“NO ONE IS SUGGESTING YOU CAN CONQUER GAUL BY DEADLIFTING 4 PLATES”

(Now UPDATED elsewhere)   Well, there are sometimes periods in which I never fail to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and Blind Justice is one of them. I missed the first three episodes of this new Steven Bochco police drama, which is like every other Bochco police drama save for the fact that the hero of our story is blind. Yes, a blind cop. Now you’ve heard everything, right?

Hollywood’s history of disabled representation, if you will forgive my use of film-critic terminology for a moment, is actually just as bad as its history of homosexualist representation. Disability is always an affliction to be “overcome,” you know? Now, in real life, sometimes it is an affliction and does need to be overcome, but not as often as movies and television would have you believe. Lauri Klobas’s encyclopedic Disability Drama in Television and Film, though it’s showing its age now, lays it all out much more clearly even than The Celluloid Closet did. (At least disabled characters didn’t always have to die, be shunned, stay forever celibate, or end up in jail.)

The list of characters who genuinely happen to be disabled is even smaller than the list of those who happen to be gay. Kerry Weaver on E.R. is the only notable example of the last ten years. (And, rather in the manner of hiring a black woman to meet two diversity goals at once, now Kerry is also a lesbian.) I believe black actors may level similar complaints. (For the record, Tuvok and T’Pol on the two Star Treks are not “black Vulcans” but black actors playing Vulcans – examples of colourblind casting that are almost without precedent in Hollywood.)

If you might hope for better results – at least more-realistic results – from indie pictures, your hopes will be dashed. (One of course exempts The Waterdance.) There is at least an entire genre known as gay cinema, with discernible movements, eras, and themes, but there is no comparable disability cinema at all. Nor do foreign films, or that curious and almost laughable category known as Canadian cinema, fare any better.

The test each screenwriter must ask himself or herself is: Does this character need to be X? As things currently stand, X tends to equal “gay” or “disabled.” What if we started thinking of X as “not gay” and “not disabled”? Kind of casts a new light on things, doesn’t it?

The show

So. Blind Justice. Winsome, manly, blond-frosted Ron Eldard stars as a police detective (inevitably) who, while on duty, suffered a gunshot wound to the temple (of course) that left him blind. In an acknowledgement that the Americans with Disabilities Act genuinely exists, the police force puts him back on the job – and, in a superspecial twist, he’s back to being a police detective!

Ron – that is, Det. Jim Dunbar – is aided by his trusty guide dog Hank, who reminds me a bit too much of the Littlest Hobo. He works alongside his implausibly beautiful, implausibly accented, implausibly young, implausibly female partner, fighting crime with whatever he’s got left. (Prominent in his arsenal is the repeated doffing and donning of unnecessary sunglasses.)

Does it get better? Oh, it certainly does! (And I don’t mean the Bochco in-jokes, like naming a character in this episode Titus Oliver. Welliver, shurely?!)

ABC is like many U.S. networks: It entirely shitcanned all its described programming after the MPAA and like-minded parties won a court case setting aside an FCC requirement for audio description. (That will not last forever.) Here ABC actually goes the extra mile and airs Blind Justice with audio description. Of course a show about blind people cannot very well air without description, but I can’t remember a clearer case of tokenism at any time in this still-young century. The field of accessibility is not concerned with adapting only those works that deal with disability; we are engaged in the provision of equal rights.

Now, who’s doing the description? DVS? Nope. It’s our friends at We See TV again, most recently notable for redescribing Daredevil on DVD after it had already run with description in theatres. Yes, there were convoluted reasons, but it was still a waste, and the original description, indeed by DVS, was simply better.

Rick Boggs of We See TV is even crustier than I am. And, in a case that disproves the notion “physician, heal thyself,” Boggs does a lot of their narrating. (It’s supposed to be important that Boggs and some of his audio engineers are blind. In truth it is perhaps of interest, but neither important nor unimportant.)

Who, in this scenario, are “we” who “see TV”? The writer of the descriptions, Micah Grossman?

Moreover, GW Micro, “makers of Window-Eyes, the most stable screen reader,” ponied up cash for the description – and for the captioning, done by the somewhat oddball and generically-named Closed Captioning Services, Inc. (They errantly use upper case, but they’re all right, really.) So yes: A maker of adaptive technology for the blind kicks in for captions its customers can’t see. Don’t you just love this shit?

What they get wrong

There’s supposedly a consultant who worked with Eldard and who was himself blinded by gunshot. (The task of correctly typing, editing, updating, and adding links to that single sentence took ten error-prone minutes spread over seven discrete attempts.)

