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How 'Grey’s Anatomy' Is Shattering Stigma Surrounding Disability

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Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important that the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” not only shatters stigma against mental health, but also portrays African-American characters with a variety of disabilities.

Representation of characters with disabilities – including mental health – who are successful in their careers, such as prominent doctors, is important. According to GLAAD, the amount of regular primetime broadcast characters counted who have a disability has slightly increased to 2.1 percent, but that number still vastly underrepresents the actualities of Americans with disabilities. Yet even when representation is done well, it often lacks accurate depictions of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

In the past few episodes, “Grey’s Anatomy” has bucked this trend. Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson)’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Richard Webber (James Pickens, Jr.)’s battles with alcoholism and Catherine Fox (Debbie Allen)’s cancer lead the storylines. All of these characters are African-American, which is important to note as most disabled characters on TV tend to be white (and usually male and cisgender as well).

There is a huge stigma against mental illness, including taking medication for a mental health issue. OCD is a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder that affects 3.3 million people, characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety (obsessions), repetitive behaviors that are engaged in to reduce anxiety (compulsions) or a combination of both. By showing Bailey receiving therapy for her OCD, and discussing both the exercises and the medication she has been given helps to normalize this scenario.

Her OCD was first mentioned in Season 10 in 2013 and then later spotlighted in Season 14 in 2018. Like 95 percent of characters with disabilities, Chandra Wilson does not have OCD like the character she plays, but she understands the importance of accurate representation.

“I think it is 100 percent the entertainment industry’s responsibility to have accurate portrayals of especially something like mental illness when so many – [diagnosed individuals] are battling on a daily basis,” she said. “We can’t take 100 percent responsibility, of course… but it’s really important for us to plant seeds whenever we can, just in order to raise questions in viewers’ minds.”

According to the U.S. Census, one in four Americans has a disability. Currently 70 percent of working-age people with disabilities are not working — even though most of them want jobs and independence. Many studies show people with disabilities can work successfully and live independently.

For many of the 1,199,743 black students (K-12) with disabilities in America today, the deck is stacked against them. Frequently invisible disabilities such as ADHD are not diagnosed and students do not get the supports they need to achieve. Frustrated, they can act out and become suspended. African-American students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspension in schools, with more than one in four boys of color with disabilities — and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities — receiving an out-of-school suspension.

Studies show that when students miss too many days, either for being truant or just being absent, they get so far behind in class that it can lead to them dropping out of school. As documented by the Center for American Progress, these issues are “an early warning sign for educational failure… [and] one mechanism that propels the school-to-prison pipeline.” Today there are more than 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in America. Many of them do not have high school diplomas, are functionally illiterate and are people of color.

Overall, only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 84 percent of students without disabilities. However, only 57 percent of black students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 74.6 percent of black students without disabilities.

Storylines such as these are making a difference in how audiences perceive disability. And the success of television shows that embrace disability in their diversity conversations prove it is good for their bottom line as well.

“Hoping (in some small way) it will help more showrunners consider #ability the next time they staff their shows,” “Grey’s Anatomy” co-executive producer Elisabeth R. Finch, whose own experience with a rare bone cancer inspired Catherine’s storyline, tweeted on Feb. 1.

The typical storyline of a person with cancer leads either to death or a full cure through surgery. Only 95 percent of Catherine’s tumor was removed, but she was optimistic following surgery – just like Finch, who continues to live with this cancer. This authentic portrayal has rarely been seen on television.

“Because my illness is chronic, I’m considered a person with a disability, but every time we see cancer stories, they’re either life or death, there is very little in-between. I was very interested in telling a story where someone is living with it day to day and still having a full healthy friend life, work life, love life,” Finch told ET. “We get to watch Catherine move forward and move through recovery and see what that’s like and see how she feels a month from now, six months from now, a year from now, both emotionally and physically. We get to watch a person who is living with cancer on television.”

This portrayal is important when it comes to removing stigmas for people with cancer and other disabilities. The success of episodes like these show the importance of including writers with disabilities, which ensure the authenticity is accurately portrayed. Finch talked about how she is the only person who identifies as a person with a disability in the “Grey’s Anatomy” writers’ room in an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter. She said this is something that is replicated across other writers’ rooms. This lack of writers with disabilities led her to wanting to write this powerful episode.

“I thought of the younger staff writers I met along the way who were advised by more senior writers not to disclose their disability for fear it would make them ‘not a good hire.’ I thought of the young woman of color I met at an industry event whose agent told her: ‘The fact that you’re African-American is a plus, but a disability … they may doubt you can get the job done. Try not to talk about it.’ And I thought about the dozens of speeches I’ve heard at Hollywood events, the dozens of ‘think pieces’ I’ve read over the past five years or so about inclusion — and recalled how ‘ability’ is the last to be mentioned, if it’s mentioned at all. (It’s usually not.)”

By having a writer with a disability in the writers’ room, the “Grey’s Anatomy” team can ensure its stories are portrayed more authentically and accurately. By including characters of color as characters with disabilities, the show doubles down on its efforts to showcase authentic, diverse stories, as disabilities cut across all races, genders, sexual orientations and more.

“Grey’s Anatomy” airs on Thursday evenings at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

Originally published: February 11, 2019
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