Disability and The West Wing

My epic watch of The West Wing furnished much food for thought. There are all kinds of really interesting and exciting things going on in this show, and one of the things I am particularly intrigued with is the treatment of disability, because there is a lot of it on this show, and it’s handled in variable ways. We have President Bartlet and his MS. Joey Lucas. C. J.’s father. What The West Wing has to say about disability is, to my eye, really interesting.

I wrote about Joey Lucas at FWD last month, and the thumbnail version of that piece is that I really like her characterisation. She’s handled the way I like to see disabled characters handled: as a person who happens to have a disability. Her D/deaf identity isn’t the all consuming thing about her, but an aspect of her personality, and the show refrains from having a Very Special Disability Episode or being tempted to Teach Us Things about disability and disabled identities.

The thing I love about Lucas is that she is treated like any other character. The thing we say over and over again as people with disabilities is that we want to be given the same treatment as anybody else, to be handled like human beings. And that’s what the other characters do with Joey Lucas. She fights for respect sometimes, but not because she’s D/deaf. Because she’s a woman, and she’s operating in a very male-dominated world, despite the prominence of women on the show.

She’s not a caricature, she’s not a tragedy, she does not fit neatly into any of the known and dominant narratives about disability and disabled identities. She is simply a person, doing her thing.

‘The Long Goodbye,’ where we finally learn what’s happening with C. J.’s father, takes things in a different direction. Her father is experiencing what appears to be Alzheimer’s. We watch him wrestling with being afraid of what is happening to him, and we also see other characters turning away from him, a common occurrence for people with Alzheimer’s. It’s clear that C. J. is both afraid and also frustrated; she is sad about what is happening to her father but she seems to treat it largely as a nuisance, perhaps as a distancing tactic.

When we see her wandering through the house looking for him, there’s a subtext. What is she going to do with the house? How will she get him to go into a home? How can she get his wife to return to him and take care of him so she doesn’t have to deal with it? How will she get him to go to the doctor? Where has her father gone? The way C. J. acts with her father, it’s almost like she thinks there’s no there there, that her father has disappeared entirely. Her father screams about being abandoned by her and doesn’t recognise her, but it’s not clear if that’s a result of what is happening to his brain, or a result of the fact that C. J. hasn’t visited or interacted closely with him in what is obviously some time.

Aging, and disabilities that sometimes come with age, are complicated things. I feel like, as a society, our attitude is that older adults should be locked away when they are no longer ‘functional’ by our standards, where they become someone else’s problem. I know some people who basically treat their aged parents as dead, not there anymore, even when their parents don’t have degenerative neurological illnesses that impair their understanding of the world around them. And it disturbs me. It troubles me, as a viewer, that the show seemed to be taking the stance that of course C. J. wouldn’t be expected to ‘deal with’ her father. She has more important things to do. She works for the White House!

The West Wing fell into the disability as tragedy, disability as problem, and pity the caregiver trap there. Which is a pity, when the show does Joey Lucas so well. It shows me that the creators had the capacity to portray disability well, and just didn’t, for whatever reason.

The storyline with the President’s MS was also fascinating to me. I’ve written before about feeling uneasy with the public ownership of the President’s health and it came up again here. Bartlet’s MS didn’t impair his ability to serve, but he concealed it because he knew that people wouldn’t vote for him if they know. When the story came out, there were hearings. People resented the fact that he had deceived the nation. It didn’t occur to them that part of what made him such a great President might well have been his MS. That his disability perhaps made him a better candidate for the office.

I am reminded of the fact that FDR concealed his disabilities as much as possible while he was in office, because he knew that a disabled President would be viewed as less capable, less reliable, less, well, able to do the job. The West Wing challenged viewers to think about how far this country had come. I’m sure some viewers thought Bartlet did the wrong thing by concealing his disability. As a viewer, I thought he did the right thing in a difficult situation, knowing full well that if it came out, people would discriminate against him on the basis of his disability status. As indeed they did.

This is not a show that always gets it right when depicting disability, but I like that they tried to get viewers thinking outside the box they usually place disability in. I like that they integrated disabled characters in ways designed to be a model for viewers, showing by showing instead of telling. I suspect that watching the show may have led at least some viewers to reevaluate the way they thought about disability, and to ask themselves: Would it really be such a bad thing to elect a disabled President? Will there be a time when someone with disabilities can campaign openly and use those disabilities to argue more fitness for the position, not less?