They get fewer things wrong than you would expect, but some of them are:

  • Superb grooming and hairstyle (complete with a top-flight dye job). Unless his wife is attending to him every day, this degree of refinement is almost impossible, for purely practical reasons. The fact that he’s in simply insane shape for a man six days older than me is merely unlikely; a lot of blind guys, and a few blind women, work out. (Do they shave Eldard’s forearms for the show, I wonder?)
  • Proprioception (awareness of the position of one’s body parts in space):

    • I’m sorry, but when Jim gets out of the passenger side of a squad car, there is no way in hell he can immediately reach for the right rear door handle to let Hank out. He’d have to feel around for it, which, for someone accustomed to the car, might take much less than a second. (In another scene, he does feel around.)
    • Similarly, there is no way at all, even with Hank’s help, that Jim could trot down an unfamiliar staircase, walking smartly across a landing en route. (A familiar staircase, probably while holding on to the banister, yes. Hold on to both banisters and you can whip right downstairs at full tilt.)
    • Jim could not reach out and give his partner a perfectly-aimed pat on the arm, particularly since his hand was cupped in just the right position and open just enough to match the thickness of her arm and sleeve. (Merely putting it down in words makes it sound implausible, doesn’t it?)

What they get right

  1. Sometimes Jim manages to look at whoever he’s talking to, sometimes his angles are off, sometimes he doesn’t even bother. (Even formerly-sighted people do all of those, in my experience.)
  2. When he hugs his wife, he does not aim for the face, and he puts a premium on smell. Perhaps this is my most contentious observation. Nonetheless, it seemed to have the ring of truth.
  3. Jim uses a Wintel laptop with an earphone. (Indeed, a really sexy, expensive earphone.) He never seems to do much typing, though, which is pretty much all any user of a screen reader – Window-Eyes, shurely?! – ever does.
  4. Blind ways of fidgeting are different from sighted ways. Some blind people feel around the edge of the table. Jim sniffs his fingers.
  5. And he still gestures like a sighted person. Consistent, in my experience.
  6. Jim simply makes a wrong turn (to the right) when trying to leave an office. I think that was Eldard’s error (preference to turn clockwise; dog’s on weak hand, the left, with preference not to lean into dog), but like a stopped clock twice a day, it’s accurate.

DX

And how’s the description? Barely adequate at best.

  1. Just as “Valerie Hunter” of AudioVision Canada finds everything surprising and noteworthy, a byproduct of their oddball recording style (they don’t record to video, making every description a new and discrete event), Boggs finds everything devastatingly dramatic, mournful, regrettable, with an overuse of a falling tone in his sentences.
  2. Description is too quiet; their levels are too low.
  3. Plus they simply flub entire visual segments, sitting there without talking for precious seconds at a time; the result is an effacement of establishing shots, giving the totally-blind viewer the impression that we’ve suddenly moved from a crime scene to the squad room. (That’s an approximate example. Don’t make me watch it a third time, please.) Or they simply fail to describe the fact that Jim walks into the room, instead describing unimportant secondary characters who sit at desks and pass by the camera. (Where exactly is Jim’s voice coming from?)
  4. I’m aware that slow narration styles can work (canonical example, on which I have softened considerably: Moulin Rouge, with five-second audio ducking before the narrator bothers to start talking), but Boggs is simply too slow. Enervated, even.
  5. The opening sequence is ba(l)dly handled. “Images of: Det. Jim Dunbar; Det. Karen Bettancourt; Det. Tom Selway; Yankee Stadium; Det. Marty Russo; the Eighth Precinct; Lt. Gary Fisk; an apartment building; Christie Dunbar; a city street; the masked gunman firing at Jim.” Montages of that sort work fine cinematically but work poorly in description. While I doubt anybody could do a really bang-up job, just giving in and introducing everything with “Images of” simply won’t cut the mustard.
  6. Jim is also described as “brown-haired,” which he is in the opening credits but is not in the show itself.
  7. “Dark-skinned Tom” is a cop-out bullshit way of saying that Tom is black. (Funnily enough, the very next person is described as “olive-skinned Marty.” And two other characters are described as black.) A common DVS error, here replicated by the competition.
  8. “A brunet(te) approaches.” Boy or girl? Isn’t Jim a brunet? (Another common DVS error. You know how often I use the word “sexist”? Not very often, right? Well, that’s sexist.)
  9. Something reasonable from the opening sequence, though, and we saw the very same thing in Daredevil, ironically enough: “Braille letters become print letters: Blind Justice.” Indeed they do. (Could that already be a typographic cliché?)
  10. “In the squad room, Jim fills Hank’s bowl” actually means he fills Hank’s water dish.
  11. “Jim lays down” – actually lies down; “lay” is transitive, as in “lay down the law” – “resting on her breast. She rests her cheek on his head.” Echoes of that sort are hard to eradicate from one’s own writing; that’s why we need editors.

BlindJusticeWatch

I will attempt to keep a running log here, a BlindJusticeWatch. But really, the thing I just cannot get over is the fact that I have never met a blind man that hot.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2005.04.01 18:16. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2005/04/01/bjw/

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