TV has another series regular character with a disability, and another controversy over whether an actor without that disability should be playing the part. In USA's new series Covert Affairs, actor Christopher Gorham (right) portrays Auggie, a CIA analyst who was blinded as a Special Ops commando in Iraq. On the show, he serves as both a tech whiz and a quirky sidekick for Piper Perabo's newbie agent. His impairment seems designed a little bit for comic relief, a little bit for disability awareness, a little bit to give the character some sort of, well, character. Matt Corman, one of the show's creators, gave this explanation for Auggie's disability in an interview with Jim Halterman:
"The idea to do this character was based, actually, on a friend of ours who was an accident. In his case, he was paralyzed. He was not blinded. But the accident was transformative for him in many ways terrible, but in some ways good. His character changed to a certain extent. He became more inquisitive, more open, in some ways more emotional, so that was the starting off place. We wanted to look at a character who in Auggie's instance was in the military and was probably a very straightforward person before his accident. But afterwards, it has opened him up to the world, made him a little bit more vulnerable, perhaps given him a sense of humor that he didn't have before."
An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer describes the care that Gorham has put into researching the way Auggie would work and act so that this "womanizing blind guy with not one ounce of self-pity" will seem as realistic as possible, even to the point of scheduling extra rehearsals to block out the physical aspects of getting around and interacting with others. Before a recent episode that touched on Auggie's boss's attempt to limit him in the workplace, Gorham also appeared in the network's public-service announcement celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (view the video).
So, speaking of overcoming limitations in the workplace, why isn't a vision-impaired actor playing the role of Auggie? As Alex Nesbitt writes on the blog Digital Podcast about the ADA PSA, "This would be great given the impact the ADA has had leveling the playing ground except they use a guy who can see to play a blind person. A sighted person is playing a blind person, and there are not any real blind actors on the show that I know of. What does that say about their real respect for the ADA?"
Nothing against Gorham, who seems to be taking his job seriously, but there's the same sort of disconnect here as I felt on Glee when a character with disabilities played by a non-disabled actor complained about people who fake disabilities. Anytime Auggie talks about how much his vision-impaired character is capable of doing, there's always going to be a subtext of except star in a TV series, goodness knows blind people can't do THAT.
The character I always think about when these kind of questions come up is Joey Lucas on The West Wing, a pollster played by actress Marlee Matlin, who like her character is deaf. Though Joey's sign language and occasional spoken language was used to great comedic (never at her expense) and dramatic effect, she was never a Deaf Pollster. Her disability was one not terribly important element of a well-rounded and engaging character, and I wonder how much the fact that the actress could bring some personal experience to the part contributed to that.
For more thoughts on Covert Affairs and the character of Auggie, read posts on the blogs Feminists With Disabilities and Media dis&dat. Then share your thoughts about the show and the casting in the comments here, or write your own review of this and other special-needs TV shows.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown