No One Is a Disability

Jul 5, 2012

Recently, I’ve seen several productions that deal with disability. Coincidentally, two of them—the TV show Switched at Birth and the play Tribes, center on deafness. A third, More of Our Parts, a series of short plays recently performed in NYC, included two about deafness as well. In the overrated Tribes, there are no real characters, and deafness is used as a symbol for the fact that We Don’t Really Communicate With Each Other. The play cycle was, in all honesty, terrible, except for The Ah Factor by Bruce Graham, in which a director and screenwriter humorously discuss how a movie audience would react to a topless scene by an actress with hearing loss. I do have some hearing loss as well as mobility impairment, and I’m so critical of these productions because I feel, in 2012, we in the disability community deserve better. That’s why I appreciate SAB. I recognize it has the advantage of being a series with time to develop characters. The two teenagers and one adult in the show with hearing loss are main characters, not brought in for a theme episode on inclusion. Much of the program’s dialogue is in ASL. What SAB manages to do is present these characters as people; while their deafness does inform much of their lives and interactions, we see them as individuals. And that’s where many depictions of disability fall short. Either the person with the disability is used as some kind of symbol, or the primary conflict given to a differently-abled character is the disability: he or she is not accepted, is seen and treated as different, by the able-bodied. Period. I’m not denying that disability has been the defining factor for many—people I know are shunned, ignored, denied opportunities because of it. Disability is not incidental to existence, but people are not their disabilities. The challenge is to create a character with a disability in a way that respects both the disability and the individual. Lizzy Weiss, writer and producer of SAB, has shown it is possible.