Coffee and Conversation: Redefining Disability – Red Band Society and Perspective

Grab a cuppa and a comfy seat, and let’s chat a while! It’s time for Coffee and Conversation!

When I was six, my family was driving on a highway late at night. Streaks of headlights and taillights painted the dark. For the first time, I realized that each car held people living lives as important to them as mine was to me.

I wanted to know what those lives were, and to share my own..

What does it look like, when television gets characters with disabilities right?

Some time back, Rose B. Fischer posted this critique of the show “Push Girls”. I hadn’t heard of the show, before reading the article, and, based on what Rose had to say about it, I’m not likely to watch it, because it seems almost as if they’ve gone for women with many “other” characteristics that are generally deemed desirable, as a means of compensation for their use of wheelchairs, and that is a turn-off for me. From the description, it feels like the intent might be to overcome the chairs in some sense, to minimize them and their importance in the lives of these women.

I’d rather see a show where the equipment and accommodations that allow for a full life, whatever it may be, is simply portrayed as a part of that life, like air, or food, or clothing..

Which is why I love Red Band Society. This fictional drama centers around a group of teenagers living long-term in a hospital. There’s also one younger boy, Charlie, who serves as the narrator, even though he’s in a coma. Each of the young people has a serious disability that requires their hospitalization:

  • Leo and Jordi: have cancer centered in their legs. Leo had a leg amputated, and is recovering after chemotherapy; Jordi is recently diagnosed, with his treatment plan still up in the air.

  • Dash has cystic fibrosis. I’m not sure why he’s at the hospital so long, because, having some fairly intimate experience with CF, he seems more or less healthy. It may be a plot device, or part of his treatment plan, or because he’s on the transplant list.

  • Kara has a terminal heart condition. She needs a transplant, but years of apathy, smoking and drug abuse mean that she’s not a candidate, and won’t be added to the list unless she seriously alters her lifestyle.

  • Emma has anorexia. She pretends to go along with her treatment plan; she strives never to disappoint anyone. But her illness has control, and she’ll go to great lengths to avoid food and the consequences of not eating.

  • Charlie, is in a coma, due to an accident, for most of the first season. He was in a car crash while temporarily not seat-belted. When he regains consciousness, he’s unable to move much beyond his eyes, and communicates through a computer.

  • Hunter has liver disease, and will soon die without a transplant. He was intended to receive one from his deceased brother, but it was deemed unusable, and discarded.

The magic of Red Band is that the illnesses and conditions, while obviously playing a powerful role in the kids’ lives, do not define them. They relate to one another not through disability, but through personalities. They are a group of people learning about themselves and one another at a very changeable time in their lives. They’re as subject to their hormones, to likes and dislikes, and are as averse to being controlled as any other adolescents. They have an on-site school, and homework, and hopes for their futures. They have lives that were interrupted to varying degrees by their illnesses, and, they try to remain connected with or resume aspects of those lives. Leo was a soccer star; Kara a cheerleader; both need to adjust their perceptions of themselves and their new realities. They handle this in different ways and in different timeframes, in a way that is believable for the characters.

They aren’t heroes. They make good choices, and bad ones. Frustration and jealousy can get the best of them – Jordi and Leo both want Emma; Jordi, needs money to become emancipated, and considers selling pain killers; Kara, frightened of her feelings for Hunter, seduces Leo; Emma focuses on her studies and her quest to get into an Ivy League school…there are hard and hurt feelings, and sometimes the kids are cruel to one another.

And yet, they band together, in a shifting alliance, and they do their best to support each other in attaining their goals, and when someone’s disability or life becomes intrusive – when Dash has a serious respiratory attack; when Kara goes suddenly blind; when Jordi’s mostly absent mother abandons him again just after the first round of chemo leads to a collapse. They collude to procure a little autonomy, and do what they can to help one another get through each day. They are people first, teens second, and dealing with disabilities as a factor in their lives – rather than as the whole of those lives.

To me, that is a more honest picture of disability, even if the show is fictional. I’m not sure if the show will be back for another season, but, if it is, I will definitely be watching.

What are your thoughts? Do you have a favorite show that deals with disability with positivity and realism? Are there shows that disturb you with their portrayal of characters with disabilities? I’ll provide the refreshments while you make use of the little conversation box down there!

Learn more about the Redefining Disability Project here!


  1. Sounds like an interesting show.
    Fox is a hero in my country. I participated in the annual run every year when I was in school and my sister-in-law still does, a tradition with her mother every September, which she will continue with her own daughter.
    Fox is a good example of someone who did something huge and daring. Everyone would have thought it was crazy to run across Canada with his cancer and artificial leg, but he did it anyway.
    The only show I watch at the moment with this issue you are talking about is the soap opera The Young and the Restless. One of the characters has lost his sight after being electrocuted. This isn’t the first time this show has tackled blindness. One of their characters was permanently blind, but I have a feeling this time it won’t be long before a miracle happens and he can see again.
    I think it is portrayed fairly correctly. HE is over the denial stage and the anger and is a man who is determined to be independent. HE uses a cane and is learning braille. I do wish it weren’t such a huge deal, but that’s just how it is.
    I have heard a lot about this new Jane the Virgin show. I will have to check it out.

  2. Going to check this out. Do you know if it’s on Netflix? The most recent show I’ve seen dealing with Disability is Switched At Birth. Enjoyed S1 a lot. Not crazy about later seasons. 🙂

    • I don’t know if it is – it’s a new show this past fall. I love the way the characters interact, and how they deal with their own and each other’s circumstances – and disabilities are just part of that.

      I may look up Switched at Birth – if I can ever stop watching Enterprise! =)

  3. I haven’t seen or heard of that show. Will definitely look for it. Disability should just be there, not highlighted. It should not define the person.
    Just saw “Jane the Virgin” for the first time last night and laughed – a lot.
    A hero of mine is Terry Fox – well known Canadian who tried to run (one-legged) across Canada but had to stop because of return of cancer. Now, there are Terry Fox runs around the world.

    • I’ve seen previews for Jane The Virgin, and it looks like a wonderful premise, although I haven’t seen the show yet.

      I remember watching reports about Terry Fox. Running across a continent is an impressive aspiration, and more so with the considerations of a prosthetic if (I’m remembering that correctly: I can picture him in my mind with a prosthetic). Clearly, his aspiration inspired others, and, hopefully promoted the awareness that having a disability doesn’t preclude living a full, rich, and even daring life!

      If you get a chance to watch Red Band, you might really enjoy it. It’s targeted, I think, at a younger audience than I am, but the characters and storylines are compelling, and I found myself rooting for the kids – for them to be able to deal with the challenges in their lives, whether related to their disability or not – every week.

      I hope it comes back – it was the only new show I really committed to, last fall, although I also enjoyed Scott Bakula in NCIS: New Orleans.

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