Perspectives From A Gleek With Disabilities
By: Monterey Buchanan, March 2011
Earlham College, English Major
I’m a proud Gleek. I watch all the new episodes, even when I should be doing more important things, and spend the rest of the week with the newest episode’s songs on loop in my head. But as a person with a physical disability, I have mixed feelings about Artie.
In the beginning I was pleasantly surprised to see a chair user on such a popular show, I certainly never saw characters with disabilities on any of the shows I watched as a kid. I was expecting to have to start up a passionate letter-writing campaign just to get Artie a real character arc, so I was happy to see that Artie was featured by episode four, and was given the same shot at romance as all the able-bodied characters. So often we see disabled characters in shows that are completely uninterested in dating, romance or sex—clearly the producers of such shows haven’t spent much time with disabled teenagers.
My disappointments started when I saw Kevin McHale was able to walk. Though he is doing a good job with the acting, I think the show misses an opportunity to promote disability rights much as Chris Colfer has been able to draw attention to issues affecting the LGBT community as Kurt. As an out actor Colfer is able to make the role more real, and present a positive role model for gay viewers off-screen and on. Colfer’s participation in the “It Gets Better” campaign is a good example. McHale does a good job onscreen, but because he can get out of the chair when the cameras aren’t rolling, he can’t do as much for the disabled community with his celebrity off-screen.
This alone may have been excusable if Glee had continued to develop Artie’s character in interesting ways, but sadly this has begun to go by the wayside. The storyline for Artie has always been grappling with his disability, and now instead of being about what Artie wants as an individual, the storyline is now what the people around Artie want for him. This situation is worst in the Christmas episode, in which Artie’s girlfriend Britney tells a mall Santa that she wants Artie to be able to walk for Christmas. It’s a sweet gesture, but the audience and Artie himself knows it won’t work. Artie even cooks up an elaborate plan to have Coach Beiste dress up as Santa Clause and tell Britney that Artie won’t be able to walk. Then at the end of the episode, Artie gets a pair of prosthetic legs that allow him to walk at the end of the episode, going against everything that had been set up prior to that moment.
Before I sound heartless let me say that I understand “Christmas episode” implies a happy ending; I think the fact Artie has friends who love and wish the best for him is much better than some of the alternatives. But, ultimately, this is not a happy ending for Artie as much as a happy ending for the people around Artie. Artie was a well-developed character leading a fulfilling life with his disability, and there is nothing to suggest that Artie needs his disability to go away in order to be a complete person.