Cure TV

Nearly three decades of disability rights activism, and ABC Television still sees nothing wrong with producing a TV series like Miracle Workers, which can only be described as a new low in reality shows.

PopMatters' Associate Film and TV Editor Todd Ramlow does as good a job of laying out the show's premise as I've found:

[T]he over-sentimentalization and pitying protocols of dominant culture towards disability frame the show. Each episode focuses on two "tragic" victims of various disabilities and the doctors who will "cure" them. The narrative structure is predictably manipulative: each person's disability, difficulties, and family are introduced. We meet the medical team, and hear about their "ground-breaking" procedure. We are shown the patient's apprehensions, some complications during surgery, and the emergence of an altered individual at the end.

The first two episodes featured Todd, "blind since childhood due to an allergic reaction to penicillin"; Vanessa, "who suffers from degenerative bone and joint disease"; Emily, a 19-year-old "with a severe form of Tourette Syndrome"; and Adrian, a toddler with Vater's Syndrome (born with five fused ribs on one side, which radically changed the shape of his spine). Through the "miracles" of modern medicine, Todd has stem cells and full corneal transplants that return his sight (though to what degree is never mentioned), Vanessa's spine is fused so she can move without chronic pain, Emily receives Deep Brain Stimulation treatment, and Adrian has an expandable titanium prosthesis attached to opposite top and lower ribs, which will afford the little boy "the chance to stand tall." It's not so much that the medical treatments for these disabilities are a problem, especially in the case of Vanessa, who experiences chronic pain. Certainly, helping individuals to live without ongoing and intense pain is a good thing. Rather, the problem has to do with the able-bodied presumptions that underlie Miracle Workers. Todd, for instance, is perfectly "normal" in every respect except one. He is married, has several children, and a full time job as a nurse's assistant. His "tragedy" is that he has never seen his wife or children. (Read Ramlow's article.)

I'm sorry to say the show's premise doesn't surprise me one bit. I think it's only to be expected in a culture that adulated Christopher Reeve, that couldn't see that his "walking by 50" cure-or-bust mantra was the opposite of disabiilty pride. A culture that still doesn't seem to have a clue that the quest for cure isn't the end-all of every disabled person's life.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Sure, blame the mass culture and the media. They deserve it.

But blame disability rights movement activists, too. We simply haven't made it clear enough that the problem is not "broken bodies" but broken policies and broken laws. That the problem is a denial of rights. We don't stay on message. We don't raise hell enough. We don't write enough letters to editors. We don't blog enough. We don't write enough op-eds.

Chicago ADAPT activist and freelancer Mike Ervin did an op-ed for the Progressive Media Project that so far -- as of the time I write this blog entry -- has been picked up by the Tallahassee Democrat and the Myrtle Beach Sun News Irvin calls the show "insulting to people with disabilities," but predicts it "will become a feel-good hit" -- simply because it "reinforces the comforting myth that if people with disabilities are on the fringes, it is up to us alone to try to fit in better by seizing every opportunity to change who we are. It relieves everyone else of the daunting obligation of doing the hard work of creating a culture that is more welcoming and just."

Ervin's op-ed is going to need to be picked up by more than a few papers if it's to make a real dent in consciousness.

In the kind of everybody-gets-linked-to-everybody-else villaging that is the blogosphere, John E. Smith wrote of precisely this thing in the Washington Post back in January. It's a Life, Not a Feel-Good Moment, he said, referring to media's penchant to turn a disabled person's reality into what might less charitably called news entertainment. (Earlier today Smith posted a comment on our MediaCircusBlog entry by Lawrence Carter-Long: he wants us to let him know if he got it right. Yes, he did. Exactly.)

Smith was referring to feature stories about his son, a wheelchair user who goes rock-climbing and kayaking, among other sports. Now we've got an entire reality show to contend with.

Ramlow also gets it exactly right when he writes,

Disability, then, is the individual's problem. The "cure" is out there, Miracle Workers suggests, and if you, person with disabilities, can't "overcome," "we" can't be bothered.

For confirmation of this we need look no further than California's North County Times, a San-Diego area online paper that's been carping about access for months now, carrying on an ongoing diatribe against crips who file lawsuits to gain access to inaccessible businesses. No matter that it is the businesses who have been breaking both federal and state law in refusing to modify their premises; the ongoing story line is that the problems are all being caused by the crips. A recent installment has William Louis complaining that wheelchair users are using the wrong kinds of wheelchairs. It's their own fault, in other words.

This kind of thinking is really all around us today. So Miracle Workers isn't all that surprising. It's an artifact of our reactionary times, a climate that no longer believes in re-making society along egalitarian lines -- not when we can get individuals to have themselves remade in our own likeness. Which is a lot of what "cure" is all about. Not all of it, but a lot of it.

And even those who rebel at the idea of other minorities remaking themselves to fit into society don't seem to "get it" when the "minority" is someone disabled. Even a feminist, we learn, can be a Step Nazi.

