The anatomy of hope

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After sixteen seasons, Grey’s Anatomy is still breaking new ground. On the 13th February the episode ‘Save the last dance for me’ featured a deaf doctor. Actress Shoshannah Stern guest stars as Dr Riley, a diagnostic expert who is flown to Seattle from San Francisco to examine a patient with a mysterious set of symptoms.

Shoshannah Stern on stage at NYWIFT awards ceremony (Getty Images/Lars Niki)

Despite having never watched the television series, I follow the story closely via social media. Through the week I refresh my twitter feed for updates. Dozens of news stories pop up, this is, after all, a historic moment in pop culture. Stern is playing the first deaf doctor on prime-time television. As I read the articles and tweets, I feel a bittersweet mixture of excitement and sadness. It is rare to see disabled television characters in a position of power and authority, let alone in in my workplace. 

Over a decade ago, when applying to study physiotherapy, I carefully read through the application form. It contained a brief but troubling caveat: all students must be physically able to participate in the coursework. I felt nervous, even scared. The answer seemed clear cut to me, but would the university agree? I’m profoundly deaf in one ear and moderately deaf in the other. Would my hearing limit me in some way? I didn’t think so.

Just to be sure, I got a summer job as a physiotherapy aide to observe how physiotherapists work. After weeks of working alongside a group of health professionals in a small rehabilitation hospital, I felt confident that with training I would be able to do the job. Even so, when I submitted my application, I chose not to disclose my disability. The risk of rejection felt too high. Instead, for the next four years, I pretended to be hearing.

This is not an uncommon experience. In a position statement released in 2019, the Australian Medical Student Association (AMSA), called for medical schools to ‘have clear guidelines’ for admission to ‘help avoid confusion and potential discrimination’ regarding what the ‘inherent requirements’ are of a health care professional.

The statement acknowledges thatalthough there are no national statistics on the number of people with a disability applying to or being accepted to medical school, or on the number of doctors with disabilities, anecdotal evidence suggests there is a significant number who face discrimination.’

 

'Grey's was the most collaborative experience I've ever had on a show that was not mine,’ Stern said. She also adds that ‘Grey’s didn’t just collaborate with me, they also reached out to several other deaf doctors to make sure that what they were writing was accurate.'

 

The AMSA believe that medical schools and workplaces must ‘provide an inclusive environment that actively encourages and enables doctors with a disability to practise medicine.’ Emphasising that except in circumstances that would compromise patient safety, disability should not be a barrier to medical training.’

Given that there are so many barriers in place for deaf or disabled people to become health care professionals, it is ground breaking to see a deaf doctor on television.

Shoshanna Stern has a well-established reputation, having appeared a cast member in a range hit television shows such as Weeds, Lie to Me and Supernatural. As well as writing, producing and starring in the critically acclaimed television show This Close. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Stern explains how she was invited into the Grey’s Anatomy writers room to help develop Dr Riley’s character.

Grey's was the most collaborative experience I've ever had on a show that was not mine,’ Stern said. She also adds that ‘Grey’s didn’t just collaborate with me, they also reached out to several other deaf doctors to make sure that what they were writing was accurate.’

This level of authenticity is important. According to the 2018 GLAAD report, which tracks the representation of diversity on American television shows, ‘of all series regulars on primetime broadcast programming, 2.1 per cent (18 characters) [were] people with disabilities’. 

It isn’t just an issue of low representation, but also inaccurate representation. A new study found that 80 per cent of disabled characters on American Network television were played by able bodied actors. This is actually an improvement. An earlier study, from 2016, found that this figure was 95 per cent. In Australia, the statistics aren’t much better, with just 4 per cent of disabled people featuring as main or recurring characters in television shows broadcast between 2011 to 2015.

In an article for ACMI, writer and comedian Alistair Baldwin argues that often on television disabilities ‘are treated as inherently tragic, depressing and/or intriguing (amnesia being the soap genre’s favourite disability for hitting all three) before ultimately being “overcome” within a few weeks — and never brought up after that point.’

Grey’s Anatomy didn’t simply hire an actor with lived experience, they went one step further by giving Stern creative input and a compelling story line. I can’t help but hope that this is the beginning of real change. I have no doubt that watching authentic deaf characters on television would have helped my confidence when I was younger as this past week alone, while watching Dr Riley, it has bloomed.

 

 

Fiona MurphyFiona Murphy is a Deaf poet and essayist. Her work has appeared in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review, amongst others. Her debut memoir, The Shape of Sound, will be published by Text in 2021.

 

Main image: Shoshannah Stern on stage at NYWIFT awards ceremony (Getty Images/Lars Niki)

Topic tags: Fiona Murphy, Deafness, disability, medical discrimination, Grey's Anatomy, representation

 

 

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Existing comments

no problem with someone deaf doing the work provided that their professional indemnity insurance is well topped up.
chris | 19 February 2020


I recently saw Season of Love at the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2020. It's a romantic comedy and features a leading deaf actor who is a young lesbian welder. The film has full subtitles. Another woman learning sign language and make some amusing mistakes which help educate the audience about signing. This is definitely the first time I have been to an MGFF film with a lead character who is deaf. Things are changing, slowly.
Deborah Singerman | 19 February 2020


In common with Fiona, I've never watched an episode of "Grey's Anatomy". And not being a Twitterer I can not resort to updates! Those who know me understand I have some hearing loss so usually kindness prevails. It's pleasing to hear that achievement in a chosen field need not be stymied by a dis-ability. I love My Left Foot.
Pam | 19 February 2020


The article poses some interesting questions but inclusion in one episode of a series hardly seems cause for celebrating. Raymond Burr (Perry Mason, Ironside) was a genuine "wheelie" for the detective series but admittedly had a successful career established prior. I'm uncertain if the needful inclusions are to write roles for disabled to allow them to demonstrate their proficiency in scripting or fill day to day (leading?) roles with persons with real disabilities and see what happens. It sure poses food for thought; would we have roles like House MD being played by persons with some real impairment and when would this be panderings to some obnoxious curiousity? I appreciate how important inclusiveness is to the disabled in an industry renowned for (often prematurely) celebrating its best but am unsure if proponents of inclusion are ready for both the various possible outcomes: success or failure. Please keep in mind that "Hollywood" is a world of fantasy and implausible characters with equally unreal plots... I don't know if it's wise to mix the genuine with the likes of Doogie Howser MD or Greys Anatomy... but after 15 seasons they're running out of stories.
ray | 19 February 2020


How do you write poetry if, having always been deaf, you’ve never heard? How do you make words remembered as soundless ideograms rhyme? I suppose if they really wanted to, the showrunners of Neighbours or Home and Away could have a recurring character trying to scale that wall.
roy chen yee | 21 February 2020


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