Glee-ful About Special Needs on TV

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I have new faith in pop culture as a vector of enlightenment now that the TV show Glee has given us Wheels, a thoroughly contemporary After School Special about people with disabilities. I am not used to thoughtful dramatic portrayals of people with special needs, so I had to keep pinching myself as Glee's writers nimbly folded teaching moments into plot twists, using empathy and humor, yet with minimal self-congratulatory over-explanation. I loved it. And I hope its three clear, critical messages percolate deeply into TV watchers' brains:

1) The term "retarded" is no longer acceptable.
2) To support someone with special needs, talk with them, not for or about them.
3) Loving someone with special needs does not make you a saint.

With these points in mind, see if you can count the number of times they're reinforced in the following special needs plotlines (which are not the episode's only story threads; as io9's Charlie Jane Anders pointed out, "[Glee packs] so much into one episode, and none of it feels forced."):

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The Glee club needs a bus to travel to a competition, but can't afford one with a wheelchair lift -- meaning that Artie, who is paraplegic, has to find his own transportation. Glee director Will Schuester asks his students to hold a bake sale to fund the bus, but they decline -- one girl, Mercedes, even asserts that "Artie doesn't mind, his dad drives him everywhere," spurring Artie to let them know, "actually, I do mind. "

Will lets the matter slide at first. But after arguing with both the principal and bombastic cheer coach Sue Sylvester about the need for more than one wheelchair ramp at the school, and then spying Artie doing some cool moves in his chair, Will changes his mind. He tells the glee club that not only is the bake sale on, but they will all spend three hours each day in a wheelchair so they can better understand what it's like to be Artie -- and they will also be doing a wheelchair routine for sectionals.

The students take to their wheelchairs and grudgingly set up the bake sale. When cheerleader Brittany approaches the bake sale table accompanied by Becky, who has Down syndrome, Quinn, the self-absorbed, pregnant, and as a result dethroned head cheerleader, callously demands what Brittany is "doing with HER." Another student tells Quinn that the girls are friends, and that Brittany "cheats off [Becky's] math tests." Becky and Brittany buy cupcakes, and Becky tells one of the cheer/glee girls that she thinks cheerleaders are cool.

The principal, "inspired" by Will's inclusive actions, commands Sue to hold open auditions to replace Quinn, with Will attending to ensure fairness. Sue, with characteristic abruptness, shoots down every candidate, until Becky auditions -- and is informed by Sue that she's made the team. Will is skeptical since Sue is calculating and evil, and chides Sue about her bullying of Becky during a subsequent practice, saying that Sue's behavior is unfair because Becky is different. Sue says she bullies everyone, and that "I want you to listen to what you just said. You're telling me I have to treat her differently because she has a disability, when it seems to me she just wants to be treated like everyone else."

The bake sale is a huge success for non-special needs but entertaining reasons that I will not reveal here. Will hands the bake sale profits to Artie, telling him to give it to the principal himself. Artie says that actually, he'd rather forgo the one-time bus, and instead pay for more wheelchair ramps since he's not the only kid at school in a wheelchair. It is then revealed that Artie's proposal is unnecessary, because Sue Sylvester already paid for the new ramps. The principal and Will are baffled by Sue's actions, as are we -- until we see Sue visit a nursing home to dote on her adored older sister, who has Down syndrome.

Meanwhile Artie has been crushing on and spending time with Tina, and reminds her that she knew what it was like to be different before her wheelchair assignment, due to her stutter. Tina gets out of her chair and kisses Artie, and tells him that she's been faking her stutter since sixth grade, because she's shy and wanted to push people away. Artie backs away from her in disgust, saying that he would never push people away, that the chair already does that, and that "I'm sorry that you get to be normal, and that I get to be stuck in this chair for the rest of my life, and that's not something I can fake."

And then the entire glee club performs a wheelchair routine to Proud Mary, with Artie and Mercedes as stars, and it rocks. Just like the episode.

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So, how did you do? Here's what I hope you noticed:

The word "retarded" was never mentioned once, not even with regards to Becky, even though Glee's writers sub-specialize in creative taunting. I don't know if the writers sidestepped the term because of anti-r-word activism or because it is increasingly simply not done, but it was noticeably absent. Let's hope this omission represents a cultural trend on the upswing.

Many characters talked about Artie's needs and feelings, often right in front of him, yet without including him in the conversation. They assumed he was okay with being driven to competitions separately, that he preferred taking the bus once over installing ramps he could use every school day, and that he wouldn't mind Tina faking a disability because she liked him. Yet when asked, Artie is frank about accommodations and is a typical hormonal nerd-boy; when Tina asks how he became paralyzed, he tells her about his car accident, then adds, "I want to be very clear -- I still have full use of my penis." Awkward, but realistic, as well as another topic peers will likely make assumptions about.

Jaws across the country must have hit the ground upon discovering that scruple-free drill sergeant Sue is also a loving and patient sister to a woman with Down syndrome. But Sue's softer side is less a character contradiction than a demonstration of what I so often tell people who try to canonize the families of those with challenging special needs: being Leo's mom doesn't make me any less of a jerk; it just means that I love Leo, and have a better understanding of him and his friends than I used to.

I hope you noticed what I noticed, as well as how much more there was to appreciate, such as featuring an older person with special needs. With so much special needs hoopla focusing on kids, it's easy to forget that our children are going to become adults. Society needs reminding that people with special needs age, continue to be loved, and may need ongoing care. It was recently pointed out to me that the Blogosphere's own Pioneer Woman does a lovely job of communicating these very messages through her stories about her brother Mike. And yes, I know that PW uses the word 'retarded,' but her affectionate descriptions of Mike -- as just another complicated person who happens to have developmental challenges -- temper her non-malicious use of an outdated label.

Speaking of malice, I also know people are upset that Artie is played by perfectly ambulatory actor Kevin McHale. While I do wish that a reality-based casting choice had been made, I am still pleased to see a prominent TV character in a wheelchair. I also suspect that many viewers are like my daughter, who has no idea that Mr. McHale's abilities differ from Artie's.

TV shows like Glee show our culture becoming not only more aware of special needs, but less concerned about them as demarcating factors. My sixth-grade daughter paid more attention to a diva competition plotline than any of the special needs threads, because they weren't all that revelatory for her. Her brother and our friends with disabilities have always been a part of her life, but if those were the only factors influencing her attitude towards special needs, she wouldn't be competing with a "popular" girl for the attentions of a cute boy who is open not only about his Asperger's diagnosis but his shadow aide. The girls' complete unconcern about the boy's labels and accommodations make sense in a culture that creates TV like Wheels. I hope inclusive attitudes continue to expand as a result. 

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Shannon Des Roches Rosa rarely gets to her TiVo queue in a timely manner, which is why she didn't see this episode or post this article earlier. Her over-full schedule is documented on her personal blog, www.Squidalicious.com.

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