Sunday, May 23, 2010

On “Glee” and SCI Acting in General

I’ve never been a chorus, show choir, American Idol, musicals, etc. guy, but I will admit that I watch FOX’s show “Glee.” However, I’m not a full fledged “Gleek,” and to that point I have a hairpin trigger finger when it comes to fast forwarding through song and dance scenes that I think are way too cheesy for my taste (at least one per episide I'd say), but I do like the show overall. In general, I think that the TV shows that I’ve enjoyed the most over the past six years or so are the ones that involve an out-of-the-box type premise, and “Glee” intrigued me immediately for that reason. The pilot episode slowly lured me in with the teasing and weaving of a few Journey tunes into the plot line and by the time the final scene exploded into a full length glee club performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’” I was sucked in quite a bit. A year later and I’m still watching.

One of the other primary reasons why I get a regular kick out of “Glee” is that it is one of the very rare TV shows that actively incorporates characters with disabilities. Namely, one of the core glee club characters is a wheelchair using paraplegic named “Artie.” Using a wheelchair myself, my ears sort of perk up whenever I see TV shows or movies that involve wheelchair using characters. But the Artie character alone has been the subject of national controversy among many disability circles because the actor who plays Artie (Kevin McHale) is able-bodied. The main focus of that controversy is the bigger picture issue that film and television casting types frequently give the acting parts of characters with disabilities to actors who do not have disabilities themselves. Apparently, the producers of “Glee” did audition actors who use wheelchairs, but how solid a first shot the rest of the producers actually give actors with the applicable disability during the casting tryout process is a whole other issue. FYI you can check out articles that discuss these issues here, here, here, and here.

To that affect, one of the most common justifications I’ve read about this discrepancy is the fact that hiring an actor with a disability would result in an “increased liability” on the set, etc. In some respects that might be true, but in general it’s just a convenient, albeit lame, throw away excuse that sounds credible. People with disabilities hear that “liability” argument all the time. I’ve heard it myself in a handful of situations over the years and my reaction has ranged from raising an eyebrow to getting full on ticked off because it made no sense.

In the comments of one of my past posts someone asked my take on all of that above and to no surprise I come down on the side that the more people with actual disabilities playing characters with the applicable disability the better. But I also realize and understand that finding the perfect actor candidate with a disability to play the specific part can be a challenge as well. In the end, the overall best prospect gets the gig. That being said, I don’t think that it could have been THAT hard finding a real life male paraplegic with enough singing and modified wheelchair dancing choreography talent to fill that part on “Glee.” But I’m obviously no expert on the mechanics of putting together a show like that.

Nine times out of ten I can spot which wheelchair actors have actual disabilities and which ones don't. If they are able-bodied more often than not they miss the mark because there are so many subtleties to pulling off someone who regularly uses a wheelchair than just sitting in one and rolling around. Some of the things that stick out drive me absolutely nuts too. Take Artie from “Glee," for example. The thing I can never get past when I watch him on the show is how both of his legs lay limply to one side while he’s sitting in his chair. It either means that his chair frame is too small for his body or he needs his foot pedals lowered so his legs will sit more straight up and down. Legs lying limply to the side breeds bad sitting posture, opens the person's body up to the potential of pressure sores, and no rehab therapist worth their salt would let their paraplegic client live their all day, every day life like that without making the proper wheelchair seating adjustments. Every wheelchair user I see, especially those with SCI, who have both of their legs drooping to the side like that is either using the wrong chair for their body type, never got the proper adjustments, is using a hand-me-down chair, or prefers it that way (doubtful). And it’s a big time tell that an actor does not have a disability. Which means that no one in the know about such matters has pointed that error out to the “Glee” folks, or they are doing it on purpose by taking some cinematic liberties to enhance Artie’s disability.

For the record, I thought that the actor that played Jason Street on “Friday Night Lights” (Scott Porter) did a nice job portraying a quadriplegic. That character's level of injury mirrored mine so I watched every scene he was in with a sharp eye. The shoulders, the fingers, the way he transferred into his chair, etc. was pretty spot on. Ditto for the guy that played Street’s quad buddy Herc on the show (Kevin Rankin). In fact, Rankin was so convincing as a quad to me that when I saw him out of a wheelchair on an episode of “Bionic Woman” I was quite a bit shocked that he wasn’t a real quad.

Where the “Artie the paraplegic who is played by an actor who is not a paraplegic” issue has made some positive headway though is that is has seemed to have opened the door for other actors with real disabilities to get parts on the show. Most notably, two weeks ago on the “Laryngitis” episode real life C4-6 quadriplegic actor Zach Weinstein played a C-4 quad who was paralyzed in a football game. I read all about it ahead of time so I knew when his episode coming up but it was still very cool to me. Good for that guy. And his two scenes were pretty enlightening in relation to that particular episode’s plot, save for the played out "be glad for what you have, it could be worse: you could have a significant disability instead" underlying life lesson theme. FYI here is a link to a post that Zach wrote for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation blog about his lifelong desire to act—before and after his paralyzing accident—and his reflections on auditioning for his part on “Glee.” Additionally, here is a link to an interesting blog post that he wrote about his experience on the set of “Glee” filming his scenes. Fun fact: he got his own wheelchair accessible trailer. (*Editing note: Zach starred in the "Short Fuse" episode on this season of "N.C.I.S." His scene involved him working out on an UPPERTONE machine, which a universal gym specifically designed for quads.)

Another controversy about Artie and the “paraplegic who is played by an actor who is not a paraplegic” issue was stoked in the latest episode of “Glee” (“Dream On”) when during a dream sequence Artie got up and danced because is SCI therapies were working so well. But I’ll share my extended thoughts on that next time.


  1. I just heard something about this on NPR. They talked about Glee and also about Private Practice.

  2. Interesting. In what relation to Private Practice? This is the year I quit watching that show.

  3. Having never watched Glee, I found this article very intersting. Particularly, I if there would be times when it removes stigma (see "increased liability") even though an actor is not actually paraplegic? That I cannot answer.
    Particularly infuriating is the "increased liability" defense of not hiring a paraplegic. Logically, it makes absolutely no sense. Was this defense actually stated by Glee producers? If so, I think that should cause more controversy that merely having an able-bodied person play a paraplegic, since it is intellectual dishonest. Also, that such a statement perpetuates ungrounded fears in potential employers.
    Thank you for the article Shawn!


  4. Thanks. I wrote that almost a year ago when I was a less savvy blogger or I might have hammered that liability aspect with more vigor and research. But I think the articles linked dipped into that territory. But as I said, I've heard the "liability" excuse off and on over the years for various things and it usually makes no sense but sounds authoritative.