by Gary Wunder
One of the primary objectives of the National Federation of the Blind is to change how the public thinks and feels about blindness and to convince them that our lives can be as full as theirs if we are given proper training and opportunity. Our goal is to have them think of blindness as one of many characteristics: not a tragic condition dealt to the unlucky, not a miraculous condition that makes one super-human—a characteristic not to be ignored, but one that is far from being the most dominant in our lives.
Most members of the public do not know a blind person, so what they hear and see in the media often provides their first impression of what life is and can be for blind people. All too often portrayals of blind people by Hollywood have left us feeling angry, used, and further isolated in a world in which we seek full integration with our sighted neighbors. When a character is portrayed as bumbling, loud, and obnoxious and when the reason is presumed to be that he is blind, we protest to the producers and the broadcast network and take our concerns to the public. When we do so, a few of the questions are difficult to answer. Does bringing attention to the show help or harm it? Will viewers stay away from it because we've said we don't like it, will they watch to see what we find objectionable, or will they do whatever it is they would have done, with or without our protest? Does our protest educate the public about the lives of real blind people, or do we come off looking overly sensitive? Are the answers to these questions as important as our promise to speak the truths about blindness as we know them and to combat the negative portrayals, regardless of the outcome?
In the case of the sitcom Good and Evil and the movie Blindness, we protested and our concerns were publicized nationally. But not every show in which a blind character appears merits a response, pro or con. How do we decide? We start by asking questions. Is the blind character realistic? Is he or she likely to make people think more or less about the capabilities of blind people? What leeway do we offer the writers when their objective is to create a comedy? When a humorous incident happens and the character involved is blind, when is it funny and something to which we can relate, and when does it play on the stereotypes of blindness and retard the integration we seek? Are there incidents caused by blindness that we who are blind can share among ourselves with amusement but that are inappropriate to share with the sighted public? All of these figure into the judgments we make as we evaluate a show in which blindness plays a part.
In early 2014 the National Broadcasting Company began advertising a soon-to-be aired television show called Growing Up Fisher. At first all we knew was that it would feature a blind father. Then we learned that it was loosely based on the life experience of DJ Nash, the producer of the show, whose father is blind. In addition to the blind character, Mel Fisher, the cast consisted of Mel's wife Joyce, his teenage daughter Katie, and his eleven-year-old and soon-to-be twelve-year-old son Henry. Henry's birthday plays a major part in one of the episodes when we learn that he fears becoming blind when he turns twelve, the age at which his father lost his sight.
Before the show aired in late February, I received frantic calls and emails warning that a network show involving a blind character was in the making and offering to write articles about it. That we would be interested in a show featuring a blind character did not surprise me, and I appreciated the information. But those offering to author an article were unanimous in their conclusion that the show would be harmful to the blind and that their contribution would be the first step leading to demands that the show be cancelled, with a public protest to follow. Granted, we have seen some pathetic portrayals of blindness, the two mentioned being good examples. But the question I asked myself and my colleagues is whether our mindset that Hollywood will never get it right and that their laughs will always come at our expense is healthy or productive? Our perception of the general public is at the very least complex and possibly contradictory. On the one hand we believe that they want to accept us as equals and can understand that, though we need special training and equipment, we can compete with them as equal participants in society. On the other hand we are constantly on guard, believing that the general public has many misconceptions that retard our progress and that they are highly susceptible to those who will play on our limitations, real or imagined.
This having been said, what about the eleven episodes of Growing Up Fisher that aired before the show's cancellation? Wanting more than my own perspective, I wrote to people who subscribe to listservs run by the NFB. My request went to members and nonmembers alike, and it didn't matter whether their list participation was for the purpose of discussing the joys and sorrows of being a webmaster, learning how to do arts and crafts, or exploring the way to become better writers. Some who responded said they thought television a trashy waste of time, did not watch situation comedies, and therefore could not compare what they saw in the show against contemporary offerings. A few wrote to say that their lives were much too busy to bother with television but that they would be interested to see what the Monitor had to say about the show. Still others wrote saying that they had not watched the show but would love my views on it. I did my best to respond to each person who wrote to me, without putting so much energy into the responses that I would find myself with nothing to say here.
