Introducing Elise

Disabled2

Hello! My name is Elise, I am a 34-year-old Canadian woman living on the Montreal South Shore. Also with me is my eight-year-old cat Kenji. I am a disabled freelance language professional: translating, editing, proofreading, beta-reading, I do it all, in both French and English! In my free time, I love reading, writing, and watching television.

Oh, and also, I have a neuromuscular disability called spastic ataxia.

I started my blog because nobody around me is disabled. I wanted a place where I could tell them about my life on my terms and in my way. In my articles, you will find insights into my life. Recollections about my past and critiques of the portrayal of disability in general in the media. As I said above, books and television are some of my favorite things!

My articles are meant to be a light-hearted, sometimes (hopefully) funny window into my disabled life, nothing more, nothing less.

Playing Disability for Laughs

When we think of television characters with disabilities, it seems like the majority of them are in dramas. Locke from Lost, Dr. House from House, Tyrion from Game of Thrones, Jason Street from Friday Night Lights… But what about comedies? I feel like sitcoms have long shied away from disability. Maybe because disability is too dramatic to be used in a funny show, right?) But I’ve noticed a definite uptick in the recurrence of disabled characters recently. And I’m here to talk about three of my favorite sitcoms: MomThe Big Bang Theory, and Friends. Okay, a single episode of Friends, but I couldn’t pass up the chance of talking about it!)

I have a fiancé. He’s in a wheelchair. Yeah. I’m that good a person.

Mom on CBS is, as far as I know, the only sitcom airing right now with a main character in a wheelchair Please correct me if I’m wrong! Adam Janikowski first started appearing in season 3, as Bonnie’s blind date. He used to be a Hollywood stunt double. But had an accident that paralyzed him from the waist down, and now uses a wheelchair. He still drives, works (he owns a bar), and lived alone before he moved in with Bonnie. His disability never defined him, and that is something I really appreciate about the character.

Episodes with him or about him aren’t always about his wheelchair. He and Bonnie have regular old married people problems. And sometimes entire episodes go by without a single reference being made to his disability, and I enjoy this immensely. Even though Adam is in a wheelchair, they write him as a character, not a disabled character.

However, I can’t go on without mentioning the elephant in the room:

Adam Janikowski is played by William Fichtner, who is not disabled. Contrary to characters like John Locke who need to appear abled regularly, in which cases I don’t mind a bit of “cripping up,” the only time we saw Adam walking was in a video of his pre-wheelchair days. A scene that could have been filmed differently (e.g., by showing only the watchers’ reactions and commentary instead of the actual TV screen) or omitted together. It existed only because William Fichtner is not disabled, and that bothered me.

There are other ways in which it’s obvious that the actor isn’t physically in a wheelchair. While in his old apartment, in which he lived alone, we saw clear adaptations like no high cupboards and everything in the kitchen placed at a level where somebody sitting could reach it, since he moved in with Bonnie and Christy, I have not noticed one change in their crowded apartment. I keep waiting with my fingers crossed for the day the damn table next to the couch disappears since there’s no way a wheelchair could fit around it. Clearly, William Fichtner just gets up and walks around the set when he’s not filming, and nobody ever bothered to see if he could do the same in his chair.

And yet when they went on their honeymoon, I’m pretty positive I saw a ramp in the background in the chalet they rented.

There are episodes in which Bonnie utters lines like the one in my subtitle (which made me physically cringe), and then there are beautiful episodes centered on whether Bonnie would love Adam better if he was still able, and whether Adam would have settled for Bonnie if he wasn’t in a wheelchair (answers were no, and he was a jerk before so he wouldn’t have deserved her).

One of the first disability-focused episodes I remember was one in which Bonnie used Adam’s disabled placard to park in a reserved spot. He got really upset at her for it, and I thought it was great, a really interesting message to have on a widely seen sitcom. But then he said he didn’t even use it most of the time because other disabled people needed that spot more than him, and I found that odd.

