The depiction of disability on medical dramas is often extremely frustrating, because of the fundamental mindset behind such dramas and the people who create them. In the setting of a television show revolving around a hospital environment in the United States, a nation with a highly medicalised disability culture, impairments are viewed not as a fact of life, but as a failure of medicine. Which means that they are a wrong that must be righted, and if that doesn’t succeed, then they are something to be mourned rather than accepted and adapted to. This mindset makes it impossible to distinguish between issues that reflect a genuine failure in medicine, like the poor management of chronic pain conditions, and things that just happen sometimes, like diabetes.
The promotion and advancement of the medical model in US pop culture is no surprise. Overall, the nation focuses on the medical model of disability and that’s what creators of pop culture pick up on unless they are themselves disabled. Creators seeking out consultants, when this actually happens, tend to gravitate towards people familiar with the model they know, which means they talk with people who believe in the medical model, and that’s what they advance in their work. That perpetuates the idea that there is only one way to conceptualise disability, and that it is the correct way.
Which leaves a lot of disabled people out in the cold, because they may view the issue very differently. And for people who are newly disabled, or who are learning about disabled people in their lives, the pop culture depiction of disability can be very damaging, because it doesn’t open their eyes to alternatives. They come to think of disability as a failure as well, rather than part of human life, an aspect of natural diversity.
It’s notable that very few characters on medical dramas are themselves disabled; we sometimes see autistic characters, although they’re such gross caricatures they can’t really be pointed at as great examples of representation. This reflects the ‘physician, heal thyself’ idea; who could trust a disabled doctor? It elides the fact that disabled doctors, nurses, and other care providers exist and practice all over the world, and that their real-world experience actually allows them to connect with some patients on a deeper level, providing better care and working to improve quality of life with specific impairments. Diabetic medical professionals, for example, can make great diabetes educators because they know what their clients are going through on a very personal level.
When characters enter the scene with impairments, we’re supposed to view them as objects of pity. So tragic that even if this age of advanced medicine, impairments can’t be eliminated. Some creators really nakedly advance this with storylines about disabled babies or failed treatments that were supposed to magically cure impairments. Others have miracle cure storylines intended to impress us with the heroism, creativity, and medical skills of our characters. We’re more likely to see a wheelchair user walking with the aid of stem cells and physical therapy than we are to see a physical therapist helping a person with a spinal cord injury train for and compete in a marathon with the appropriate equipment and support.
One storyline positions the impairment as something to be overcome, as a medical problem that must be fixed. The other would suggest that it’s something that happened that requires treatment, but also adaptation. Not a tragedy, but an occurrence, and one that didn’t have to spell the end of the patient’s life. The patient could still be active, engaged in the community, pursuing things of interest. And this doesn’t fit within the framework of the medical model, which tragedises disability to turn it into something awful because otherwise, the amount of energy invested in cures might seem a bit suspect.
The treatment of newly acquired disabilities on medical dramas is perhaps the most infuriating; we’re all supposed to sigh in shock and horror when someone acquires an impairment as a result of an accident, an occurrence in surgery, or some other event. Clearly the impairment alone is grounds for the end of the world, and there’s no need to explore the deeper ramifications there. Everyone will struggle for a cure and when that fails, everyone will be sad, because they’ve let the patient down. The limits of medicine have been reached.
There are some many things medicine in the real world handles poorly; not just the management of chronic pain but the treatment and care of patients with a variety of chronic illnesses. These issues, actual failures of medicine, areas where medicine could do better in helping people manage impairments, rarely come up in medical dramas. We also rarely see direct challenges to the medical model in the form of attempts to establish communication with people deemed unable to communicate, or an active rejection of a ‘cure’ on the part of someone who doesn’t self-identify as disabled or see a problem with a given impairment. Perhaps the sole exception to this is the inclusion of Deaf characters; House, for example, had an episode with a Cochlear implant, but it was very poorly handled and it utterly failed to depict the diversity and complexity of the Deaf community, because it was rooted in the idea that being deaf is bad and all deaf people would want to ‘fix’ what’s ‘wrong’ with them.
As long as disability is considered a failure of medicine and advanced as such on medical dramas and in other medical settings in pop culture, consumers are going to keep medicalising disability and refusing to probe deeper into their own attitudes. And that is a great pity, because there’s a lot to explore in terms of the handling of disability in society and where the real failures lie.