13 October 2007

I think I need some help. I'm wondering if there's an "anonymous" group for my particular problem.

I'm addicted to... CSI.

And I really do have a problem. Despite having all the DVD's so far, I still feel the need to stay up late every night to catch the odd episode on Five US.

Fortunately I'm a student at the moment, so I can afford to stay up late watching TV and then sleep all day. But it'd be nice to see some daylight once in a while.

And you'll be interested to know that the main cause of my obsession with the show isn't Jorja Fox and those wonderful eyes of hers. Though of course she does add an extra level of enticement to the show.

The main draw for me is that it's probably the best representation of disability to have ever been shown on TV.

On several TV shows we've seen disabled doctors... Kerry Weaver in ER and of course House. Why is Doc Robbins in CSI so different?

He's played by a disabled actor, Robert David Hall.

When I was an undergraduate I remember watching a documentary in which a black woman was reminiscing about when she first got a TV. She said something to the effect of "whenever there was a black person on TV my friends and family would call each other to tell them to switch on the TV quick!"

Sadly, disabled performers are so rarely spotted on the small screen that disabled people still do this today. Even the BBC hosts a messageboard called "Quick! I've seen a disabled person on TV!"

The other fab thing about Doc Robbins is that his impairment is such a non-issue. Usually when we see disabled people on TV they're either a villain (think Roger Lloyd Pack's character creating the Cybermen in Doctor Who) or they're burdensome or overly brave for just living their lives (just look at all those "freak shows" they show on five). Certainly their presence is usually all about their impairment - it certainly seemed to me that the only purpose for the character of Brenda in The Office was to make statements about her being a wheelchair user. The same with the baby with Downs on Eastenders, all the storylines were about the Downs, never about the baby as just a baby.

Doc Robbins on the other hand just gets on with the job, and the other characters see him as a medical examiner, not just as a disabled person. In fact, I can only think of his impairment getting mentioned a couple of times - in one episode he began an anecdote with "before I lost my legs..." and in another he got something stuck in the sole of his shoe. Instead of removing his shoe to deal with the offending object, he took off his whole leg.

CSI with the character of Robbins makes disability "normal". Which of course, it is. With roughly 18% of the population in both the US and the UK having some kind of impairment, disability is normal. Though every other show on TV would never have you believe that. I've been waiting and wishing a TV show would show disability in such a way. In fact, I can quite honestly say that CSI is the show I've been waiting for my whole life.

It's important to show disabled people as normal on TV. This summer while volunteering on a FOCUS project one of the young people said to me "before I met you, I was scared of disabled people. I thought they were 'different.' Now I've got to know you I realise you're just like anybody else." I can do what I can to help both disabled and non-disabled people see that disability is "normal", but I just don't have the power to reach as many people as a popular show like CSI.

We're in the 21st Century, yet being a wheelchair user makes me so "freaky" that I can actually cause accidents. People get so engrossed in watching how the-lady-in-the-wheelchair crosses the road that they forget to look right and left before stepping off the pavement themselves. We need more disabled people on TV for non-disabled peoples safety.

Sadly, even CSI doesn't get it right all the time. The episode Sounds of Silence features the murder of a Deaf boy. One thing the show did very, very well was to highlight how even the most apparently open-minded of people, who'd never make a racist or homophobic remark, often have disablist prejudices. Sara and Warrick, two "good guys," make gross assumptions about the needs of Deaf people. The ever adorable Grissom of course puts them right.

What bothered me about this episode was the fact that it painted segregated educational institutions as a solution, not a problem. The victim was beaten up because he hadn't heard 2 guys shouting at him. The episode implies that if he'd stayed in the safety of a segregated environment, and not ventured "out there" he wouldn't have been killed. What the writers failed to acknowledge was that if Deaf and disabled people were allowed and encouraged into education alongside their peers, non-disabled people would have a greater understanding of disability. If the killers had had a Deaf kid in their class at school they might have thought "hey, maybe this guy's deaf?" Rather than jumping straight to "this guy's an arse for ignoring us."

The episode A Little Murder is largely great (I say that through slightly gritted teeth just because so much disability-related language that's acceptable in American English is offensive to me as a British English speaker). Almost all of the guest stars in this episode are of restricted growth, not to mention the whole hotel full of extras. And once again the show brilliantly highlights the sad reality of the fact so many people have disablist prejudices. In this episode the investigator that has his disablist ideas corrected is Nick.