There’s a similar scene on Lost 

where John Locke doesn’t want to use a handicapped parking spot, and when he needs to get his wheelchair in the car since someone is parked next to him in his regular spot, his ramp can’t get down. Adam is non-ambulatory, so that disabled parking spot is necessary, not just because he needs to be close to the door but because he needs a wider space around his car. It seems like having someone actually disabled on the Mom team might have pointed this out, because “handicapped parking spots are only for really disabled people” is a bit of an odd message to send. But A for effort, I guess?

I also find it disappointing that Adam’s golden retriever, Gus, isn’t cast as a service dog.

I’ve known for years that as someone with ataxia, possibly more of a wheelchair user in the future, I might eventually need to get one, but until recently, I had no idea what a service dog did for a person in a wheelchair.

And I’m disabled! So I imagine many ableds have the same misconceptions about what service dogs actually do for people. People with different sets of needs. I think it would have been something fun to see on the show. Adding to the credibility of the character.

So this is Mom in a nutshell really: some great teachable moments, and others that stink of ableism. I never quite know what to expect when I see the theme of disability rear its head; will I be charmed or will I cringe? I can go either way.

PS: If a Mom set decorator happens to see this article, please get rid of that table. You know the one I’m talking about.

I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested

I’ll preface this by saying upfront that I loved The Big Bang Theory. As a girl who was never particularly pretty or popular; I much preferred math lessons and literature homework. To gym class and school dances. I felt seen by this little sitcom about a gang of dorks making their successful way through life. That being said, I know the show didn’t have only fans, and I absolutely get it.

I think we can all pretty much agree by now that Sheldon Cooper has Asperger’s Syndrome, or at least falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. And yet, it is never expressly said on the show. Bill Prady, the show’s creator, even says that Sheldon is just “Sheldony.”

Some people aren’t bothered at all by this, and some are. I personally am, even though I’m not autistic, and do not presume that my opinion reflects that of anybody else. I’m just thinking that if Sheldon, say, was in a wheelchair and exhibited symptoms of ataxia, but that the show never named the disease once in its twelve-year run, I would not have been amused. It’s an admirable thing to openly portray a disease or condition on popular TV, but if we stop just shy of putting a real, relatable name on it, is it really helping anyone?

I thought it was quite well portrayed. And it was good to see all those symptoms present in a “regular” person with friends, a job, and a girlfriend. All while still seeing the struggle that came with them. Treating them as quirks to be made fun of constantly, though, while amusing in a sitcom kind of way, made The Big Bang Theory fall short of being the true positive beacon this show could easily have been, in my opinion.

What do you got, a bionic foot?

Friends, season 3, episode 14, “TOW Phoebe’s Ex-Partner.” One of the storylines is about Ginger, a woman with an artificial leg. Chandler meets her in Central Perk and they start dating. We learn later in the episode that Joey had also dated her a few years before when they went to a cabin. He woke up in the middle of the night to the fire dying out. He accidentally threw her artificial leg on it. Thinking it was a log.

Putting aside how ridiculous that story is (because it’s a sitcom so we can do that), I really like how respectful this tiny episode-long arc is. We only learn a few scenes after having met Ginger that she is disabled; it’s not what defines her, she’s never just “that disabled girl the guys date.” She’s never the butt of jokes because of her artificial leg either; Joey is the butt of the throwing-a-leg-in-the-fire joke. They show great awareness of how ableism sucks.

Chandler says: “Oh God, [the leg] freaked me out. Okay, I know it shouldn’t have, but it did. […] I mean I’m the smallest person in the world, aren’t I?”), and Ginger is portrayed as a strong woman who doesn’t let her artificial leg dictate her relationships (to Chandler, she says: “It’s okay if it bothers you. […] I mean the only thing I need to know is how much it bothers you because I don’t like wasting my time.”

And the funny punchline to this story is that she leaves him when she finds out he has a nubbin. Also known as a third nipple! I doubt the Friends writers were going for anything more profound than the absurdity of the situation. But it’s almost like they were pointing out that disabled people aren’t perfect either!

One last thing before I go:

I find it marvelous that Chandler meets Ginger when she walks out of the men’s room. Because the women’s room was busy and she really had to go. Sweet revenge for all the times abled people use the disabled stalls because “all the other ones are taken”!

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