Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Where are the zombies with disabilities?


Dave and I sometimes worry that the kids will walk in on us while we're doing it. I'm talking about watching The Walking Dead. We got into the hit AMC series last month, and have been catching up on episodes after Max and Sabrina go to sleep.

If you're not familiar with it, The Walking Dead is about a world taken over by zombies, aka walkers. It has incredibly gripping plots, a compelling cast of characters and the best-looking zombies in the history of zombies. We can't wait till the mid-season premiere this weekend.

So realistic is the series that it's made me reimagine the real world. I have wondered where in the house we would hide should zombies show up at the front door, and whether I'd ever have the guts to bash one's head in. At night, I've woken up startled because Dave's snores sound like the noises zombies make. I have pictured a herd of zombies walking along our street, including ones in wheelchairs and ones wearing the kind of foot braces Max has.

But that's not how it goes on the show: I haven't spotted any roaming zombies with disabilities. And that, I'd love to see. Zombie wheelchair users rolling around. Zombies using walkers or forearm crutches. Reality TV, this isn't—the producers could work them in. A couple of walkers have been found lying on the ground, cut in half, but they don't exactly count as amputees. Feasibly, many could have cerebral palsy; their limbs are stiff and they walk like Max does when he's trying to move quickly, side to side. So he can play a zombie with cerebral palsy on TV when he grows up, if he so desires. (Here's another candidate: this teen born with no arms and legs who's been pranking shoppers.)

There's been a human with a disability on the show, the very sane and strong Hershel, who loses part of a leg to a zombie. In a Q&A on the Walking Dead blog, the actor who plays Hershel noted, "When Glen [the showrunner] told me they were going to chop my leg off, of course my first thought was, 'Oh, there I go!' But just the opposite: He said he wanted someone with a disability and I understand that."

Awesome. But this is my fantasy. And I'd really like to see zombies with disabilities among the gloriously creepy crowds of 'em. 

Not a walker—a wheeler

As the parent of a kid with special needs, I spend a fair amount of time on inclusion: trying to get Max involved in local activities, programs and camp, encouraging so-called typical kids to play with him. Advocating for zombie inclusion actually isn't a high priority for me, shocking as that may be. It's part of a much bigger wish: For my son to grow up in a world in which people with disabilities are included in all aspects of society and pop culture. Even zombiehood.

Max has enough challenges fitting in. The fact that our entertainment and media rarely feature kids and adults with special needs contributes to his exclusion—and to people seeing him as an "other." That's how it feels when they stare. Max is a perfectly charming, handsome kid but he's gotten looks of horror when he's let out a bit of drool. It's as if people just saw a zombie.

Plenty of people aren't exposed to kids and adults like Max in their day-to-day life or pop culture. People with disabilities are largely missing from TV programs, movies, ads, music videos and magazines. Yet they all feature racial diversity (there are black zombies on The Walking Dead). The Disney Channel recently included a gay couple for the first time, on Good Luck Charlie. But disability? It's the last minority group that's virtually ignored.

There's been some improvement in recent years, including more kids with disabilities in ads and a increase in characters with them on TV. Later this month, NBC will debut Growing Up Fisher featuring a father who is blind (the actor playing him is not). The recently cancelled NBC crime series Ironside had a detective in a wheelchair. There's also Max in Parenthood (who has autism); Becky Jackson on Glee (Down syndrome) and Artie (who's in a wheelchair); The Michael J. Fox show (Parkinson's disease, which can cause disability); and Walt Jr on Breaking Bad (cerebral palsy).

Still, they're a minority. Out of 796 characters regularly appearing on 109 scripted shows on major networks in 2013, only eight had disabilities—up from four from the previous year, says GLAAD, the media advocacy group behind the report on characters representing minority groups. Because prime-time disability is such a rarity, it's often a distinguishing characteristic. As NBC's description of Growing Up Fisher notes, "Take Mel Fisher.... He's chopping down trees, showing his daughter how to drive, and then playing football with his son... except that Mel's blind." When Diesel hired hipster fashion blogger Jillian Mercado for an ad campaign, one attribute about her made headlines, and it wasn't her sense of style: Fierce Woman In A Wheelchair Stars in New Diesel Ad.

