NBC’s syndicated series “This Is Us” consistently ranks in the top three most watched TV shows in the United States. For the 2018-2019 television season, it tied with “The Masked Singer” as broadcast’s top entertainment series. The show tells the story of the Pearson family and jumps between the present day, the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and the future.
In the first episode of the show’s fourth season, “This Is Us” creators introduce us to Jack Damon, the son of show mainstays Kate and Toby. Though Jack is an infant in the present, we also see him as a young adult. Not only is the character of Jack blind, but the actor who plays him in the future, Blake Stadnik, is also blind.
This in itself is extremely significant and positive. Although 20% of Americans have some form of disability, whether it is apparent like blindness or non-apparent like dyslexia, only 2.1% of characters on regular primetime television series do. Even more upsetting, over 95% of television characters with disabilities are portrayed by non-disabled actors. So the inclusion of a character with a disability being played by an actor with a disability is, unfortunately, still a pretty big deal. Kudos are definitely in order to the show’s creators for their commitment to diversity, inclusion, and authentic representation.
The portrayal of Jack’s character in the first two episodes of the season was generally very accurate and realistic. As a young adult, Jack lives on his own, cooks, travels independently with a long white cane, works as a professional musician, is married, and is preparing to become a father. I will admit I was a little disappointed that the writers chose to make Jack a singer, as just about every blind character on TV is a musician, even though blind people work in just about every employment sector. However, it is clear that the show’s creators have done some homework and learned a great deal from Stadnik in order to make Jack’s character authentic.
However, there was one glaring aspect of the show that was both unrealistic and unfortunate. In the second episode of the season, an early intervention specialist comes to visit Jack’s parents, Kate and Toby, to “give them pro tips on how to raise a blind baby.” The whole Pearson clan attends the meeting to learn as much as they can and support Jack, Kate, and Toby.
At this point, the early intervention specialist, who was positioned within the show’s plot as an expert, should have begun the meeting by easing the family’s fears, dispelling their misconceptions, and giving them realistic information about the full and active life their son could lead.
According to Conchita Hernandez, who is the Low Incidence Specialist for Blind and Low Vision Students for the state of Maryland, and is herself blind, “Early intervention is vital for blind children, because research shows that, if you don’t learn to move around and explore when you’re a baby or a toddler, you become delayed in various areas, such as motor skills, literacy, social, and emotional skills. So early intervention is critically important for blind babies. But it needs to come from a place of understanding what is possible for a blind adult.”
However, instead of giving the family hope, the early intervention specialist in the show only increased their fears. She began the visit by handing out notepads to every member of the family and asking them each to take a room and write down anything that could be “dangerous or of concern” to Baby Jack. It is very unrealistic that an early intervention professional would begin a first meeting with a family by scaring them or focusing on the danger that could befall the child. While every parent would be well-advised to baby-proof their home by putting away sharp objects, securing electrical cords, and moving breakable objects out of the baby’s reach, blind babies don’t generally need more than standard baby-proofing. In fact, if a child is to be successful in school and an adult is to succeed in the workforce, it is critical that a blind infant or toddler begins learning how to navigate in the real world, starting with the child’s home.
“Instead of scaring parents, early intervention should be motivating to them to give their kids every possible experience,” said Hernandez. “While it is important to talk about safety in the home, that shouldn’t be the main focus. It should be on how to make sure that your child develops the skills they need in order to reach important milestones. Of course, every child is different; there is a wide spectrum of time in which children might achieve milestones. But blind children should fall within that typical range. There needs to be a conversation if a child isn’t meeting those milestones. It’s important that parents and professionals problem solve and not see delayed milestones as an inherent, inevitable part of blindness.”
Hernandez also suggested that early intervention specialists should introduce the families of blind infants to other blind children and successful blind adults. “That’s vital, because if the parents don’t know what’s possible for the baby, how are they going to prepare that baby for a successful life?”
Later in the meeting, Kate, a devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fan, broke down in tears because she believed her son would never be able to watch football with her on TV. This would have been an excellent opportunity for the early intervention specialist to inform her that many blind people are huge sports fans. Blind people enjoy watching sports on TV and also going to live events. Often, blind sports fans will bring a transistor radio to listen to a play by play broadcast of the game while still enjoying the atmosphere of a fan-filled stadium. (My own husband, who is totally blind, has the goal of visiting every major league baseball park in the country. Even our wireless networks at home are called “Go Giants” and “Go Sharks” in honor of the northern California baseball and hockey teams.)
Fortunately, the show ended on a positive note. The baby’s Uncle Kevin looked forward to teaching the baby everything he knows. “I’m gonna teach you how to pick up girls. Or boys. Or robots. Or whatever people are into in the future.”
After witnessing Kevin’s instinctive confidence for the baby’s future, the baby’s mother Kate decided to redirect the atmosphere of the early intervention visit.
“We spent the entire day thinking about what we needed to limit around here in order to protect him. That’s not how we roll in this house. My son is going to live a life without limits.”
We hope that the show’s creators will continue in their authentic portrayal of Jack and we stand ready to assist them in any way we can. As young adult Jack and his wife Lucy prepare for the arrival of their own baby, AFB offers the personal and professional expertise of our staff in the area of blind parenting.
The American Foundation for the Blind shares Kate’s hope that the character of Baby Jack will be portrayed as a life with no limits. No Limits is not only AFB’s motto, but it also underpins all the work we do in the areas of education, employment, transportation, technology, and services to older adults with vision loss. We envision a world where children like Baby Jack have limitless opportunities at all stages of their lives.