, and keeping active. When Longstreet begins to learn Braille, he doesn't start with the kiddie books the doctor intends to use. Instead, he has police reports transcribed into Braille so that he can read them and participate in the investigation of the crime that cost him his sight. He receives a cane that uses a laser that measures distance and gives it in an electronic pulse. The cane was indeed marketed when the show ran, and, although it never gained widespread acceptance, it represented the mobility options of the time.

Longstreet eventually gets a dog. He goes back to work as an insurance investigator, and he manages quite well. But it isn't that he's magically independent and adjusted. While the series doesn't play up these issues in the name of drama, the fact that Longstreet was blinded relatively recently isn't ignored. His friends question whether he's taking stupid risks to prove that he isn't afraid of life. Longstreet finds someone to teach him Jeet Kune Do so that he can defend himself, and the instructor is played by no less than Bruce Lee. Longstreet is even confronted by small things, such as his long-time secretary not understanding why you can't rearrange a blind man's furniture on a whim. To me it's one of the most authentic portrayals of the process of adapting to a suddenly-acquired disability that I've seen come out of Hollywood, because Longstreet isn't magically able to cope. He stands for long periods of time in front of the mirror "looking at himself.” He gets frustrated with people trying to help him (whether or not the help is necessary in the situation). The friends who worked with him in the past and continue to work with him after the explosion struggle to figure out how to respond to the new Longstreet, and they read his behavior to know how he's doing. And all of it is on a believable scale. Longstreet isn't magically able to cope with his blindness and survivor's guilt. His friends are similarly realistic in that they do not magically know how to deal with the changes blindness brings, nor are they ridiculously uncomfortable interacting with him as a blind man.

After going back to watch these shows so that I could write about them, what I take away from this is that there's no consistency to blindness on TV. Time has not helped the writers in creating authentic blind characters; at best they've maintained a low standard and a high unbelievability quotient. Using blindness as a temporary affliction for drama hasn't changed much either. The same sorts of shows still use it, and they use it the same way they always have—with about the same level of believability.

A question that my blind friends and I ask ourselves and one another is what we have the right to expect of television and whether our expectations should depend on the kind of series we’re watching. In the shows that are primarily satirical, none of the characters are realistic, and no segment of society is immune from their abuse. On the other hand, I think we have the right to expect those television shows which feature what we are asked to believe to be true-to-life human beings to pay attention to what it really means to be blind and to show their sighted viewers what I see in the lives of my blind friends. I know that fiction and drama will sometimes require that the people on screen be faster, smarter, or different in some way that makes them stand out, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that, when I see a blind character appear on the screen, I don’t have to flinch or swear or wonder how much harder it will be for my friends to function as normal people in the eyes of those who’ve watched the show.

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