WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WILDLY POPULAR TV SHOW DOES DISABILITY?

SPOILER ALERT: Big reveals from the season 4 premiere of This is Us ahead.

If you haven’t started watching NBC’s ratings juggernaut This is Us, now might be the time. The sappy yet happy drama rules social media chatter after every new airing. The twists and turns of the lives of the Pearson family, pass, present, and future are captivating.

Season 4 kicks off with several new characters, one who has a disability. We weave through the life of this young adult as he meets a waitress/aspiring chef Lucy at a diner after his puppy knocks over his breakfast. He tells her he’s hungover because he was writing a song and it wasn’t going well. We see the couple fall in love and get engaged. Later, we discover they are married, she’s opened a new restaurant, she’s unexpectedly pregnant, then she helps him on stage where it’s clear he is now a musician selling out arenas.

Then, we return to the present to find out this man is actually baby Jack, Kate and Toby’s son. And they’ve just learned their 3 month-old has retinopathy. Because the baby was born prematurely, we can assume it is Retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), and eye disease that causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina and can lead to blindness. The character Jack can see only light and shapes.

Blake Stadnik, the 28-year-old actor who plays Jack, was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration, at age 6. The condition causes progressive damage to the area in the center of the retina that is responsible for sharp, straight ahead vision. Stadnik was legally blind by is 7th birthday. Fans of This is Us might appreciate that Stadnik is actually a Pittsburgh native and graduated from Penn State’s musical theater program.

Casting a triple threat talent who actually has a disability was the first thing the show did right. In an interview with Vulture, the show creator Dan Foglemen said they were looking for a “leading man who was without sight and could be funny and charming but also accessible and sweet … and he was worried about it [casting this individual].” Surprising to them, but not us, they found several viable choices.

Dawn Snow, the Center for Family Involvement’s Blind and Vision Impairment Specialist, is thrilled the show has cast a person who is actually blind. “It’s about d@^n time Hollywood! I’m not surprised at all that they were able to find several good candidates. There are plenty of talented and creative people who are blind, there has just been a lack of opportunities.”

The meet-cute moment where Jack and waitress Lucy connect was real and refreshing. Jack used humor to deflect some awkward moments and assumptions Lucy seemed to be making about his disability. He explained his condition to her, knowing the questions she might have. It’s an experience many of us go through daily, when others are obviously perplexed by our or our child’s existence; or they try to “help us” yet they are actually getting in the way or crossing countless physical, personal, and emotional boundaries.

As a parent of a child with a disability, I could relate to the pain you see in Kate and Toby’s eyes when  they find out their baby’s vision loss is permanent. All of us know that feeling, like getting run over by a bus. We all share that odd emotional juxtaposition of despair, hope, and a love so deep you’d do anything to make it better, to plow down every obstacle society sets before them because of their disability.

“I was surprised at how much emotion I felt watching the scene in the doctor’s office with Kate and Toby. It brought me directly back to my experience, remembering when the doctor told me that my daughter was blind and that there was nothing more they could do. Tears flowed as I flashed back to the shock, fear and devastation I felt in that moment. And a moment later I was thrilled to watch as they showed Kate and Toby shift quickly to acceptance. I was so happy to see them set the stage of love and that it will be okay. Aside of a few minor things, I feel that the show did a fantastic job for the first episode and setting up a little of what is to come with Jack’s character. I am hopeful that they will not glamorize blindness or turn it into inspiration porn. I’m looking forward to see how the show captures his youth (I hope they do) and especially looking forward to how they capture his parenting as this is a hot topic.”

Snow is right, Kate makes that shift from devastation to determination very quickly. Shortly before getting the diagnosis she says, “No matter what he [the doctor] says, he’s [baby Jack] going to have an amazing, incredible life.”

This is Us has tackled many difficult subjects: addiction, adoption, death, depression, poverty, martial woes. The drama has been praised for how realistically it portrays these subjects.

Disability is different though, so often writers default to the “inspiration porn” standard when portraying it. It’s always about overcoming disability rather than just dealing with it. The show is already leaning toward this. “Blind baby grows up to be famous pop star.” At the same time, there is no reason that can’t happen. So maybe this groundbreaking drama will do disability right and set a new television standard.

Struggling with a new diagnosis? Want to know more about vision impairment? Call our helpline: (877) 567-1122

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