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“Black Guy” & “Disabled Guy” Fighting in My Head!

By Greg Smith

New NBC Series “Ironside” Has Struck a Nerve

There is a fierce argument going on in my head between “the black guy” and “the guy in a wheelchair.” It is quite a battle.

The “guy in the wheelchair” saw that NBC was remaking the TV series “Ironside” and it cast a non-disabled star in the role. Blair Underwood will walk to the set every day, plop his butt in a wheelchair and pretend to be paralyzed from the waist down. What bothers me about this is the missed opportunity. There are plenty of talented actors who have real disabilities and are looking for stardom, and yet there is not one truly disabled superstar in the world. Can you name one big-time actor or actress with a disability? Here was an opportunity for that first real disabled superstar and it is gone.

The “black guy” saw that they were remaking the TV series “Ironside” and noticed that it stars a positive African American male character. We are not talking about a show targeted to a black audience. This is a show targeted for a mainstream audience on a major network. How many shows can you name where the star is a black male character in a positive role? I’m not talk about a supporting character. I’m talking about the star of the show! A black man star in a TV series drama? Not a comedy. A drama. Can you think of another?

See my problem? What am I going to do?

At first I was thinking about boycotting the show, until I saw the previews and realized that Blair Underwood is a great actor who might bring a lot of authority to the disability experience. If the show is successful, and the writing is good and appropriate, it might make people think twice about some of the stereotypes they assign to people with disabilities. Ironside looks tough, smart, resourceful, and witty. Not needy. Not dependent. Not determined to “walk again.” Hopefully, that’s what the character will be like.

Despite these positives, the disability community continues to go without it’s star, losing out on this huge opportunity to identify and place one. We need one. We need someone for young people with disabilities to look at on TV and see a reflection of themselves. We need to see that disability is a normal beautiful part of the diversity that is human life.

“Ironside” is a done deal. The shows are already in the can. “Ironside” will air on NBC this Fall. No amount of advocacy, boycotting, picketing sponsors or any of that will change the outcome. But a sufficient amount of that activity could raise the issue to the level that it will gain attention and create an opportunity for a future starring role for an actor with a disability.

NBC will easily be able to explain the decision not to hire a disabled actor: the show features flashbacks to Ironside’s days before a cap got busted in his (spine). So they had to cast an actor that could both walk and sit. I get that.

I’m hoping that “the black guy” and “the guy in the wheelchair” can come to some kind of an agreement. Maybe as a team, the two of them can reach out to Blair Underwood and make him aware of the dilemma. Perhaps a guy like Mr. Underwood could support our efforts to break down the barriers for actors with disabilities. As a black man, Mr. Underwood definitely understands barriers. We will see what happens.

Check out the video and leave a comment here on my blog below. What do you think?

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4 thoughts on ““Black Guy” & “Disabled Guy” Fighting in My Head!

  1. Pingback: New documentary explores disability in film. | The Strength Coach

  2. I’m going to give NBC a pass on this one. We need more black actors in lead roles in general, and revising a role of a former white actor is very cool. Respect to Blair Underwood.

    On the other topic, I understand. I spoke with a Hollywood casting agent once and asked her about whether or not they cast people with disabilities unfairly by using able bodied actors. Her response was interesting. She told me that very few wheelchair users show up for casting calls. Many of them just don’t have the talent due to lack of experience. It’s not a disability issue as much as a skills issue.

    We need more people with disabilities going after smaller roles. To compare it to race, we need a disabled Uhura and Poitier. Once we get more disabled actors working, the talented ones will get better roles. The kid on Breaking Bad has CP, and is getting great experience with a veteran cast. When he’s ready for a lead, I hope he will get it.

  3. think everything you share is true. I don’t think they looked for a disabled actor. But, the black girl in me said, ‘good for Blair Underwood…he is credible and respected and is a guy who has stayed with his wife and family and he deserves a shot at a weekly show.” So, in the end, I hope that it will capture an audience and he can tell our story, with integrity, even as he attends junkets and admits what he doesn’t know. If they go the pity route the community will be in an uproar.

  4. It’s pretty easy to see why you’re conflicted, but the question is how are we to convince these networks that PWDs should be included ? With the number of networks in existence, where can we start the dialogue?