When I sat down last week to watch the premiere of The Michael J. Fox Show with my parents, I had high hopes that the show would handle disability well. I’m glad to say that overall, I was quite impressed. If you haven’t seen the show yet (and I recommend that you do), the basic premise is that Mike Henry (Fox), a husband and father of three children, is navigating a return to his job as a news anchor after leaving his position due to an on-air incident gone viral Internet video caused by his Parkinson’s disease. The show is a bit heavy on Parkinson’s jokes, but for the most part, the humor appears to be quite strategic. When Mike gives in to going back to work, he does so in the hopes that he will again be taken seriously as a reporter, rather than watched with pity or in awe due to his disability. I actually love the way the show handles this issue.
While Mike is trying to return to business as usual, nearly everyone he encounters fawns all over him for being so inspiring by returning to work and overcoming his disability – to the point where his new assistant at the news station breaks down in tears just because she is overcome with inspiration merely by being in his presence. I found this both comical and sadly reflective of reality. As I’ve learned over the years, the mindset that disabled people are inspirational just for living their lives is rampant among nondisabled people. Fox’s new show demonstrates just how ridiculous this view actually is. For instance, Mike specifically asks not to be exploited as an inspirational story to boost ratings upon his return to work. Instead, the viewers are let in on the joke as Mike’s producer claims not to be exploiting his disability while simultaneously showing an over-the-top sappy spectacle of a commercial advertising his return to television, set to the tune of “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias. Not only was this hilarious, but also I believe it is a great reminder of why disabled people need not be perceived as inspirational just for doing everyday things.
I really hope that the messages about disability in this show won’t go over the heads of nondisabled viewers, and that they will take away positive messages about disabled people, perhaps even reexamining the way society and most popular media influences their own sentiments. As it happens, I can think of one woman in particular, encountered by my mom, who could benefit from seeing such commentary on the theme of disabled people as inspirational. A little over a week ago, as my mom was getting out of our van, a woman approached her and said “You’re amazing!” My mom told me she tried to play along, asking “Why?” But all that the woman could say in reply was “You just are. You’re amazing.” And then she went on her merry way. Now, the woman was certainly not being rude or offensive, but she didn’t know my mom from a hole in the wall! It’s true that my mom is literally one of the most amazing people on the planet, but she is amazing for reasons a random stranger would never know just by looking at her in the middle of a parking lot. Being out in public in her power chair does not make her amazing – it makes her like everyone else who goes out with his or her family, regardless of her means of getting around. So, although the woman was trying to be kind, her compliment was not based on anything substantial, such as my mom’s achievements or personality. It was based on nothing more than my mom’s disability.
Unfortunately, the perception of disability as illustrated by the woman’s remark to my mom is all too common. Yet, when I pointed out why I felt that blatantly using disabled people to inspire and tug at the heartstrings of nondisabled people (in a post in response to the Guinness wheelchair basketball commercial) is both condescending and unfair, a few naysayers commented that I was being nothing more than bitter, angry, and cynical. Interestingly, it seems that The Michael J. Fox Show is in full agreement with me; they were just a bit more humorous and viewer-friendly about it. To the people who felt I was looking for reasons to be unhappy, I can honestly say I am not bitter, nor am I unhappy. I am quite happy with who I am and how I view the world. But, my perspective on using disabled people as objects of inspiration has been shaped by living in a body that has prompted innumerable unsolicited comments about how incredible it is to see me out in public for no other reason than that I am visibly disabled. I know these comments are not intended to be malicious, and I’m sure people think that they’re making me feel good or stroking my ego, but don’t you think it’s just silly to comment on what an inspiration I am if you don’t know what I’ve accomplished?
If you think my mom or I have accomplished something just because we leave our house and show our faces in public, then you certainly don’t know anything about us. While we have faced challenges due to our disabilities and we are proud to be part of the disability community, we are so much more than just our disabilities. I truly believe The Michael J. Fox Show has the opportunity to serve as a key resource to help nondisabled people see beyond the typical media depiction of disability as inspirational and heroic. I hope it will lead to the realization there are so many other reasons, disabilities notwithstanding, that my mom and I happen to be awesome!
(Remember, this is just an opinion piece. I’m glad to hear all opinions in response, but please be respectful and give constructive feedback.)
For more thoughts on the premiere of The Michael J. Fox Show, check out these links:
Michael J. Fox a role model for disabled by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, USA Today
Full Review: The Michael J. Fox Show, Disability Thinking