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For "Glee," a wheelchair misstep?

Fox Broadcasting Company's breakout hit show "Glee" tackled a tough issue in the episode aired last Wednesday evening: Is it possible for able-bodied high-school kids to really understand what life is like for a kid in a wheelchair?

Left to right: Jenna Ushkowitz, Chris Colfer, Kevin McHale, Amber Riley and Lea Michele play singers in "Glee," which evokes "Election" and "Grease." (By Carin Baer -- Fox)

The plot, in brief: Glee club advisor/teacher William Schuester is disappointed when the kids in the club are content to have their one wheelchair-bound club-member ride to a competition in his father's car rather than raise money to rent a wheelchair-accessible bus. So he obtains a bunch of wheelchairs and insists that all the glee-clubbers spend at least three hours a day in them -- and perform a song-and-dance number in them, too. Enhanced appreciation ensues.

But the episode, clearly intended to raise awareness of the challenges people in wheelchairs might face in going about their daily business, has met with criticism from advocates for disabled people.

The issue: The gifted young actor who plays the student in the wheelchair is not himself in a wheelchair. The advocacy group argues that there are plenty of young performers in wheelchairs who could have been cast in that role. The "Glee" people counter that they've worked hard to make their cast inclusive and that finding a star who can sing, act and radiate personality the way actor Kevin McHale does was daunting enough.

IMHO, "Glee" is the best thing to happen to television in years. It's one of the few shows you can watch with your teen-aged kids knowing that everyone will love it. It has juicy story lines that don't get too edgy, and it's bursting with toe-tapping music. If you haven't tuned in already, I recommend you give it a try.

I was going to blog about one of the show's weaker story lines involving a woman who's faking a pregnancy to keep her husband (the glee-club advisor) in line. How common is it for women to fake pregnancies? I'll come back to that question another day. Because this wheelchair issue is much more compelling.

I can see both sides of the story. Perhaps there is a young person in a wheelchair out there who could act the role of Artie as well as -- or better than -- McHale has. On the other hand, the show's creators clearly are trying hard to do right by people of varying races and ethnicities, sexual orientations and levels of high-school popularity.

The episode featuring the wheelchairs also features a subplot about a student with Down syndrome, played by a young actress with Down syndrome, and another involving a mentally handicapped person, again played by an actress who appears to be mentally handicapped.

So I'm inclined to give "Glee" a pass on this. How about you? Please share your point of view in the comments section, and register your opinion in today's poll:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 16, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Disabilities  
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I did not realize that Kevin McHale was able bodied until I saw the Glee cast singing at the World Series. I guess that it is easy for me to say this, but I don't know that it really makes a difference whether the actor playing Artie is actually in a wheelchair. Not that the producers get a complete pass, but as you point out the cast is one of the most diverse on TV with characters that are well written with depth. A comedy which hits on social issues with some substance without being preachy is tough and you really have to like how the relationship between Kurt and his father is developing and how Sue has a previously unseen level of compassion now that we learned about her sister.

Posted by: skipper7 | November 16, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Would it be nice if the role of Artie was played by someone in a wheelchair? Sure. But, it's more important to me that the character be well-acted/well-sung. If an able-bodied actor/singer was the best choice, than that's who I want to see have the role.

I think Kevin McHale has done a great job w/ the role of Artie & I agree that the cast is one of the most diverse we see on any show.

Posted by: lindy47 | November 16, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

My only issue was at the end of the episode when Sue visits her developmentally disabled sister, who is shut away in an institution and being read children's books. Come on, Glee, community placements, integrated settings, and age-appropriate activities are the way to go. No need to sell individuals with developmental disabilities short for the sake of a plotline. Otherwise, I love the show.

Posted by: kackidee | November 16, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree with kackidee. As a mom who watches Glee regularly with her teen, the idea of having high schoolers try using wheelchairs didn't offend me. My daughter's first grade teacher had each of them spend a day in a wheelchair. I wondered at the time whether six year olds really learned much from that. They seemed to mostly have fun and make a game of it, which was not the point. But 16 year olds? Ok. I was, however, surprised and a little offended at the setting in which Sue's sister was depicted. Do I believe she would need some form of assisted living? Yes. Do I think it should appear to be 24/7 skilled nursing care absent a phyiscal health concern? No.

Posted by: anonymom | November 16, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Has anyone asked whether the actor playing the gay guy is really gay. Maybe some activist group should protest that as well.

Posted by: buffysummers | November 16, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

As long as he's playing the part sensitively (which he is), I don't see the problem. Actors are forever playing people of different nationalities or ethnicities, and I don't think this is really any different.

Posted by: floof | November 16, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

And btw, the plot about the fake pregnancy really is stupid. Are we supposed to believe that this guy hasn't gotten close enough to his wife in, what, several months, to notice that she has a big pillow under her shirt?

