Disability and Sitcoms

For my blog today, I want to keep things lighthearted in celebration of the end of summer. I will just come out and say it. I love TV and I always have. I also think that the history of the presence of disability, particularly in sitcoms, is hugely interesting and I thought I would take a few minutes to offer some thoughts on the subject. My disclaimer at the start of this is that I know it is not an exhaustive list and there are certainly many more examples, both good and bad, than the ones I will highlight. With that in mind, let's park ourselves in front of the silver screen and see where we end up.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about the subject is Larry David, the creator of the 90s megahit Seinfeld and the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I have always found that, in both shows, Mr. David has an unusually high number of episodes that feature disability. Some of these representations take a pretty negative view of disability, such as Kramer and George stealing the disabled parking space. However, most of these interactions are underlined by awkwardness and, in my opinion, do a decent job of shining the spotlight on the ways that society often recoils from disability. In the humble opinion of this TV fan, the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry dates a woman in a wheelchair is one of the funniest sitcom episodes of all time, if for no other reason than its sheer awkwardness.

A lot of teen shows also seem to make attempts to highlight disability, either through a main character (e.g. Artie on Glee) or in the form of an episode where one of the main characters interacts with disability in some way (Saved by the Bell comes to mind). Once again, the way that this issue is addressed on these shows can range from absolutely cringe worthy to pretty positive. I'm sure many of you reading this will have your own opinions on this ‘diversity phenomenon’ but for the sake of length and your attention spans I will say only this: at least it is being talked about. The more that disability in grains itself and pop culture, especially aimed at the younger generations, the better off society will be in the long run.

A number of other sitcoms, in fact I would wager most of them, have at least taken a stab at disability somewhere along their run.  However, I find the unspoken presence of disability far more interesting. Sheldon Cooper, the character at the center of The Big Bang Theory, clearly exhibits a number of autistic tendencies so I do not think that it is ever explicitly mentioned. I'm sure there are a number of other examples of character traits that could be attributed to some form of disability. This raises the question in my head as to what extent disability has to be highlighted in order for audiences connect the characters were differences. In other words, where do we draw the line between too much disability and not enough?

Writing this blog has got me thinking about more and more issues related to disability on TV. If you have any ideas or thoughts on the subject, or angles that you would like to see explored in my future blogs, please get in touch! Until then, I’ll wrap up this episode.