If wheelchair users in ads were common, if there were more characters who were blind, they wouldn't be news-making. They'd be normal. Which leads me back to The Walking Dead. Where are the zombies with disabilities? Not at school, day programs or the Special Olympics, that's for sure. 

The on-screen depictions of disability I sure don't want are ones like the so-called "cerebral palsy scene" in The Wolf of Wall Street. In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio—a white-collar crook—ODs on Quaaludes and enters a stage of being high that he dubs the "cerebral palsy phase," in which he lies on the floor, writhing, crawls outside and tumbles down a bunch of steps. It's "perhaps the single funniest moment on screen this year," said one reviewer. Ellen DeGeneres called the Quaalude scene "genius" (here's a video clip, start at minute 3:08). "I'm gonna get cerebral palsy drunk now," noted a commenter on a site. People who didn't find the scene amusing include my friend Dawn, parent to a little girl with cerebral palsy. She sat there fuming in the movie theater as people around her cracked up.

Sad, isn't it, that the most memorable movie mention of disability in recent history is as the butt of a  joke.

Yes, I know: Casting disabilities in movies and on TV in a more positive light—and creating more characters with them—won't wholly change perceptions toward people with disabilities. As if. Disabled zombies sure as heck won't accomplish that, either, exactly why I won't be starting an "AMC: Include zombies with disabilities!" petition on change.org. But including people with disability in entertainment, media and zombie-ness would be one more way to make them a natural part of society. (As natural as zombies are.) (Assuming a post-apocalyptic world still counts as society.)

Walker with walker

I'd love a Pixar movie that features a main character with a disability—one that doesn't define him. Or in a movie directed by someone cool, like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson. I'd like people with disabilities on Modern Family and Girls. I'd like them integrated into a plot on Victorious or any of the tween-y shows my kids enjoy. 

I want to see people like my son in all parts of life. And, er, death.

EXCITING UPDATE 

Alert reader Claire shared this zombie wheelchair user from Sean of the Dead. Inspiring!

Image of zombies from The Walking Dead: AMC Networks. First zombie composite: istock and Flickr/Grmisiti; second zombie composite: Flickr/cambodiatrust

52 comments:

  1. Sean of the Dead has a zombie in a wheelchair http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/shaun-of-the-dead/images/242521/title/pick-icons-wheelchair-zombie-icon
    Also I noticed that Foster's home for imaginary friends features many friends with disabilities. Walt has limb difference and a facial difference, Koko uses her feet for most tasks, because she has wings, Bloo has no legal, the rabbit has autistic traits.

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    1. LOVE! Had to update the post to include. I saw that movie a long time ago, didn't recall seeing her.

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    2. Also, that should be *legs, not legal.

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  2. I saw something not too long ago about some zombie show with a young man with a disability(I want to say CP but i'm not sure). I forget what it was.

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  3. Don't forget abc family Switched at Birth! They have a character who uses a chair, played by a very handsome actor who has CP!

    Stephanie

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    1. there are also several deaf characters on the show (the actors are deaf as well)

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    2. Haven't seen it, will have to check that out!

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    3. Oh you MUST watch switched at birth! It's getting a little soap opera-y lately, but they handle issues around deafness, able-ism, inclusion, etc. in some really interesting ways. I didn't realize the wheelchair using actor was played by someone with CP -- on the show he had a traumatic brain injury. Note that the actress who plays Daphne (the main "Deaf" character on the show) isn't herself Deaf, though many of the supporting Deaf characters (incluiding Emmet, who is the love interest of the hearing lead) are played by actors who are themselves Deaf.

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    4. My son's HIE caused his TBI which in turn caused him to have CP (lots of acronyms!) Also, just to clarify - although Katie LeClerc isn't formally deaf she does have Meniere's disease which causes her to be hard of hearing.

