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The show's writers make Monk a bit "pet" like -- for a reason, writes Seanne Prine. READ LETTER.

MONKeying with disability rights

by Sharon Wachsler

photo of actor Tony Shalhoub

I every Friday night I wind up yelling at my TV, "ADA! ADA! Haven't you heard of the fucking ADA?"

After two seasons, the writers of the USA Network comedy series, Monk, finally took aim at correcting the fatal flaw in the show's premise. Too bad they missed the target and shot themselves in the foot.

The series derives its tension from the understated, yet obviously heartbreaking, longing of title character Adrian Monk (brilliantly portrayed by Tony Shalhoub) to regain his job as a San Francisco police detective. Despite his stellar success as a private eye -- the police chief relies on Monk to solve the force's most baffling cases -- the sleuth is kept from returning to work by his disability: obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, Monk's mental condition is the reason he was fired in the first place.

Much as I love the show -- including its bizarre schemes and hokey plot twists -- I have never been able to stomach its reliance on this blatant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA says that any person with a disability who can perform the "essential functions" of his/her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, cannot legally be fired from (or kept from returning to) work based solely on his/her disability. In Monk's case, the accommodation that allows him to function at a level that far exceeds that of an average detective is his nurse/assistant, Sharona Fleming (Bitty Schram). 

Since the police are supposed to enforce laws, not violate them, every Friday night I wind up yelling at my TV, "ADA! ADA! Haven't you heard of the fucking ADA?"

I thought my verbal abuse had paid off when, on the February 6 episode, a law student informs our neurotic hero that he is being unlawfully prevented from returning to his job. All Monk has to do is pass the standardized SFPD exam and he'll be back in his impeccably pressed uniform before you can say "foreseeable catastrophe."

Predictably, Monk, who knows every rule and regulation to the letter, fails the test; he is so fixated on perfectly filling in each oval on the answer sheet that he never gets past the first question. Monk could have requested the simple accommodation of being allowed to give his answers orally. An even easier accommodation would have been for the bored proctor to fill in whichever oval Monk indicated, rather than watching the detective devolve into panic. It's not as if filling out circles is an "essential function" of being a police officer.

I am aware that that much of the show's humor -- and poignancy -- derives from Monk's struggles with seemingly minor tasks. Yet as Congress and the Supreme Court eviscerate the ADA, Monk misses an historic opportunity to support the law's assertion that abundantly competent people who have disabilities be afforded the same opportunities as their nondisabled colleagues. After all, if dedicated geniuses like Adrian Monk are banned from contributing to society, we're all shooting ourselves in our collective foot.

And hobbling in a vicious circle is no more useful than drawing inside one.

Posted Mar. 17, 2004

Sharon Wachsler is the editor of the new journal of literature and disability culture, Breath & Shadow. Contact Wachsler at breathandshadow@aol.com.

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Readers respond...

The rather patronizing tactic of portraying the main character as if he has literally fallen out of the sky with his disability is just another way to make the character "acceptable" to society. The writers of the show make him merely eccentric -- amusing and a bit "pet" like, rather than making his disability a realistic part of his personality as a true-to-heart disabled person. He gets taken care of by a woman who nurses him along as if he were a pet or child, rather than actual support from disability, mental and legal sources.

Television series about law, drugs and alcohol, and the medical world itself are about "reality" as long as they are heart-wrenching, full of action of the good-guy-versus-bad-guy sort and an informative and thrilling story of "life-and-death." This is so-called "realism" for television audiences, designed so that we can all relate to it.

Monk is just simply eccentric; the show uses his personality disorder as if it were just another freakish stereotype of an oddball character -- but it's done at the big expense of real disabilities and how it all works in the real world.

-- Seanne Prine, Evanston, WY




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