Of course I have several issues with Hollywood’s portrayals and representations of those with a disAbility – and of course even more on those specifically who are paraplegic characters! But it is even more disappointing when a movie or television show that I love, admire and respect cannot even fake it that well. As an example was a blog entry I made a couple three months ago about the BBC show “Inspector Lewis” that is shown in a first run here in the States on PBS’ “Mystery Masterpiece Theatre”. And I have been meaning to make mention of another of my beloved television shows, one of the few created and filmed here in the U.S. and is also loved by many, “Lost”.
I have been a fan of “Lost” since the very first episode which I could not miss because it debuted right after my then and still all time favorite television drama show “Alias” (which as strange as it sounds one of my career dreams is to work with every one of the key players and makers of “Alias”) which both shows were created by genius JJ Abrams. I love the attention detail, the characters, the story, the history, the photography, direction, all of which combined with the wonderful performances I think is what makes these shows so fantastic, great, the best on television. And in “Alias” it was great when in one episode of season 4, they cast actor Alan Toy as a character in a wheelchair and he is a person with a disAbility who uses a wheelchair. Bravo to those who cast Alan in that role.
In “Lost” one of the great characters John Locke, portrayed by Terry O’Quinn whom I think is a brilliant actor, is a paraplegic character! For those who do know, the character of Locke was paralyzed from a spinal cord injury after a fall out a building window years before the show opener that had airliner Oceanic Flight 815 crashing onto the island where he survived and miraculously he immediately found that he was no longer paralyzed as he stood up and walked on the beach of the island with the other survivors!
WOW! Okay, so in this instance there has to be an able bodied actor which I have no beef with. And the idea of a paraplegic walking again borders on fantasy, but on what we come to learn is a very mysterious island where all kinds of strange and super natural events happen, it becomes a plausible and enjoyable dream! A wonderful balance in story and character that even those audience members who are paraplegics can accept and therefore enjoy without going, “Yeah, right! Give me a break!”
So where is my problem? The show mixes the current plot of the survivors surviving on the island with flashbacks of the characters before they crashed on the island. In those flashbacks with the Locke character, he is a paraplegic and where we find out how he was paralyzed. But what is so disappointing, and what my beef is, is one of my pet peeves commonly used with paraplegic characters in movies and television – portraying them using the most basic wheelchair – what we call the hospital chair! It is a standard steel metal frame, a cheap sling back which a paraplegic who broke his back wouldn’t care it is terrible for support of posture (yes sarcasm added for emphasis’), high bulky armrests, standard foot rests, push handles, and all in all very basic.
Oh and if that wasn’t enough, they rarely if ever are using a cushion on the seat! Whether it is a hospital chair or a regular chair used by paraplegics there has to be a cushion to help prevent pressure sores. Not as glaring to the uninitiated but such an important detail if you are portraying a paraplegic in a wheelchair! Any paraplegic, doctor, nurse, or other disAbled persons who have to use a wheelchair for their mobility knows that if you sit in a regular wheelchair seat with no cushion they are extremely vulnerable to pressure sores. Sometimes Hollywood will portray an elderly person in a home health care facility using one of these basic chairs with a pillow on the wheelchair seat – and in some case depending on how often the chair is being used – that may be the case. But an overwhelming majority has to have a specifically designed seat cushion that will help to prevent pressure sores. They do significantly reduce the risk of getting a pressure sore (aka a bed sore) and that is why they can easily cost $400 or more to help reduce this huge health risk.
So it really irks me when I see a paraplegic character, one who is being portrayed as an established paraplegic and not one who is just leaving the hospital, using a hospital chair and one without a cushion as their everyday typical chair! It is almost like watching an athletic character playing basketball or football in a movie or television show wearing men’s dress shoes instead of sneakers or cleats! It is that ridiculous!
The power of Photoshop! Nice shoes and socks, huh? Who cares what shoes a character is wearing? Or what wheelchair a paraplegic character is using?
This kind of hits close to home to me right now because my chair is in the shop waiting to be repaired – waiting for Medicare approval and then the repairs – so I have a “loaner” chair – which is great to have – let me say that up front – because without it – I am stuck in bed 24/7 – but it is a rather basic chair – a hospital chair. A big difference from my TiLite wheelchair which I love (yes it is an endorsement – are you paying attention TiLite – this is not a paid endorsement so if want please throw me a bone!!!) But even in this hospital chair, I am using my Roho brand air cushion that I think is the best design with air pockets to shift the pressure as I sit and move on my seat. Although I have gone through a few chairs and cushions over the years, I have always remained with Roho cushions since I was paralyzed 15 years ago (again not a paid endorsement so if you feel so inclined Roho send me a free replacement cover for my cushion!!!).
Earlier this season in “Lost” there was a featured episode that primarily centered on Locke in flashbacks and what they call a flash sideways (if you watch the show you understand what that is) which he is not on the island and is a paraplegic. And when they showed Locke getting out of his wheelchair accessible van, on a wheelchair lift, but in that same old hospital wheelchair and without a cushion – IT JUST DROVE ME CRAZY! A show that is so good at details can make something this blatantly ignorant is very disappointing.
