How Well Does ‘Daredevil’ Handle Disability Issues?

Like it or not, there is no disabled character on television with as much exposure as Daredevil. We took a closer look at the new Netflix show and how its portrayal of the blind impacts the way people view the disabled.

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Apr 20 2015, 5:30pm

Caption: Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock in 'Daredevil,' shown walking down a New York street with cane. Photo: Barry Wetcher © 2014 Netflix, Inc. All rights reserved

Potential spoilers for the first season of Daredevil below.

When the 13 episodes of season one of Daredevil went live on Netflix on April 10, Daredevil/Matthew Murdock, played by Charlie Cox, instantly became the most prominent disabled character in media.

The online community of disability activists was certainly excited. (I am a member. My son has Down syndrome and I often write about disability-related stories for mass media.) A friend of mine in England had watched ten episodes before I even got out of bed on the 10th. Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, organized a viewing and live-tweeted episode one under the hashtag #daredevilDVP.

But before people could even parse the quality of the episodes, the decision by Netflix not to provide audio commentary became a problem. Many blind people follow television through specially added audio descriptions of scenes and actions. The issue swept through social media. Many articles commented on the irony of a show entirely based around a blind main character being inaccessible for the blind. An online petition was launched . After a few days, Netflix made the wise decision not only to add audio commentary to Daredevil (available as of last Tuesday), but the company also promised to add audio descriptions to lots more of its programming . Regardless of whether or not Daredevil will defeat Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio), he's already won a victory for accessibility.

I went into the show interested in how the directors would handle scenes of what might be called "ordinary" blindness, scenes in which Murdock simply goes about his day as a regular non-superhero. Murdock is, of course, anything but ordinary. Through his heightened senses, he's able to perceive the world in ways that mitigate the disabling effect of his blindness. But he is still blind. When he's fighting, it's easy to forget that he can't see, because this show (as opposed to the 2003 Ben Affleck vehicle) rarely tries to depict how the world "appears" to Murdock. The fight scenes fixate on the fleshy brutality of hand-to-hand combat in which Murdock's skill at taking punishment matters as much as his ability to dish it out ( the one-take five-minute hallway fight scene at the end of episode two is particularly epic ).

Trailer for 'Daredevil'

Still, when not clad in a mask, he's a blind lawyer moving through the streets and buildings of Hell's Kitchen. I found a lot to like in those moments about the series' portrayal of life with visual impairment. Murdock negotiates space using touch. His electronic devices—phone, alarm clock—talk to him. He frequently has conversations in which his sighted interlocutors catch themselves using visual cues (nods, shrugs, etc.) and then redirect. His closest companion, partner-in-law Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), acts as an interface for Matt and does so without awkwardness.

For example, early in episode one, Foggy is being shown around what will become the law office of Nelson and Murdoch. The realtor tells Foggy, "The corner suite has a view of the Hudson. You can flip a coin with your partner for it." Murdoch enters and says, "Uh, he can have the view." The realtor spins, says that she's sorry, sticks out her hand to introduce herself, then sort of curtseys when Matt doesn't reach out to her hand. Murdock slides forward, offers his arm, and asks the realtor to escort him around the space, allowing her a gracious way out.

Later, Karen Page (played by Deborah Ann Wall, whose boyfriend is blind and cosplayed as Matt Murdock at the LA premiere ) is hiding out in Murdock's apartment. Murdock gets water, and touches the table lightly as he sets the glass down, in a moment of excellent verisimilitude for how the visually impaired navigate space. Page says, "Can I ask a personal question?" Murdock responds, without waiting, "I haven't always been blind," then admits that this is what everyone wants to know, and follows it with a joke, "That or how do you comb your hair?" The following dialogue is gentle, thoughtful, and exploring the nature of disability, trauma, and memory. Murdock talks about all the ways he's recovered from his accident, but admits, "I'd give anything to see the sky one more time."

That might not please every disability advocate out there, but I thought it had a useful realism. Murdock, as a superhero, has fully adapted to his visual impairment. He can move through any environment and uses his altered senses to fuel his superhuman villain-fighting skills, but it's still OK for him to miss seeing. Murdock then asks Page if he can ask her a few questions, and she nods. The scene hangs in silence for a moment, before Page says, "Go ahead." Murdock replies, "You just nodded, didn't you." And she laughs and admits, sheepishly, "Yeah." That, too, has a kind of realism, as the abled individual forgets that not everyone can see.

This type of scene becomes less common in the later episodes of the season (as they become overwhelmed with violence) and that's a pity, because when they happen, they offer something rarely depicted on television. Scope, a British disability-rights organization, has a wonderful web series called End the Awkward. The videos and related materials emphasize not letting our differences—or the moments when we forget to take difference into account—freeze social relationships. They advise: Just acknowledge the moment and move on. The quiet moments of Daredevil, to my pleasant surprise, embrace the "end the awkward" mantra of inclusion for people with and without disabilities.

'End The Awkward' Bending Over to Wheelchair User—Scope's Alex Brooker TV Ad

The other key moment is when Murdock reencounters his old childhood mentor, the blind warrior Stick. Episode seven unfolds with conflict and collaboration between Stick and Murdock both in present day and in flashbacks.

In the trailer above, Stick informs Murdock that he is gifted. Clark Matthews, a self-described "crip filmmaker (many people in the disability community have claimed crip, once an insult, as a badge of pride) and originator of the hashtag #dare2describe (calling for audio descriptions), argues that this is a strong metaphor for the power of the disability community. So often, in film and TV, disabled characters learn to accept their disability from the abled, teaching them that we are more alike than different. Stick's response to such platitudes would be unprintable. Clark told me, "Stick is an unapologetically miserable ass, but the lessons he shares with a young and vulnerable Matt Murdock are profound. The fact that Matt learns important wisdom from another blind man, as opposed to some kindhearted sighted character, is crucial." And that's right, because clearly no one but another blind person should be teaching a blind child how to adapt to the world, superpowers or not.

Despite its strengths in dealing with disability issues, Daredevil is far from perfect. Over email, Mikki Kendall, a writer and cultural critic (whom VICE profiled in 2014), noted that in the show, "People of color are either villains or victims, and despite them being the ones most at risk, much of the show centers on how them being harmed/killed impacts the white leads emotionally and advances their development as characters. Sure, Matt, Foggy, and Karen want to help. But these white saviors don't mind getting the people they're trying to help hurt in pursuit of their crusade. [There's] lots of diversity in the cast, but the people of color are mostly plot devices instead of fully fleshed out characters."

Overall, the show is very dark and plays up the savagery of the violence—this is Frank Miller violence, not the biff and pow of earlier comic-book eras. Moreover, because Murdock somehow has perfect lie detection, he routinely uses torture to find out what he wants to know. The show is at its best when Murdock is in his mask, fighting, or when the show yields to the magnificent Vincent D'Onofrio as Kingpin and our protagonist is nowhere to be seen.

But like it or not, there is no blind character on television with the kind of exposure that Matthew Murdock/Daredevil has—at least for this month. Thus the little scenes that depict life with disability in the show matter. Disability involves constant minor negotiations, the need to finesse potentially awkward moments, decisions when to stand fast against ableism, and major reassessments of how one understands the world. Daredevil, in the quiet moments between fistfights, depicts those complex realities in a widely popular show. And that's why it's important that they get it right. The reality of disability is complex, nuanced, and, like the rest of life, constantly negotiated—even if you're not being attacked by ninjas or Russian mobsters.

Follow David on Twitter.

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