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    5. Michelle, incorrect, the girl that plays Daphne is definitely deaf. Just because in real life she speaks much more clearly than she does on the show doesn't make her less deaf. Also even just being hard of hearing can classify you as deaf if you choose deaf culture over hearing culture. My daughter is hard of hearing but is considered deaf because she goes to deaf school and we use ASL at home also

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    6. Katie Leclerc plays Daphne on "Switched" and according to Wikipedia:

      "Katie Leclerc was born in San Antonio, Texas, and grew up in Lakewood, Colorado. She is the youngest of three siblings. She started learning American Sign Language at 17, before she found out she had a disorder which includes hearing loss. Her older sister also teaches ASL. At age 20, Katie was diagnosed with Ménière's disease, a degenerative inner ear disorder, the symptoms of which include fluctuating hearing loss and vertigo; both her father and older sister have Ménière's disease as well. She grew up without any knowledge of her disease, and is therefore able to use speech as any hearing person would. She uses an accent on Switched at Birth to emphasize Daphne's hearing loss."

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katie_Leclerc

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    7. I'm guessing the "fluctuating symptoms" means that Katie can sometimes hear and sometimes not hear. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that one of her parents is Deaf.

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    8. Yeah I think it was that both her father and sister have Meniere's and are deaf also. Katie is post-lingually deaf and that's why she speaks so well. She didn't lose her hearing until her teens. Her condition is degenerative, but currently she says she has days where she "hears pretty well and other days where she hears nothing" she does wear hearing aids. ABC wanted only deaf/hard of hearing actors to play the deaf/hard of hearing characters on this show, one reason is because deaf people will not rally and boycott anything faster than if you place a hearing actor into a deaf role, it's unacceptable to them and a slap in the face, making a mockery of them, and denying a great job opportunity to a real deaf person.

      People who say Katie isn't deaf don't have a grasp of basic deaf culture. When a person is hard of hearing as their medical status they can still be Deaf if they choose deaf culture and identify as deaf and use ASL etc, which she does. Hence the difference between capital D and lower case d in Deaf/deaf, one is culture and one is hearing status. My daughter is Deaf/hard of hearing so her hearing status is hard of hearing but we embrace Deaf culture for her and have chosen ASL and to raise her proud to be Deaf. Katie is the same, she identifies as Deaf, is fluent in ASL and is proud of and well-known in Deaf culture. To say that a deaf person isn't deaf is considered insulting because once they have HOH status they can be Deaf if they choose, those who are completely deaf and raised in deaf culture from the get-go are considered Core Deaf. I have learned so much since entering this world. I have gained tons of deaf friends and do weekly meet ups for the benefit of my daughter, who also attends deaf school. The biggest things I've learned are that deaf people are the most blunt people that exist, which is surprisingly refreshing, and that hearing people are largely ignorant about deaf people but still like to try to classify and categorize a culture and people they know nothing about. It's like people referring to Derrick Coleman (deaf NFL player) as having a disability has deaf people in an uproar because people keep saying he has a disability. Deaf people are not disabled, they see it as a blessing to be able to have peace in their head while we have to listen to noise constantly and can't turn it off.

      http://blog.zap2it.com/frominsidethebox/2011/06/switched-at-birth-meet-katie-leclerc-and-sean-berdy-hearing-impaired-stars.html

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  4. There's a double amputee on CSI who uses some kind of canes and artificial limbs. Apparently the actor really does have this issue.

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    1. Haven't seen this, either—thanks for letting us know!

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    2. Yes -- David Robert Hall had both legs amputated following an accident as a young man.

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/8782045/CSIs-Robert-David-Hall-I-may-be-missing-both-legs-but-Im-still-a-whole-man.html

      Also, the RJ Mitte who played Walt Jr on "Breaking Bad" has CP (as does the character he played) and apparently used crutches/AFOs until he was in his teens:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RJ_Mitte

      "He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of three and doctors put his legs in casts for six months in an attempt to straighten his feet.[5] He was subsequently fitted with leg braces and used crutches throughout most of his childhood, however, over time his body became stronger through sports and exercise and, by his early teens, he no longer needed any walking devices".

      Cerrie Burrell (actress/host on BBC kids) has only one hand (and doesn't wear a prothetic).

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  5. The main charater in House (the smart doctor) is disabled isnt it?

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    1. Yep, HE was. And HE was awesome. I was focusing on recent examples (House ended in 2012).

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  6. I wonder if the zombie infection removes disability.