I guess this is just another glaring example that even when brilliant movie and television makers, like those on “Lost” try to fake the portrayal and representation of a paraplegic character they just follow the same old stereotypes of those that came before them in Hollywood. Perpetuating the images of paraplegics the only way they know or the only way they care to. Come on guys and gals of “Lost” even your disAbled consultant (which most often is a paraplegic and Hollywood uses as their excuse to be authentic in their portrayals) didn’t tell you this is a disregard to details? Basic details? Or even if you didn’t hire a disAbled consultant, you couldn’t find out this basic information on portraying a paraplegic character? One of the best, highest rated series in television and this is the best you can do – using a hospital wheelchair? Come on, a show with this kind of budget and that has raised the bar so high on its entertainment of American television can go so far below the bar of common portrayal of a paraplegic? No big deal, huh? Oh, I guess they couldn’t afford a real wheelchair. The hospital chair can be purchased for around $200 and a chair that a real paraplegic would use is around $3500. The strength of anything is measured only by its weakest link and this glaring dismissal in the portrayal of a major character does diminish the overall value in the show.
So tell me which one of these characters do you believe are actually paraplegics? Not just someone who is temporarily injured but is a paralyzed person living his everyday life?
This is the John Locke character in a flash sideways segment. Does he look like he has been a paraplegic for the past several years as he is portrayed to be?
In another flash sideways segment (from an earlier Lost episode this season) that features the character Claire, who is pregnant and being rushed into the hospital uses a more modern “hospital wheelchair” (and very much like my current “loaner” chair) as you can see below.
Even Claire’s wheelchair would be a more believable chair for a paraplegic then the one they are using for John Locke, an actual paraplegic character! But lets look at another Hollywood television portrayal of a paraplegic character below.
Here is a promo picture for the character Artie who has also being portrayed as a paraplegic for the past several years. He is using a chair that is typical and not a hospital chair. This is downsized to fit in the blog but in a full shot you can also see there is a cushion that he is sitting on. Of course I have my issues with this character as can be read in the blog entry Glee is Everything to Everyone but at least they got this health and image portrayal issue correct! And what makes it this even more difficult personally, I love Lost and don’t care at all for Glee!
But nevertheless, which of the Hollywood television character portrayals do you believe is more realistic as a paraplegic? Does the fact that one is an older adult and the other is a high school teenager play a factor? No, it shouldn’t. Look below!
All of these adults actually are paraplegics using their everyday wheelchairs. Not a sports chair to go play tennis or basketball – just their everyday wheelchair and this is how paraplegics live.
And none are using a hospital chair!
IF they had gotten a real wheelchair that a paraplegic would use, then the John Locke character would be a lot more believable as a paraplegic. It is kind of demeaning to me as a paraplegic that the image that is being portrayed of a paraplegic is one that uses a cheap, underdeveloped chair for those who are temporarily injured or sick. One that doesn’t care or respect his disability. And speaking of image – frankly it does have a lot to do with it. Aside from the health issues that a hospital chair does not address – the seating, positioning, including the proper back support, image is important. I can tell you as I go out in this “loaner” chair it does have an affect on me in both my health and self image. My chair is as much a part of me as my legs in function and as much as my clothes in image. But how is Hollywood suppose to know any of this when they only use able bodied to write, direct, and act in roles written as paraplegic characters! Obviously the John Locke character has to be portrayed by an able bodied actor, but if Hollywood did use paraplegic writers, directors, and actors for other roles of paraplegic characters they would know this and be able to address it with characters like Locke – which will only enhance and give depth and some authenticity to the character! And what will that hurt? Does the character of paraplegics not deserve the same respect in image and depth as all the other characters in movies and television? Well that is but one aspect I hope my films will change!
In this past week’s episode (“Everybody Loves Hugo” April 13, 2010), at the very end of the episode, in another flash sideways, the Locke character is wheeling across a school parking lot and gets hit hard and deliberately by a car – his body flies out of the chair and my second thought is a hope that the hospital wheelchair is demolished!
Look on the bright side – Abilities United Productions and my first feature film “London Time ” will show all of Hollywood how to portray and represent paraplegics the CORRECT way. In a respectful way and although it will also show how incompetent Hollywood has been in their portrayals – I hope it will set a new standard – a realistic standard – in a more genuine and authentic portrayal and representation of paraplegics and others with a disAbility! It is a shame that I have to blaze a trail only to raise the standard to being a basic and realistic portrayal. And I guess that is why I feel that because I take it further than merely realistic, to being authentic portrayals and representations is why I think history will record it as a significant “turning point” in American cinema for those with a disAbility. And everyone, most who will be able bodied, who joins with me in producing “London Time ” will be recognized as blazing this trail and participating in the “turning point” in American cinema. So let me ask, “Are you in?”Tell others, visit my website, make comments here or on the website, follow me on Facebook (use my email address: Larry@AbilitiesUnited.com and/or also search for the “Abilities United Productions” page) and/or Twitter (@wheelrFilmmaker). Let others know this is an important issue to you, to American cinema, television, to the images and opinions of society in general and therefore on the population of 6 million paraplegics in America and the additional 50+ million Americans with a disAbility. I am not just pointing out the issues, I am making a difference – providing a permanent solution but I cannot do it alone. I need you and many others to support with as little or as much as you can do. Do you even care that we are not discriminated against and instead allowed an equal opportunity to provide our own voice, vision, and performance with characters that are paraplegics and those with a disAbility who have the abilities and can represent themselves? If you are not part of the solution (in doing anything mentioned above to advance the cause, or the production of “London Time”, or even merely raise the awareness by voicing your opinion or adding your voice) then you are part of the problem. Take a moment and be proactive! Are you with me?