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