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  7. I love it. It is so, so important to so many of us, yet is still the issue so many avoid. I'm not a particular fan of zombies myself, but I love the point you are making. ;)

    Another closely related issue in my mind is accessibility. I took my sister to a camp last summer and EVERYONE got to do EVERYTHING--white water rafting, horseback riding, etc, weren't just things for those who were mobile or had enough strength. The ones in wheelchairs or who had no motor skills were just as able to do all of the activities. It made me realize the whole world is not designed for my sister and those like her. Very little just "works" for them. I'm not expecting the entire world to redesign itself necessarily--but it would be nice if people at least got it and made an effort, you know?

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. :)

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  8. I have three comments:

    1. YES. We absolutely need more disabled actors and characters with disabilities on television and in movies. You are completely right. 100% I support your thesis entirely.

    2. Zombies. Now here's the thing. I'm a little bit of a student of zombies and I have some thoughts on disabled zombies. First, I do accept your premise that there are no visibly disabled zombies. I could definitely get behind some leg braces, etc. As for wheelchairs and crutches, I do have to disagree in that those are tools and zombies don't use tools. There are many zombies who are on the ground, who don't walk. Mayhap this is a result of post-zombification injury or maybe a human disability?

    3. I realize that your Walking Dead example was maybe just a hook to get to your larger point about disability representation. My apologies. I'm a little bit of a zombie nerd and have put a lot of thought into this kind of thing.

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    1. Why am I not surprised that you are a zombie expert? I hear ya on the wheelchair usage. But I've suspended disbelief because I figured, these producers are really creative, they'd figure out how to make it work. Check out that Sean of the Dead photo! My fantasy is to see zombies in wheelchairs in one of the herds, or accosting someone on the street, or something exciting like that. Ya know? Also: I love having an intellectual discussion on this.

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    2. In season four there is at least one zombie in a wheelchair in a hospital or care facility or something to that effect. But she can't move the chair. Because zombies can't use tools. Except for that one zombie in season one who used a rock, but I'm calling that an anomaly.

      Any time you want to chat zombies, I'm your gal. :)

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    3. We got to that episode! Elderly woman in hospital and yes, it was apparent she couldn't steer. K, Jean, what if there were a zombie in an electric wheelchair that had GPS that did the steering for him/her? I am not letting go of my zombie fantasy!

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  9. Ellen....
    You make a valid point here!! This is going to sound harsh, but I would much rather see characters with disabilities than homosexuals!! Cerebral palsy? Down syndrome? Autism? Premature short-term memory loss? Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera? Bring it!! You should write those big-name Hollywood people and suggest that they create characters with disabilities!! Actors can act. They themselves do not need to have any disabilities. ;)
    "I'd love a Pixar movie that features a main character with a disability—one that doesn't define him.". I think you forgot "Finding Nemo"!! There is Gill with his deformed fin. Dory has short-term memory loss. And Nemo? He was born with a "lucky fin"!! ;-D
    --Raelyn

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    1. Raelyn, that comment about homosexuality is really hurtful. Aren't we an atmosphere of acceptance over here?

      And as for zombies - I wonder if they'd physically be able to manipulate a wheelchair or crutches? I mean, they can sometimes grab things, but I don't know if they would be able to manipulate that well. You could probably find a zombie wearing a brace or something, though...

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    2. Rachel....
      Sorry. I never intended to hurt your--or anybody's--feelings. I am not a "homophobe", lest anybody wonder!! I have a dear, dear, dear friend who is a lesbian. If I could turn back time and delete my thought before "publishing" it, I would. I am sorry. I lack impulse control. No excuses. I work on that!! ;)
      --Raelyn

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    3. It's ok - thanks for replying. What do you think about gay zombies with disabilities? ;)

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    4. Racheal....
      "What do you think about gay zombies with disabilities?". Cool!! ;)
      Thanks for forgiving me!! ;-D
      --Raelyn

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    5. Raelyn there is NOTHING wrong with homesexuals. An accepting society is one that accepts all kinds of people as they are (excluding murderers and terrorists). Last time I checked, homosexuality isnt illegal.