The bottom line? People love this kind of cure stuff. And there are millions of disabled folks out there who want to be cured, too. The disability rights sensibility just hasn't permeated very far into folks' consciousnesses. The Louisville Courier-Journal's TV critic likely got it right when he wrote that the show is "sure to bring a flood of mail from people pleading for the Miracle Workers team to take their cases." ABC told reporters that the show would "help people." But producers, wisely hedging their bets, were also sure to tell reporters that even if the show got lousy ratings, it would still be "helping people." Disabled people, after all, need "help." That's the conventional wisdom. And people who rain on that parade are seen as mean-spirited. But Miracle Workers seems headed for the basement in the ratings department nonetheless. Not, I'll wager, for the right reason, though.

I wonder what would happen if ABC decided to do a reality show on getting businesses to make themselves accessible? There could be on-air fighting and screaming as small business owners denounce wheelchair crips. The crips could file suit. Then we could have live courtroom drama, too...

March 20, 2006 | Email this story


Comments (newest comments at bottom)

A bunch of medblogs are also annoyed at the show, which sees "miracles" instead of science and skill, and touts untested or rarely performed procedures instead of safer, standard treatments.

Kim Steadman at Healthy Policy:

Graham at Over My Med Body:

So, this show isn't winning kudos from anyone who knows what they're looking at.

If there's ever a reality show about making businesses accessible, can they also cover IEPs? Here's my pitch: It's a bit like Survivor, except instead of an island, there's a tiny "conference room" full of boxes and old poster displays in a portable across the parking lot. Five school employees and one parent enter--who among them will form secret alliances, who will make surprising revelations, and who will, finally, emerge victorious? The winner doesn't get $1mil, just an enforceable school plan--until the next meeting. See, built-in sequel potential....

Posted by: Penny on March 20, 2006 04:07 PM


Thank you for the link and comment. You said,

"But blame disability rights movement activists, too. We simply haven't made it clear enough that the problem is not "broken bodies" but broken policies and broken laws. That the problem is a denial of rights. We don't stay on message. We don't raise hell enough. We don't write enough letters to editors. We don't blog enough. We don't write enough op-eds."

My wife is on the organizing committee for a Rally in DC on the capitol lawn May 2nd, preceded by one and one-half days of symposium on paralysis. We could sure use some activists to join us, in wheelchairs or not. The law we are promoting is not broken, but the process is and we want to change that.

This rally is held in conjunction with the Christopher Reeve Foundation for the purpose of promoting the CR Paralysis Act. This bill is about two things: advancing collaborative research in paralysis and improving the quality of life for people living with paralysis, which, I would argue extends to many with disabilities other than paralysis per se.

During this three day event participants are encouraged to meet with their legislators and lobby for the CRPA and any other issues pertinent to their needs. In light of Dana Reeve's recent passing, her friend, Susan Sarandon has accepted the offer to host the Rally.

The session presenters are outstanding and day two of the symposium will include an educational portion on the lobbying process including talking points with representatives and senators.

The website is:

I understand the fascination with Christopher Reeve's cure mentality met mixed reactions in the disability community. However, this Rally and this legislation is not about cure but about the right of the disabled community to demand more from an indifferent Congress.

If anyone has suggestions on how to Rally the troops, especially those in the DC area, we would appreciate the help. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could fill the Capitol lawn? I invite you all to come raise a little hell with us.

John E. Smith

Posted by: John E. Smith on March 20, 2006 11:44 PM

Mary Johnson certainly makes valid points as always in her blog. We're seeing a weird meld of Touched by an Angel joining Jerry Springer to reach the population the producers most cherish.

But I truly believe we as people with disabilities, in our own pride, forget why people without disabilities hate to see differences. It's a simple fact: evolution.

All the way through history, people have looked to the physical to judge a person's worth. We've just started progressing away from that in the past 50 years, and it may take another 500 before we get there fully.

Should people without disabilities change overnight to fully accept and understand disabilities? Yes. Will it happen? No. Very few people without disabilities, even among my friends, can truly understand and appreciate disability without experiencing it themselves.

We can scream and shout about the evils of this show and others, but until people want to change and leave the pablum fed by television, change will occur slowly.

I'll leave you with these lines from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from Laas to Odo, both shapeshifters, about humans:

"...this may finally make you understand that you don't belong here. You saw the hatred in that Klingon's eyes, perhaps now you'll recognise it when you see it hiding in the faces of your so-called friends. They tolerate you Odo, because you emulate them. What higher flattery is there? 'I that can be anything choose to be like you.' But even when you make yourself in their image they know you are not truly one of them. They know that what you appear to be does not reflect what you really are. It's just a mask. What lies underneath, is alien to them. And so they fear it. And that fear can turn to hate, in a blink of an eye."

Posted by: Kevin Gadsey on March 22, 2006 04:08 AM

I think they should do a reality show on people who live in a group home for developmentally disabled adults like a day in the life of a group home manager. I also think they should do a reality show on parents of a severely disabled child and how they deal with life from day to day getting them up out of the bed and in their wheelchair and get them dressed (if they are not toliet trained they need a diaper even if they are 15) and get them off to school whether it is a school wheelchair accessible van or their own car or van which means getting them ready probably a couple of hours before they need to be at school. Follow the child as they deal with the problems of being different in school they may not be able to play on the playground equipment.

Posted by: Laura Elliott on March 29, 2006 02:49 PM

F--- it. I'm a real Survivor. I want my $1 mil.

Posted by: Erika on May 4, 2006 04:27 PM

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