The response to the show from those who actually discussed it was overwhelmingly favorable, and many asked if there was a way to keep it on the air. I confess that I was surprised by this, not because I disliked the show, but because human nature often finds us writing first about those things we don't like and later taking the time to say thank you for those we do. Many letters started tentatively with the lines "I don't know how you feel about the show, but," or "Perhaps you will disagree with me, but I liked the show." This happened so frequently that I went back to look at my note, fearing I had somehow signaled that I was only looking for those who found the show objectionable. My conclusion is that I did not reveal any such bias and that the only tipping of my hand was to say that I had an opinion but was interested in the thoughts and feelings of others before crafting an article.
Perhaps it is not surprising that those who didn't like the show watched few episodes before concluding it was ridiculous and just another attempt by Hollywood to use blindness for a quick laugh at our expense. Several objections were common. They should have used a blind actor. It reinforces the stereotypes that we are helpless when the boy's job is to take care of his father. It was wrong to show the little boy using his father's guide dog to get girls. Scenes showing the guide dog on the bed, eating table food from the floor, and barking all sent the wrong message about how guide dogs behave and what is expected of them by their owners. Interestingly, I got more negative comments about the dog than I did about the blind character or the rest of his family. I have omitted comments in which the focus was objections to a discussion of sex, drugs, or the misbehavior of adolescents. Comments commending and condemning the show on these points were received but have nothing to do with blindness.
Here are some heartfelt and well-stated quotations that speak directly to the dissatisfaction some felt:
“I have watched it a couple of times, but personally I think it is ridiculous and that they overplay everything. I think it is a disgrace to the blind of America. We don't need anything else to make sighted people think stupid things about blind people.”
“So he gets a guide dog in the first episode, and it wanders out of the house somehow and is found. That was enough for me. I could not bear to watch any more of it.”
“As a sighted person I thought that the most glaring offense was having the blind character's blindness exhibited by the wide-open stare.” I interject here that interpreting Mel's appearance, his movements, and his facial expressions have proven to be the most challenging part of writing this article. I am totally blind and have been so since birth. Trying to figure out whose perception of Mel’s facial expressions is correct reminds me how, as a child, I remember being puzzled by the way the dead appeared to the sighted prior to burial. This was not so much from a morbid curiosity but because opinions about the subject vary widely and much of my family’s discussion during these trying times focused on what they saw in the casket. In saying good-bye to grandparents, I would hear how this one looked thirty years younger, the way she did in old pictures. Some would say, “He just looks like he is sleeping, very calm and peaceful.” Mark Twain described his just-departed daughter as an angel whose beauty in death could never be matched by those experiencing the stresses and strains of life. On the other side were those who were adamant in saying that the dead look nothing like their former selves and that to suggest they look like they are resting or fast asleep or are in some blessedly tranquil state is utter nonsense.
Critiques of the actor playing Mel were just as varied: He stares. He keeps his head in one place. He is remarkable in imitating the gestures and facial expressions of blind people I know who have previously had sight. He does a good job of impersonating a blind person searching for objects.
Several who strongly objected to the show didn't even make it through episode one. Having seen what they expected to see, they drew conclusions far from what was intended by the writers as the show makes clear.
Early on in the first episode the children are told by their parents that they are getting a divorce. While it is obvious that they still love one another, are glad for the family they have created, and are committed to remaining united in caring for their children, Joyce feels so overshadowed by Mel that she is looking for a way to live her own life, find herself, and capture elements of her youth she missed by marrying so early and becoming a mother. Up to this point Mel has been quite dependent on his family and with their help has carried on a more or less successful act in which he has pretended to be sighted. Only his family and closest friends know that he is blind. This is a highly unlikely scenario given that Mel has been blind since age twelve, but it is hard to dismiss completely the premise, given that all of us have a story or have heard stories about the futile effort to pretend to sight we do not have and to avoid the pity we fear will come from admitting we are blind.