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  10. PS. I just posted a fictional children's story about two characters who were born with craniosynostosis--my birth defect--on my Blog, "Minuscule is good!". { http://writing–projects.blogspot.com/ } Julian has learning disabilities, just like me. Check it out!! And maybe leave a comment so I know you visited? Raising craniosynostosis {And disability!!} awareness with something I can do…. Write!! I hope you enjoy it!! ;)
    –Raelyn

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  11. I can see both sides of this topic, as well as the discussion last week about inclusion in employment, which somehow never posted. While I applaud CVS, similar companies, and the larger media culture in general for making an effort toward inclusion, my stance has always been that I'd rather not see those things, because they focus on the disability, rather than me as a person. By that I mean, I did not want to be treated any differently than my peers when I was first hired, and I thought a job coach and other accommodations would make me seem less than qualified for the job. Instead, my employer uses common sense and a dose of teamwork goes a long way. By the same token, there is often a culture misnomer that everyone with CP, (or cancer, or any other condition) knows everyone else with said condition. I can see where it would be healthy for kids to see role models with disabilities, but since i work in public service, am very careful not to be defined by my disability. I'd much rather be known as the girl in purple, the one who knows how to work the PCs, or the short one, than the "one who walks funny.-- which does happen on occasion

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    1. Emily - I totally hear you sister! About the work programs ....well, let me just say I couldn't agree more. So many think they all the end all but with good, creative team work, who needs job coaches?

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  12. Tuesona Marie TungwenukFebruary 5, 2014 at 12:57 PM

    Unbreakable has a character with osteogenesis imperfecta

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  13. We'd love to see someone with dwarfism on the show!

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  14. I highly recommend the Newsflesh book trilogy by Mira Grant. It's set post zombie apocalypse and the main protagonist and narrator has a visual impairment. It is, hands down, the best book series I've ever read, and I'm a voracious reader.

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    1. Just looked that up—sounds amazing. Thanks, Cara!

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  15. Thanks Ellen for a terrific and informative post about one of my favorite disability sub-topics!

    Also, I can't resist making a pitch for one of MY favorite shows, "Game Of Thrones". Depending on how you look at it, it has FOUR characters with disabilities:

    Tyrion Lannister ... He's a little person, and one of the most consistently ethical characters on the show, though certainly no saint! Plus, there have been some very hard-hitting scenes with his father, who both rejects him and sometimes is impressed by him, but for complicated reasons.

    Bran Stark ... A boy who is paralyzed in the very first episode, and is a very young (12 or 13) member of one of the noble families depicted. He can ride a horse with an adapted saddle, which Tyrion gave him the design for.

    Hodor ... This one is a little problematic, but I still kind of like him. He's cognitively impaired, a big mountain of a man, one of the Stark family's servants. He now carries Bran around and sort of helps look after him. Hodor only ever speaks one word, "Hodor".

    Jamie Lannister ... Tyrion's brother, possibly the greatest, most feared knight in the Seven Kingdoms. He recently had one of his hands chopped off my captors, so now he's adjusting to a pretty severe impairment for a swordsman. A side aspect I love is that he's totally cool with his brother Tyrion ... seems to have no prejudice at all about his height.

    And a bonus ... Watch the 1970s BBC miniseries "I, Claudius." Claudius starts out as the disrespected and largely ignored "idiot" of the Roman Imperial family, but ends up Emperor, and a relatively good one. He's based on historical accounts of the real Claudius who is thought to have had CP, Epilepsy, Polio, or some combination of all three.

    There. I've let me geek flag fly!

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    1. Game of Thrones is one of those series Dave and I want to start watching, we've heard it's great. And I will add I, Claudius to my Netflix list. I think I may need to quit my day job to get to all the good recommendations here.

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  16. There is also a book on the Kindle Store, titled Zoe, Undead by J.R. Knoll, where the main character is a girl who has Asperger's Syndrome, the author who wrote it, her son has Asperger's Syndrome, same as my son! It was an awesome book! I loved it!

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    1. OK, adding this to list, too! Thanks, Sahra.