Even before the opening credits have rolled, the writers got a dodgy comment in. And surprisingly they gave that line to the usually wonderful Grissom...

"Being a dwarf doesn't mean you're disabled Nick, it means you're... short."

I bet everyone with dwarfism claiming Disability Living Allowance is hoping that a decision maker from the DLA office doesn't see that episode.

The episode goes on to acknowledge some of the many disabling barriers dwarves face (one example given is handrails on stairs not being appropriate heights), and Grissom seems perfectly aware of these barriers. So why on earth would he think that dwarves aren't disabled? Does he really belive those barriers have no effect on a persons ability to participate in everyday life? (I am of course using the Social Model definition of "disabled".)

Robert David Hall and the cast of A Little Murder aren't the only disabled actors to have appeared in the show. There was an episode (Snuff) in which the team investigated the murder of a stable hand with Downs Syndrome, and the victim was played by an actor with Downs. This positivity towards hiring disabled actors makes the episode XX seem so sad - the fact that they cast the non-disabled T R Knight (of Grey's Anatomy fame) to play a learning disabled man.

Another episode which featured a non-disabled actor "spazzing up" is One Hit Wonder, in which Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet in Lost) plays a wheelchair using attorney. You could in this case argue for the casting of a non-disabled actress, the character had an acquired impairment and was non-disabled in the flashback scenes. But there have been instances on other TV shows of a blind actor faking sight in a few scenes before the character went blind, and of actors with no arms wearing prosthetics for a few scenes until the character's arms were lost. And lets not forget Cherylee Houston playing a non-disabled woman in one sketch on Little Britain.

The issue with this episode in my mind was what I call "The Glen Hoddle Mentality" - that disability is a punishment for sinning. The character became disabled when she shot her husband. Before he bled to death, he grabbed the gun and shot her back. But, not all disabled people are angels, and these things do happen. And I think the fact that CSI has such a positive history in terms of it's realistic representation of disability that it earned the right to "get away with" this episode.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, we've seen an episode with an autistic witness (Caged) and the murder of a girl with bipolar disorder (Recipe for Murder). In the episode Living Legend there's even an acknowledgement that disabled people can be victims of Hate Crimes.

While CSI might not make it to the almost one-in-five ratio of disabled people that would truly reflect real life, it does better than any show I've ever seen to have come before it. OK, Twin Peaks might have just about gotten the numbers in (Eileen Hayward, Johnny Horne, Nadine, Leo, Gordon Cole, The Man From Another Place, The One-Armed Man, The Log Lady, Andrew Packard, and I'm sure Andy had some degree of intellectual impairment) but it was hardly groundbreakingly positive in its approach to depicting disability like CSI. I mean, the show Twin Peaks itself isn't even accessible to all - several episodes contain strobe lighting which can trigger seizures in those with photosensitive epilepsy.

The good thing is, since CSI we've had the spin off CSI:NY - another disabled doctor! This time played by the wheelchair using actor J. Grant Albrecht

I sincerely hope that future programme makers consider the success of CSI and the fact that disabled people make up such a significant proportion of the population. If we're all phoning our friends and telling them to tune in, like that black woman, we can make a real difference to audience numbers. I wonder how many other CSI fans are so engrossed because of it's representation of disability, like me?


  1. I don't have tv .... and I am so addicted that I am downloading episodes by the gazillion. Weird though that the disability representation seems to vary throughout the franchises: a lot in CSI, not much, but there is a w/c user in CSI: NY and not at all as far as I can see in Miami.

    hmm. My name is WCD and I am a CSI addict.

  2. Okay, I know this post is from a year ago, but there's a show called Bones in the US that has an actor who portrays a scientist with Aspergers syndrome - it's never been mentioned, but it's incredibly obvious, and producers/writers have said as much in interviews. And the scientist is very well acted - a guy called Eric Millegan - and comes across as just one of the gang, and it really shows how people with ASD's can be invaluable in the scientific workplace because of our single-mindedness. (Of course, the character is also a genius, and that helps him too.)

  3. Just wanted to mention that the guy who played the one armed one in Twin Peaks (Al Strobel) genuinely did only have one arm.