NBC’s Ironside and Cripface on Television

This fall, it seems that some networks are trying to up their diversity quotients with more token inclusion of disabled characters, adding a handful more to the extremely short list of recurring disabled characters on network shows. One of the most notable is Ironside, in which the title character is disabled—and not only that, he’s being played by a Black actor, a departure from the frequent depiction of disability as an exclusively white experience (think back on a moment over the scarce disabled characters you’ve seen on television and ask yourself how many have been portrayed by people of colour).

So I want to be excited for Ironside. Because it should be a great opportunity for visibility, and could prove that it is in fact possible to have a series with a disabled main character. It could lead to more disabled roles in Hollywood, which would be great for the disability community. And it’s even better that the lead is Black, forcing viewers to confront attitudes about race, disability, and the intersections between.

But I can’t be, for one simple reason: cripface.

Blair Underwood may be a lot of things (he’s received a lot of attention from critics and he has a fat stack of awards for his depictions in a variety of film and television productions), but one thing he is not is disabled.

And disabled roles should be going to disabled actors, because to do otherwise is disingenuous and troubling. It’s not just that there are working disabled actors who are deprived of work by the practice of using cripface, because it’s often hard for them to land roles that aren’t specifically written for disabled people—evidently it’s hard for TV producers, for the most part, to imagine a character who just happens to be disabled, as is the case with Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall) on CSI.

It’s that the use of cripface is a fundamental insult to the lived experience of disability and to the disability community. The message sent by playing crip is that disability can be shucked on and off seamlessly, and that you don’t actually need to experience it to understand it, to know what it’s like to be disabled. Disability is an identity. Not a whole identity, but it is a critical and integral part of someone’s being, especially in the case of a man who’s been shot in the line of duty and is returning to the job with a significant impairment necessitating the use of a wheelchair.

Ironside is probably angry. He’s frustrated. He’s going through a radical adjustment period from a highly physically active active police officer to a man often shunted behind a desk and viewed with suspicion because of his disability. People who work in dangerous jobs are often uncomfortable around their injured and disabled colleagues, because seeing them is a reminder of what could happen to anyone, at any time. Ironside is confronting his colleagues with his existence, he’s returning to the job, doing something he’s passionate about, recovering, but that doesn’t mean his experiences are going to be easy.

I’m not a wheelchair user. The above paragraph approximates my own understanding of what Ironside’s experiences might be like as a character based on years of research, which critically included a lot of direct interaction with wheelchair users, including specifically people who’d worked in highly physical and dangerous professions who were injured on the job and chose to return to work. (Or were unable to return to work due to their impairments.)

I’m also not an actor, which makes it unlikely that anyone would be asking me to play a wheelchair user in a major television production. But if I were asked, the answer would be ‘no,’ because my research wouldn’t prepare me for playing that role. I can write about it, I can talk about it, I can refer people to better sources of information—as in, people who actually know what it’s like because they’re living it—but I can’t and won’t play it. Because it’s appropriative. Because it’s disgusting. Because you cannot depict an intimate physical experience without an intimate physical knowledge of it, and no, disability simulations do not count, and neither does your acting coach.

I don’t want to harsh on Blair Underwood. I know that numerous complex factors go into which roles actors consider and ultimately accept, and Underwood, like the rest of us, does need to survive, which means that he, too, needs to work. But by accepting this particular role, he’s contributing to the culture of cripface, which directly harms not just his fellow actors, but the disability community at large.

And, as usual, his role is being heralded by the network and a lot of critics as some great thing for disability when right from the start it’s being played in cripface. And right from the start, people are talking about Ironside in ways that suggest we’re going to encounter some very familiar narratives about disability. ‘Won’t let his disability stop him’ sort of thing. He’s ‘bound to a wheelchair.’ So, basically, Ironside is on track to go nowhere in terms of disability in film and television, and it’s ready to join the long list of depictions of disability that get canonised without actually consulting the disability community.

And yes, I am judging the show before I’ve seen it.

Because I’ve been to this rodeo before.

I wonder, when casting was conducted, did casting calls make it explicitly clear that this was a disabled role? Were any disabled actors specifically invited to audition? Were the casting facilities even accessible? Were agents who handle disabled clients told about the show and encouraged to bring candidates to the table? Is the show using disability consultants? Which organisations are involved with the show?