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  17. Um, from a therapist's standpoint, they *all* have disabilities. Ataxia: uncoordinated, unsteady walking pattern; Hypotonia: low muscle tone; severe intellectual disability, failure to thrive, non-verbal, lack of safety awareness, extreme aggression, disoriented x4. Also many are missing limbs, and some are even missing. Also they don't have the cognition to use wheelchairs, crutches, walkers etc and would be crawling out of them and onto the floor instead, and yeah producers could try to work it in but people would know that's overboard and not true to zombie culture because they just couldn't possibly keep it on or stay in it. There definitely was one for sure though, when the governor went into that upstairs apartment to get that chess or backgammon or whatever game for the little girl, the owner of the apartment that was in the bathtub as a zombie who shot himself in the head was in there with a detached prosthetic leg and next to a wheelchair.

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    1. The walkers have no ID whatsoever—they are brain dead, period! I think you missed "restricted range of motion" in your list and now I am sitting here mulling over what codes you might use were you to submit a bill to an insurance company for zombie therapy. But, I digress. I do think there could ways to include zombies with disabilities who aren't purposefully using equipment--e.g., walker who went over to the zombie side while on crutches and now they are permanently tucked into his/her armpits. I have full faith they could come up with variations and still keep it real, as they do so well.

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    2. But they don't just get bitten and instantly turn; they die first, either while being eaten or from infection with a high fever and disorientation, so they wouldn't just be up walking around with crutches to still have them when they turn.
      I agree with Stimey further up that they would have been removed from devices while being attacked or fallen/crawled out of them after turning. I'm sure that I have seen a walker with an arm brace on, but can't remember which episode. Maybe around Herchel's farm?

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  18. Ellen - people with disabilities ARE the last minority in all of society, not just entertainment. Racial, gender related......whatever minority you can mention would never put up with the crap people with disabilities take on both a personal and political level.

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  19. I have some theories on this. 1) people with brain damage wouldn't turn. In the show, if the person is killed by a blow to the head, they don't turn....because their brain was damaged before death (even if only a split second prior). 2) people with other limitations would get up and walk regardless if they couldn't when they were alive. Since their brain and instincts take over, their muscle/balance/etc problems would no longer inhibit them. 3) the people with disabilities were the first to go. Let's face it....someone with serious limitations wouldn't get bit once and then run away to turn....no, they would simply get eaten. Needless to say, I've thought about this way too much as well. I often wonder how long I could keep my daughter alive in such a situation. She has a trach, vent, gj tube, and a ton of meds.

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    1. Since writing this, I ended up seeing the episode with the elderly woman in the wheelchair, who was definitely not able to walk. I also have to go back and find the scene discussed with a wheelchair user in a bathtub, haven't seen. Evidently, they don't come back as walkers. Dave and I have talked about where we'd get Max's anti-seizure meds. Though we have a bunch of local drugstores we could break into. !!!

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  20. Ellen, this might sound weird, but Timmy from South Park has often proven to be a surprisingly sophisticated character with a disability. Yes, the show sometimes uses outdated language like the r-word (though I think this mostly occurred early in their run), but hear me out. Timmy is shown as a complex and determined character (Helen Keller: The Musical), someone who is always part of the gang (Proper Condom Use). He's often an integral part of the gang's schemes, valued for what he can contribute (his portrayal of Helen Keller in the musical, the wheelchair-time machine fiasco in Fourth Grade). In fact, there was an entire episode based on the children's fears that he might go to Hell because he was non-verbal and couldn't say Confession (Do the Handicapped Go to Hell?), causing several of the children to desert the Catholic Church entirely when the priest tries to exclude him. In South Park's incredibly skewed view of the universe, Timmy comes off pretty darn well.

    You know, for a show that once did an entire episode about queefing.

    Here's a Wiki entry showing the creators' intentions behind him:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timmy_Burch#Timmy_Burch

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    1. I don't think that's weird at all—it's awesome. I never got into South Park for whatever reason, though I've really liked the few episodes I've seen. I forgot about Timmy. Love this explanation from the link you shared: "Parker and Stone had to push hard for the inclusion of the character, as Comedy Central was originally reluctant to allow the show to feature a character with a cognitive disability. The duo asserted their intention of portraying other children as treating him as an equal, while stressing the importance of both including a mentally impaired character who is "happy to be [himself]" and representing him "as part of the gang and not as the subject of cruel schoolyard humor." Timmy for president!

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  21. http://walkingdead.wikia.com/wiki/Ana

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Thanks for sharing!



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