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'Does Blind Justice Do Justice to Blind People?' NFB says 'yes'

by Jesse Kaysen

Steven Bochco's latest cop show, Blind Justice, premiered on ABC last Tuesday in NYPD Blue's old slot. The lead character is cop Jim Dunbar, blinded on the job, who successfully sues for reinstatement.

In his very detailed analysis, Christopher Danielsen writes on a National Federation of the Blind website that "the blind community can normally expect from the mainstream media derisive and unfunny attempts at humor... , the use of blindness for cheap sight gags and jokes a la Mr. Magoo, or the human interest story, full of phony pathos."

But Blind Justice, he writes, "is a refreshing change, both because it portrays a competent blind character in an unusual job and because it addresses with unusual insight and candor the true barriers blind people face: namely, the misconceptions and stereotypes that we confront as we try to find a home in the modern workplace and as productive members of society."

The other characters' skepticism at Dunbar's skills "will be recognized as true to life by every blind person" who tunes in. Many of them, he adds, "may find the concept of a blind cop to be a bit of a stretch.

"That Bochco (veteran producer Steven Bochco L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) and his team are willing to confront the public with this premise, however, and thus challenge viewers' perceptions about the capabilities of the blind, bespeaks an open-minded, innovative, and (given the cruelty of the ratings game) courageous approach to which the blind community has been little accustomed from entertainment types."

I must admit I dreaded watching the show, thinking it would be full of Daredevil stereotypes, but I was pleasantly surprised by the script's mostly accurate depiction of the tension between a recently-disabled person having to "prove" their competence and their co-workers uneasy combo of respect and derision. However, the cop show portions of the drama were very familiar.

And I found lead actor Ron Eldred's take on Dunbar refreshing: "I think if he got back his sight tomorrow, he would be cheating on his wife in three days," Eldard told AP Television Writer Frazier Moore. "I think he hasn't really changed that much. So I really am not interested in his becoming a very noble man. I'm much more interested in his struggling like hell not to be a schmuck." Sounds like at least an increment of progress when it comes to nondisabled actors taking on disabled roles.

The show's premiere gave newspaper copyeditors natiownide a chance to trot out those "derisive attempts at unfunny humor" and the usual puns: "Blind Justice star is keeping his eyes, and options, open" (Providence Journal). "Justice demands blind faith" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). "Blind Justice sets sights on replacing Blue" (Memphis Commercial-Appeal). "Blind Justice actor sees the light" (Arizona Star). "You'll need a blind eye to accept this Justice (Boston Herald). "Blind Justice not very visionary" (Kansas City Star). And on. And on.

And then there was The South Florida Sun-Sentinel's Tom Jicham who writes that the show "has everything a viewer could want in a TV drama series -- except a premise that is even remotely believable....a blind cop continuing to work cases on the streets of New York -- with a loaded gun... is so far beyond the pale it might as well be science fiction."

Blind Justice is one of the few series on commercial TV that runs with audio description. Sadly a 2002 court decision held that only the top 25 TV market stations are required to transmit the audio description signal over their airwaves, and many stations aren't transmitting the accessible features that's already been paid for.

Here's a list of described programming available on broadcast and cable: http://www.tv-now.com/dvs/ Internet search engines are now able to index television content by scanning the transcripts created during closed captioning. Who knows what mainstream purpose might be found for audio description when it finally becomes as ubiquitous as captions?

For a more challenging, and more interesting, spin on a similar topic -- detective loses sight -- check out the BBC/WGBH Mystery co-production miniseries called Second Sight. It's available for rent on DVD, and it has audio description on the second audio program.

Posted March 12, 2005

Internet maven Jesse Kaysen can't stop herself from commenting on media matters, even if it meant she'd sleep better.

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