First aired in 1994, the one hour drama ER was an innovative TV show. Initially it was thought to be a bit too gory and filled with needless medical jargon. Within a short period of time the show became a major hit for NBC. In my view, its success was built on the ethical and personal dilemmas the cast and characters in specific episodes encountered. I don't know when or even why but somewhere along the line ER deteriorated into nothing more than your average soap opera--though a well written and had a cast of attractive men and women. Of course the doctors remain handsome and heroic and the nurses pretty and dedicted.
I only watch the show once in a while and saw the latest eprisode last night--11/15/07. By the end of the hour, I was ready to throw a rock through the TV I was so angry. Last night's ER epsisode was typical soap opera fodder and I had no intention of watching the entire show until one of the episode characters turned out to be a paraplegic father. Wow, I thought, this is great. Mainstream TV will demonstrate the barriers disabled parents face when caring for their children. I could not have been more wrong for the ER writers took a step back in time--way back in time to demonstrate that crippled people are angry. Not exactly ground breaking material. Why are crippled people angry? Because they cannot walk and hate what happened to them and are tortured by their disability. When watching the show it reminded me of an old expression that was once common--"crippled disposition"--that is, crippled people are miserable because they are crippled. This is dead wrong. I get angry, as do other cripples, but it has nothing to do with my inability to walk. Crippled people get angry because they are treated poorly and their civil rights are violated on a regular basis. This was never raised.
ER writer must have missed the last twenty years of disability rights. The plot line was simple and had potential. The paraplegic character is the father of an early teenage boy who enters the ER with a serious injury. Doctors ask him how he got hurt and his reply was "cleaning out the gutters". After doctors and nurses exchange glance the boy quicly explains his father is a paraplegic and his father could get in the ambulance. What is the focus here? What the father cannot do and implies way too much responsibility is placed ont he child. When the father appears he is angry, confrontational and bitter about what happened to him when he was injured. Of course all this is revealed in a overly dramatic way. I need not bore readers with further plot line developments--they are all bad and convoluted.
The gross misconception of the paralyzed father character was summed up in one line. During a heart to heart talk after his son is saved during surgery the man states that "anger is my base line". This is not a bad line--in fact it could have used to effectively show the myriad of social barriers crippled parents encounter. ER writers could have demonstrated how crippled parents competence is often questioned by strangers and medical personnel. But no, the writers of ER accepted an antiquated perception of disability and furthered the stereotype of the angry cripple. This was a missed opportunity.
Unfortunately my son missed this episode--he went to bed after the New York Ranger game--and I wonder what he would have thought. I suspect he would have pointed out he has never been asked to clean out the gutters or do any other such chore not ordinarily assigned to a kid. However, I will confess he is the man when it comes to changing light bulbs in our house.
Paralyzed since I was 18 years old, I have spent much of the last 30 years thinking about the reasons why the social life of crippled people is so different from those who ambulate on two feet. After reading about the so called Ashley Treatment I decided it was time to write a book about my life as a crippled man. My book, Bad Cripple: A Protest from an Invisible Man, will be published by Counter Punch. I hope my book will completed soon.
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Friday, November 16, 2007
ER Time Warp
Posted by william Peace at 4:16 AM
PhD 1992 in anthropology Columbia University, I am interested in disability rights and bioethics.
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And I'll bet your son is handsome and heroic too!
Thanks for the interesting perspective. I can definitely see where you're coming from. I saw it from a slightly different angle however, and I'm wondering what you think...
My perception was that this fellow in the wheelchair was angry, not necessarily because of his disability, but because of the "stupid decision" he had made years ago which ultimately led to the death of his wife, and the mother of his child, as well as to his own disability. I thought his anger came more from guilt than from actually living life with a disability.
The problem I had with it is that to me this whole scenario implied that the man felt he got what he deserved. He made a "stupid" decision; he "killed" his wife, and therefore, in his mind, he deserved this "sentence" of a life as a paraplegic. Consequently, again in his mind, his son had been "burdened" with too much responsibility. This only fueled the father's sense of guilt, which continued to fuel his anger.
Anyway you look at it, I certainly agree with you. "This was a missed opportunity" to address an old stereotype.
Hi, It's me again...
Someone just brought this post to my attention and I immediately thought you might be interested in seeing it. There are two actually:
Let's try that again.
The URL is
The posts are called "A Tale of Two Teens" and "A Tale of Two Teens: The Back Story"
Yes, my son is indeed heroic and handsome. He is also a typical teenager who is superb at making his father crazy!
Your points about the paralyzed father are all on target. They also play into the larger stereotypes about disability, especially anger, remorse and fear. Regardless of the reasons why the character was angry, there is the social perception all crippled people are angry. That anger can stem from any number of reasons but the strong under current of anger is always thought to be present. No thought is given to the fact crippled may be angry because their civil rights have been violated.
When the abive is combined with regret over past actions and the knowledge that any person can become disabled in the blink of an eye it is no wonder bipedal people fear disability. The episode of ER tapped directly into these deeper smybolic meanings and delievered a clear message. Part of this message is what you identify--that the character got what he deserved.
Why I wonder do films and TV shows portray disability in such a negative way? Surely someone in the entertainment businesss has heard of disability rights and could frame a story to include a positive perspective. Why could ER not have had the paralyzed father and son together while skiing where his son broke his leg. The father is thus shown to be sharing time with his son in a sport many enjoy. This could lead directly into a statment for disability rights and demonstrate the father in question was a good parent.
One last point, the blog Big Noise is great--and the entries directly critical of ER devastating. They also raise some of my concerns about the cultural implications that are involved in medical decision making strategies.
I too wonder why writers use disability in such terrible ways. I am a writer and I feel like I'm on a one-woman crusade trying to make it change! Too bad I don't write for TV :(
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