Sometimes seeing someone who’s like you on TV can make a big difference. It can help others understand your perspective a little better, spark important conversations, and just make you feel a little less singled out. Indeed, research has shown that representation in media is important.
Usually, though, conversations about representation tend to center on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Chronic pain and disabilities aren’t as commonly discussed, though this is slowly changing. An increasing number of TV shows feature characters with chronic pain or disabilities. Some are even played by actors and actresses who have these disabilities. Here are seven particularly realistic portrayals of chronic pain and disability on TV.
1. Greg House, from House MD
No list about chronic pain on TV would be complete without House, diagnostician extraordinaire. After developing a blood clot in his thigh that led to tissue death, Dr. House had to have the dead muscle surgically removed. This left him with chronic, severe pain. Addiction to Vicodin is a recurring theme throughout the series, as Dr. House forges prescriptions, experiences side effects of the drug, goes through rehab and withdrawal, and continues to be a top-notch (if often unpleasant) doctor. Critics of the show sometimes suggest that Dr. House’s addiction is overly-dramatized, but fans who’ve experienced chronic pain argue that the show offers an extremely realistic presentation of life with chronic pain.
2. Jackie Peyton, from Nurse Jackie
This show may be a bit more soap opera than medical drama at times, but the character of Jackie does bring attention to a very real issue: chronic back pain among nurses. Nurses are on the move almost constantly, and they also have to lift and turn patients regularly. In fact, nursing has the second-highest rate of non-fatal work injuries in the U.S. Being a nurse is often a high stress job, too. Jackie’s way of dealing with this – drugs and drama – may have caused quite a bit of controversy, but the show certainly brings attention to some of the issues facing nurses today.
3. Arizona Robbins, from Grey’s Anatomy
Arizona Robbins was first introduced as a charmingly quirky and cheerful pediatric surgeon. In the ninth season, though, Arizona is injured during a plane crash and has to have a leg amputated from the knee down. The behind-the-scenes team compiled a lot of research for the actress who plays Arizona, including talking to real-life amputees. Many of the scenes revolving around Arizona and her amputation are almost painfully emotional. She struggles, fights, argues, cries, and falls. She experiences phantom limb pain bad enough to make her leave the operating room in the middle of a surgery. But, like many strong individuals who experience an amputation, she overcomes.
4. Walt Jr., from Breaking Bad
Walt Jr. is the teenage son of Walter, a teacher who begins producing and selling meth when he’s diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Walt Jr. has cerebral palsy, a disease that affects muscle development and control, among other things. The young man who plays Walt Jr., R.J. Mitte, actually has cerebral palsy (although his is much milder than Walt Jr.’s), so he drew on his own experiences to make the character realistic. From the difficulty walking to the slurred speech to being singled out by bullies, many of Mitte’s own past experiences are reflected very accurately by the character of Walt Jr.
5. Kevin Girardi, from Joan of Arcadia
Kevin was in a car accident. Because his sister Joan promised to do anything for God if only He let Kevin live, Kevin survived – but he was left a paraplegic. The show starts 18 months after the car accident. More than simply showing Kevin as a disabled person, this show paints a very realistic picture of an entire family’s reaction to a sudden disability. Blogger Anna from the site Feminists With Disabilities sums up the appeal of this show perfectly, stating:
“The Girardis are not victims of a horrible tragedy, and the focus of the show isn’t on how the able-bodied are recovering from the sudden burden of their eldest child. Instead, it’s a show that includes how families are affected when disability comes into their lives unexpectedly, and the way everyone involved copes, or doesn’t cope. Everyone is an individual, and no one is a prop or a very special message.”
6. Susan Kennedy, from Neighbours
This is an Australian show and might be a bit tricky to find here, but the character of Susan is still worth a mention. On the show, Susan began having an array of strange symptoms, from tingling to blackouts to vision trouble. After being undiagnosed and then misdiagnosed, Susan was finally correctly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Viewers – even physicians and people who have MS – have praised how realistic the diagnostic process and Susan’s response were. Thanks to Susan’s diagnosis with MS, a lot of discussion has been sparked about the disease.
7. Izzy Armstrong, from Coronation Street
It might be a bit difficult to find this show in the U.S., since it’s a British soap, but Izzy’s character is an awesome one. Wheelchair-bound Izzy has the tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Coronation Street has been showing in the UK for more than 50 years, and Izzy is the show’s first disabled regular character. The actress who plays Izzy, Cherylee Houston, also has Ehlers-Danlos and has been disabled since age 23. The portrayal of Izzy as someone with this disorder is therefore highly realistic, but it certainly doesn’t define her character. She’s also just as much of a well-developed, strong, dynamic character as anyone else on the show.
Do you know of any other TV characters with chronic pain or disabilities?
Photo by flash.pro via Flickr