Blind applaud show's realistic depictions, reject exaggerations
By VIKKI ORTIZ
Posted: March 8, 2005
Minutes before ABC's new TV show "Blind Justice" appeared on the large screen in front of her, Becky Williams of Milwaukee skeptically listened for the program's opening lines.
Members of the Badger Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired attend a screening of the pilot episode of ABC’s "Blind Justice" this month at the center, 912 N. Hawley Road. Members were expecting another stereotypical blind character but instead were pleasantly surprised.
The last thing Williams, 54 - or the other members gathered for a screening of the show's pilot at the Badger Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired on N. Hawley Road - wanted to hear was another Hollywood-conceived blind character who could smell rain or hear babies crying from a mile away.
As the show continued, though, Williams and her peers grew hopeful. They laughed at the program's lighter moments and nodded their heads as characters reacted to blindness. And Williams, who has been blind all her life, even felt herself tear up during a scene.
"I expected it to be quite ridiculous," she said. "I was pleasantly surprised."
For many viewers across the country, Tuesday night's premiere of the new show "Blind Justice" was just one more option in the Tuesday night TV lineup, a convenient replacement for "NYPD Blue," which ended its 12-year run last week. But for the blind and visually impaired, creator Steven Bochco's new program carried a heavier significance. Many are convinced "Blind Justice" has the ability to either perpetuate stereotypes or use its pervasiveness to open viewers' minds.
It's a responsibility Bochco acknowledges about the program, which is the first ABC scripted TV show to offer visual description. The feature, available as Secondary Audio Programming on most newer TV sets, provides narration of the non-speaking parts. Bochco said he also tried to keep the show realistic by enlisting the help of consultant Lynn Manning, a man blinded by a gunshot wound 20 years ago.
"I think blind people may really feel good about this show in the way it portrays their lives and aspects of their lives," Bochco said in a telephone interview.
Still, after decades of painfully stereotyped TV and film portrayals of blind people crashing into walls or talking to coat racks, local and national members of the blind and visually impaired community said they plan to monitor "Blind Justice" closely.
"They never get it correctly," said Cory Ballard, a 26-year-old Milwaukee resident who has been blind for half his life. Sitting with his guide dog, Gunner, under his chair at the Badger Association, Ballard said that even if he did have a more developed sense of hearing than sighted people, he would never notice that a person had long hair by hearing it brush against her shoulder, as the main character on "Blind Justice" did.
"We're not concentrating on weird things like that," he said.
On the show, actor Ron Eldard plays Detective Jim Dunbar, who is injured in the line of duty and loses his eyesight. Instead of taking his pension and retiring from the police department, the character sues the city and wins the right to remain a working detective - complete with a loaded gun.
Bochco, the creator of "NYPD Blue" and co-creator of "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," said he got the idea for the new program after seeing a performance by the Blind Boys of Alabama at a Hollywood function. Choir members led each other onto the stage in a single-file line, with each performer putting one hand on the shoulder of the man in front.
"I was so moved by the way they came out and the way in which they supported each other. It seemed simultaneously so vulnerable, but also so trusting," Bochco said. He used the inspiration to create a show about a man at the top of his game who is forced to become similarly vulnerable through injury.
Bochco resists the notion that "Blind Justice" should proselytize or be held up as representative of the blind experience. But he said he's delighted that the blind community has taken an interest in the program and is committed to keeping the program's main character believable.
"We don't pity him. We expose him in all his vulnerability. . .to things blind people get exposed to, which is misunderstanding and sympathy from other people," Bochco said. "That's part of the reality."
Television critics have had mixed reviews, some praising "Blind Justice" for acknowledging its improbable premise and making the skeptics part of the show, others criticizing it for being predictable.
Dozens of other programs and films have included blind characters, ranging from Mary Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie" to Ben Affleck's "Daredevil" in 2003. Those who monitor such appearances argue that while use of blind characters in films isn't new, it is still rare when they are portrayed in a positive light, or just as everyday people who can read, work and maintain normal relationships.
In the early 1990s, the National Federation of the Blind picketed outside ABC offices across the country over a show called "Good and Evil." On the program, a blind character named George crashed into objects for slapstick laughs. A few years later, the federation voiced concern over Disney's 1997 film version of "Mr. Magoo," in which Leslie Nielsen starred as the thick-spectacled character who has long been considered offensive to the blind and visually impaired.
"The idea, I think still, is that having a disability is tragic," said Lennard Davis, a professor of English and disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Hollywood either wants to pity them, cure them or kill them."
At the Badger Association in Milwaukee, a non-profit group that promotes and teaches independence for people who are blind and visually impaired, members said they hoped "Blind Justice" will be different.
Although several who attended a screening of the show's pilot took issue with the fact that Dunbar carried a gun - which they said would likely never happen - they considered other details in the show small victories. For example, they said, Dunbar used proper commands for his guide dog. He taught his partner to lead him with her arm. And they showed a main character regularly dealing with people's misunderstandings about blindness.
"They did a pretty good job," Williams said. "I'm kind of excited that they're trying." http://www.jsonline.com/enter/tvradio/mar05/307935.asp