Posted by: floof | November 16, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

There actually seems to be quite a floating standard for casting actors with disabilities. In several instances seeing actors have been cast as blind characters, but has a hearing actor ever been cast as a deaf character?

Another example: we seem to be ok with an actor being cast as severely autistic, but what about casting an actor in a Down syndrome role and then using makeup to give the actor the distinctive features of such a person?

Posted by: jw703 | November 16, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I love Glee and tape it every week. But my son who is in high school doesn't like it because where he goes to school kids in Band, the arts, music in general ARE the cool kids. He said all those sterotypes are not really around that much anymore and TV just perpetuates the myth that smart artistic kids are targets of cheerleaders and athletes.

Posted by: samney | November 16, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

To samney -- is this school where the artsy types rule the social roost a public one or a private one?

(I'm not trying to be snarky, I'm genuinely curious.)

Posted by: | November 16, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

To forget:
I don't know about samney's son, but my son and daughter go to public school in central VA: They are into the robotics club, theatre, band and art...and yeah, the kids involved seem to be as cool (and geeky) as anybody. There are cliques similiar to when I went to school (too long ago), but alot the 'picking' that took place 'back in the day' is no longer tolerated. I also think kids with computers, IPods, Gameboys, ad nauseum look at people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and realize that you can either be a nerd or eventually work for one...that goes a long way towards mutual respect.

Posted by: bob53 | November 16, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

the point was to look beyond the wheelchair, which the kid in the wheelchair does...
until of course the big bad lib tells you to put yourselves in their place and feel bad...

Posted by: DwightCollins | November 16, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

After leaving "Precious" yesterday, I wondered similarly if the child playing "Mongo" was, indeed, a child with Down Syndrome or other special needs. As an Out Gay man for over 25 years, HIV-positive for 27, and living with a neurological condition for 29 that put me in a wheelchair for sveral months at 16, I believe there is a strong statement made by having people with disabilities portrayed by similarly disabled actors whenever possible. Otherwise, the portrayal can be reminiscent of blackface.

Posted by: bigolpoofter | November 16, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

So, does this mean the kid playing a gay kid might not be gay---does it make the character any less sympathetic--i.e. do you empathize less with the character if he isn't gay?

Then would that mean that gay actors can't play "straight" parts?

This is ridiculous--would it be OK to have cast someone who was in a wheelchair in the part, certainly. But it doesn't mean the actor portraying this character is "reminiscent of blackface" and shouldn't have been cast.

Blackface was done broadly and done at the expense of African-American culture to what end we no longer can understand. However it might be similar to those "white" entertainers who have adopted hip-hop or gangsta-rap as their own (which is why Al Yanovich's "Too White and Nerdy" is hilarious BTW).

In the US we view this kind of thing at this end of history as racist. But we don't often think of Shakespeare's Othello which in the 1600s didn't have African-British actors to act the part. Who in fact didn't allow women to act the women's parts and so had men in them. Of course now a days for the most part women are in the women's roles and Othello is generally (though not always) "swarthy" (whatever that may mean.) Of course, Glee is no where close to Shakespeare.

Yes, it's fine to complain but it doesn't diminish the acting of the person cast in the role. As far as the "Glee" story line--it's pretty way out there as it is--certainly "Sue" isn't meant to represent all women cheer coaches or even the "glee club" to represent high school clubs in general. And are any of the actors actually high school age who play the "kids" in Glee?

Glee deliberately puts large than life arch-types before the audience (perhaps in that sense very much like minstrel shows thought they were doing) question is, other than the great singing and dancing, why does anyone watch this show? And please tell me no one takes it seriously. (oh, yes, I watch but only because my spouse enjoys it...and I still don't know why).

Posted by: mil1 | November 16, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe anyone watches this show. Have we sunk so low...?

Posted by: FredEvil | November 16, 2009 9:18 PM | Report abuse

It involves a show that has fantasy sequences and music and dancing. Would you want to consider whether at some point (in a fantasy sequence) you would want Artie to walk?

Posted by: RJD1 | November 16, 2009 10:23 PM | Report abuse

This show is delicious, but at the same time, it's really, really bad at portraying anything "edgy" with any fidelity at all. Their trans characters are officially gay (Kurt), their bi characters are officially straight (Schuster), their developmentally-disabled characters are way more helpless than they actually need to be (Sue's sister), their high school drop-out character is way more out-of-control than she should be (Chenoweth).... I don't have a problem with their casting of Artie per se, but the creators DO seem to be playing to pure stereotypes, and then pushing the stereotypes *even further*, to the point of offensive (not funny or even ignorable because it's so common) to the groups being portrayed. It makes me cynical about whether the biases of the creators have ever been questioned, and whether the casting of Artie for an able-bodied person was more intentional than I'd be comfortable with.

Posted by: quatsch | November 16, 2009 11:52 PM | Report abuse

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