When Mel's impending divorce leads him to move out, he is forced to confront his overdependence on family to get around and gets a guide dog from the Guide Dog Foundation. The family's youngest child, Henry, seems more upset about being displaced as his father's eyes than he is about the separation of his parents. In an effort to make his son feel that he is still useful, Mel pretends to lose his new guide Elvis and calls on his family to help. When Mel is in the process of calling the Guide Dog Foundation to tell them about the loss, Henry finds Elvis in the pantry. Several who responded to my inquiry about the show had enough at this point, because the idea that a competent blind man could actually lose his dog confirmed their worst fears about what the show would be. Immediately after the find, soon-to-be ex-wife Joyce confronts Mel about the absurdity of pretending to lose his dog but compliments him on trying to help Henry recover his fragile self-esteem.
Those who responded positively to the show were eloquent as they described their fears about what the show might be and their gradual conviction that, for a comedy, it did a good job of concentrating on family issues. Blindness was only one element in understanding the dynamics of this family, and it grew to be less important as the plots explored the problems of the newly divorced, how to date, how to handle the teen who wants to date, how to handle the issue of trust between children and parents, how to teach a teen to drive, and how to convince a son that he is not forever condemned to live in his father’s shadow. Here are some of the gems:
“When I first heard about the show, I was quite skeptical of it. I didn't think it would be an accurate portrayal of blindness and didn't even want the show to air on television. I saw the first episode and was disgusted. What kind of show features a guide dog handler feeding his dog raw meat? Who showcases a blind man ramming himself into a coffee table several times? After that first episode, however, the show began to grow on me. It was after all a comedy that was not meant to portray an accurate representation of blindness. I began to feel that the show was not all that bad and actually came to love it. I am now sad that the show is cancelled. It was not really focused on a blind man, but on a family man who is going through a mid-life crisis and who just happens to be blind.”
“I have to say two things up front. First, I am not a fan of the sitcom format, which in many cases takes the cheap shot. On the other hand, I am not opposed in principle to someone doing a comedy based on a real blind man, and I don't expect any work of art or literature which includes a blind person to tackle every issue facing the blind or conform to any standard presentation of blindness. That would be impossible. We are perhaps the most diverse group of people there is—a true microcosm of humanity, with a continuum of vision loss, adaptability, intelligence, and humor.”
“I am disappointed with the decision to take it off the air. I related so much to the character of Mel and found myself commenting frequently that I had done or said something just like him. The positive way in which this blind man is portrayed and his family's love and support relay important messages; blind people are just like everyone else—we just do things a little differently.”
“The first scene of the first episode immediately had my wife roaring with laughter. This was the scene where the boy was guiding the father as he prepared to cut down a tree with a chainsaw. Yep, been there and done that. As we watched the show each week, my wife commented that they were doing the show about me. I still tend to do everything that I once did as a sighted person—yes, including taking my daughter out for driving lessons. And the `finger juice’ did not go unnoticed in my house.” [I interject that “finger juice” is the term used to identify how Mel placed his finger over the side of a cup when he was pouring juice so he could tell when the glass was full.]
“I was actually able to focus on the quality of the show instead of focusing on whether or not I felt misrepresented as a person with a disability.”
“I've watched eight episodes so far, and a friend is sending me the rest. At first I thought the show silly. Then I genuinely came to enjoy it. I've had my daughter look at a few and, she likes it immensely too and says that the actor has done an excellent job of getting `blind’ right. Nothing is perfect—including this show—but there is an honesty here that I've never seen in any blind portrayal on film before, and that it is mixed with so much lightheartedness makes it work for me.”
One of the most thought-provoking comments I received came from a blind woman who says that, for all the good and the bad she sees, her deepest feeling is summed up by the statement: "When we've had enough decent blind characters in dramas and other shows, perhaps we can afford to smile at sitcom goofiness." Stated differently, I think she is saying that we have not traveled far enough on the road to public acceptance to tolerate portrayals of blindness that may be perceived as negatively reflecting on our basic normality and competence.
