Disability visibility

Kay Jewelers has been running a series of ads this Christmas season about a deaf woman whose boyfriend is trying to learn sign language and regaling her with gifts of jewelry.  The ads prompted me and Mrs Acilius to try to think of other commercials for products not specifically related to disabilities that feature disabled characters.  We couldn’t remember ever having seen one.  Can you?


  1. cymast

     /  December 11, 2008

    It seems like I remember a Target or Wal-Mart commercial that had a wheelchair-user in it some years ago. I tried searching on youtube but didn’t find it. But I did find this:

  2. acilius

     /  December 11, 2008

    That commercial is great! Thanks for the link.

  3. cymast

     /  December 11, 2008

    You’re welcome!

    The only other “commercials” I can think of off-hand are my National Fire Protection Association “Fire Prevention Week” tee-shirts, courtesy Mr. Cymast. On the backs of some are a printed drawing of a group of people, one of which is in a wheelchair.

    I know I’ve seen 1 or 2 TV commercials with a guy in a wheelchair in a store. It could’ve been K-Mart or some other “mart,” it’s been some time ago . .

  4. acilius

     /  December 11, 2008

    It’s amazing how little you see of disabled people in mass media. Young disabled people in particular are almost completely invisible there.

  5. cymast

     /  December 11, 2008

    Perhaps more disabled people should audition?

  6. acilius

     /  December 11, 2008

    Dunno. I suspect that agencies have particular physical types in mind when they design commercials. So if the script calls for a 56 year old woman with dark hair, a 41 year old man with graying hair, and a 19 year old woman with blond hair, auditioners will be grouped into those descriptions. If you don’t meet any of the descriptions, there won’t be a part to audition for.

  7. cymast

     /  December 11, 2008

    Somebody in a wheelchair could fit perfectly into any of those descriptions you mentioned. What often irks me is when a non-disabled person is cast in the role of a disabled character. There are exceptions, such as when the performance is particlarly outstanding, such as in the movie WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE. The TV show LIFE GOES ON cast an actor with Down Syndrome in the role of a character with Down Syndrome- that helped make it of my favorite shows.

  8. acilius

     /  December 11, 2008

    “Somebody in a wheelchair could fit perfectly into any of those descriptions you mentioned”- well, people do tend to notice the wheelchair. If the original description didn’t include a wheelchair, then it’s going to require a rethink of the character to cast a wheelchair user.

    Non-disabled actors as disabled characters- can be a problem, certainly. The whole blackface issue. And it’s not really fair to disabled actors, when they have so few parts to try out for, to give the few that are available to non-disabled actors. But what happens when the choice comes down to, A, non-disabled actor plays disabled character, or, B, no disabled character is shown? That’s certainly been the choice Hollywood has faced many times in the past. So a movie like WAIT UNTIL DARK could be made in the 60s with a blind woman as the main character, but only if that woman were played by Audrey Hepburn. No blind actress then working had the box office drawing power to open a movie like that. Likewise with GILBERT GRAPE and other high-profile examples.

    So when do you settle for what’s available, when do you insist on the full package? I don’t think a general rule is possible. It seems like something where you have to go case by case.

  9. cymast

     /  December 11, 2008

    Good points. Disabled people are, however, a minority in number. I would even venture to say a good number of disabled people aren’t in a position to be auditioning for acting roles. So you have a very small demographic in the first place. Plus, the process of auditioning can be very physically demanding, so physically challenged actors are doubley at a disadvantge. In any case, unless you have an agent and are a brilliant actor, parts are usually slim and none.

  10. acilius

     /  December 12, 2008

    Not so small in number- there are more Americans with identifiable disabilities than there are in any ethnic minority.

  11. cymast

     /  December 12, 2008

    So there are more disabled people than there are black or Hispanic people- quite surprising. Where are they?

  12. acilius

     /  December 12, 2008

    Not on TV, that’s for sure.

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