Move over Artie Abrams from Glee, there is another wheelchair-using character on TV, this time it’s Riley Wallace, a 20-something paraplegic who was introduced this fall in the fifth season of 90210 on The CW Network. Unfortunately, like Artie, once again Hollywood ignored the talented pool of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) performers with disabilities who are wheelchair users and cast a non-disabled actor, Riley Smith, for the part. And once again, Hollywood misses the mark in many obvious areas, some which would surely land a real paraplegic in the hospital with a pressure ulcer.
Guest blog post by Bob Vogel
From the moment Smith’s character “Riley”– a complete paraplegic with a low injury level that is at least a few years post injury—is introduced, it becomes apparent that the TV show didn’t bother to hire a consultant (an actual wheelchair user) to create an accurate portrayal of a paraplegic. When we first see Riley, as an outpatient in a physical therapy gym, he is sitting on a wooden bench, doing bicep curls with his wheelchair nowhere to be seen. Are you kidding me? Sitting on a wooden bench with no cushion? And in a physical therapy gym, no less? Completely implausible. Later in the scene, a physical therapist asks Riley if he is done lifting and brings his chair, complete with a foam cushion. No way a para would allow his chair to be taken away in this type of situation. . The obvious – a cheap foam cushion on the chair puts it over the top. How Riley has made it this long without a major pressure ulcer is beyond me. In real life, if a person with SCI (spinal cord injury) disregards their seating they will end up with a pressure ulcer—one that could be avoided. Perhaps this is what the writers are planning for thesixth season of 90210? Will the storyline be that Riley develops a pressure ulcer, is hospitalized, and the wound causes an infection, drama building as he is near death from sepsis caused by the pressure ulcer?
“The portrayal is absurd,” says Tricia Garven, a physical therapist, masters of physical therapy/licensed (MPT/L), assistive technology professional (APT) and clinical applications manager for The ROHO Group. “The reality is sitting on something unpadded, and sitting on a basic foam cushion on your wheelchair is a setup for a pressure ulcer and lengthy hospital stay, one that can easily run $100,000 or more.” Garven explains that because of funding cutbacks in the rehab industry, too many people are getting such short rehab stays they don’t fully learn you can’t sit on hard surfaces without a cushion. “You may get away with sitting on a hard surface for a while, maybe even years but it is like playing Russian roulette, it isn’t a matter of IF you will get a pressure ulcer it is a matter of WHEN. The TV show does a serious disservice showing this,” she says. “The same cutbacks result in people getting sent home without proper seating and positioning, a vital element because it is preventative — it helps prevent pressure ulcers and orthopedic problems” she adds.
Another area where the TV show misses is on Riley’s wheelchair. He is styling around in a properly fitted cool-looking wheelchair; except he is still using anti-tips! Seeing Smith try and play Riley as an active “in your face” heartthrob, wheeling around with anti-tips makes as much sense as an actor portraying an outlaw biker roaring around on a Harley with training wheels. He becomes more of a caricature than a character.
In interviews, Smith says his preparations for the show included the producers getting a chair two months in advance and he wheeled around his house and neighborhood. Good start, but not obviously not enough–this reminds me of people that come up to me and say “I hurt my knee and spent a whole month in one of those [wheelchair] so I know what you are going through”. Smith’s other preparation was speaking on the phone for two hours with Tiphany Adams from Push Girls. Wow, “talked with a para on the phone for two whole hours…”
“As an actor, from an actor’s prospective [wrong cushion, lifting weights on a wooden bench, anti-tips etc.] this is so frustrating because it just means the actor didn’t do his homework” says Tobias Forrest, an actor and singer-songwriter in his 14th year as C5 Quad who plays the character Greg in “The Sessions.” “Half of an acting job is doing the work to develop a background for the character I’m playing—if I’m playing somebody from Louisiana, I shouldn’t be talking with a Texas accent” he says. “I create a whole biography of them. I know their birthday, their horoscope, and the names of their parents. I know the life that they lived up until this moment.”
Forrest says he knows of at least five Screen Actors Guild actors that are paraplegics in the Los Angeles area that fit the bill for Riley’s character. “When a non-disabled actor is playing a paraplegic they need to do all of the background work,” says Forrest. “How were they injured? What is their level of injury? Do they have spasticity? What kind of cushion do they use? Do they know about things like avoiding pressure sores? If they have anti-tips on the wheelchair, why?”
A great example of the kind of work that a non-disabled actor should do to play a wheelchair user is John Voight’s preparation to portray a paraplegic in the 1979 movie “Coming Home”. Rather than wheeling around and making a 2-hour phone call to a para, Voight spent months wheeling with other paraplegics at Rancho Los Amigos rehab center and worked with with Jeff Minnebraker, a rec therapist and L1 para. Minnebraker was also hired as consultant and an extra for the movie. The result was an amazing, very realistic character—a character that that won Voight an Oscar for Best Actor.
“The fact that they [90210 producers] didn’t even audition [SAG actors] in chairs is their biggest sin,” explains Allen Rucker, acclaimed author, TV writer-producer, Chair of the Writers Guild of America West, Writers with Disabilities Committee and Co-Chair of the annual Media Access Awards. “Casting people, it has been my experience, do care. The Casting Society of America, the casting guild and part of the consortium backing the annual Media Access Awards, definitely cares and is always promoting diversity casting. Most casters and producers down here [in LA] are not evil people. They are often unenlightened, sometimes lazy, and always under tremendous pressure to deliver.”
Rucker says the best way to get Hollywood to change and cast actors with disabilities to play a person with a disability is to contact the production company. The same holds true for discrepancies like sitting on a foam cushion or using anti-tips. Other shows like medical or crime dramas hire consultants to get details correct because if they don’t the studio hears about it from their viewers. They should be held to the same standard when it comes to portraying a character with a disability—if enough people contact them perhaps they will get the big picture and hiring actors with a disability rather than a non-disabled actor “playing” somebody with a disability—a move that makes a much more powerful and realistic performance.
When contacting a production company, be sure to let them know which show you are contacting them about.
The production company for 90210 is CBS Television Studios:
CBS Studios Address:
7800 Beverly Boulevard Los Angeles, CA. 90036
General Phone Number:
CBS Studios Website
Bob Vogel, 51, is a freelance writer for the ROHO Community blog. He is a dedicated dad, adventure athlete and journalist. Bob is in his 26th year as a T10 complete para. For the past two decades he has written for New Mobility magazine and is now their Senior Correspondent. He often seeks insight and perspective from his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, and Schatzie, his 9-year-old German Shepherd service dog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of Bob Vogel and do not necessarily reflect the views of The ROHO Group. You can contact Bob Vogel by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.