So much for my compilation, editing, and inserting the comments that were shared. What is my view of the show, and what has compelled me to write about it? I believe that this show, while far from the kind of educational documentary we would produce and different from a drama we might write, has much to recommend it. The father cutting down a tree using a chainsaw or installing a satellite dish on his roof could be taken directly from our Kernel Books or the pages of the Braille Monitor. When Mel runs into other people because he doesn't hear them and says they are as quiet as a Prius, that indicates some familiarity with current-day issues blind people consider important. When his daughter asks why he must inject himself into every situation involving his family, never watching from the sidelines as they solve their own problems, Mel relates a heartfelt story. In high school he is told by his rowing coach that, though he can’t throw him off the team, the coach doesn’t want a blind fellow getting in the way and crashing his oars into the oars of others. Mel decides to quit. Having felt the pain of rejection and having silently walked away, Mel’s decision never again to sit quietly by and let someone else determine his opportunities and his future should strike a chord that resonates with all of us who are Federationists. The show goes one better when, after letting the audience absorb the unfairness and regret generated by this life-changing moment, Katie acknowledges the importance of her father’s story but makes it clear that this is no reason to continue doing what he is doing, thereby creating similarly uncomfortable life stories that will shape her life.
One wonders how many issues might have been explored had the show continued for another season: Mel’s going back to school and having to deal with problems involving access to books and other materials; Mel’s being reported to the local social service agency for failure to supervise his son who is caught engaging in a juvenile and dangerous act; during the divorce, having a guardian ad litem appointed to act in the interest of the children who decides Joyce should be the parent who is given primary custody. The possibilities are numerous, but little reason exists to wish or speculate.
The guide dog behaviors some found so offensive are ones I have personally observed many times as students leave guide dog facilities with specific rules and admonitions drilled into them that they have already or will soon decide to abandon as overly restrictive. As one commenter said, "I know some people who give their dog a little steak once in a while and allow them to sleep on their beds, and how many times have we seen blind people allow others to walk with their dog in harness to see what it's like?"
I return to the question of whether some things we know to be true we are willing to discuss among ourselves but feel inappropriate to share with the sighted public. If this is the way we feel, do we presume to say to the entertainment industry that these concealed truths are not for public consumption? I think we must always stand against the shameful portrayal of blind people and that the decision to be heard trumps considerations about whether we help or hurt the activity to which we object. But I think we dare not try to declare blindness to be off limits to those who write situation comedies, dramas, and documentaries. All of these afford us an opportunity to speak to those who might otherwise not hear from us. All give us the opportunity to be seen publicly for the people we are. Sometimes we are bright, articulate, kind, perceptive, and model citizens. Sometimes we are weird, bizarre, lazy, disrespectful, and obnoxious. These characteristics, the good and the bad, must be ones that we help the public to see as separate and apart from the fact that we do not see and to understand that they represent what we have often proclaimed: that the blind are a cross-section of our society, with all of the virtues and vices shared by the rest of humanity.
Growing Up Fisher has performed a service, albeit brief and abbreviated. It has given the public a glimpse of a family in which one of the characters is blind, educated, employed, and revered and respected by those he loves. He is also pushy (he would say assertive,) controlling, and a character who seldom sits on the sidelines watching as those around him make decisions about their lives and his own. Growing Up Fisher has also provided us with an opportunity to look at how a blind character can and should fit in the give and take of the modern situation comedy and has given us some hope that, the next time we hear that a blind character will be featured on television or the movies, we will be a bit less apprehensive and a bit more willing to accept the entertainment for what it is: a diversion from our own workaday worries, our bills, our fears for our children, the future of the country, and all of the other things we use books, movies, television, and the situation comedy to escape from for the brief respite we all require. Growing Up Fisher gave me a brief opportunity to laugh and to cry, and I did not feel as though I needed to apologize or explain away the role that a blind character played on primetime TV. This is part of becoming a member of the broader society, and this is a testament to the progress we have made in changing the face of blindness on television.