Disability History and Pop Culture

by Amy Sequenzia

I don’t like TV very much. Unlike most people I know, I rarely get excited about TV shows. If a show has a particular theme, story or character that I find interesting, I will try to watch it.

Sometimes it’s the music played in an episode – when I am just keeping company to my friends who do like TV series – that makes me interested.

One thing that always makes me at least try to watch a show or series is if one of the characters is disabled, specifically Autistic or neurodivergent, but because most of these characters are usually stereotypes, I am always wary of such shows.

I was surprised, and very happy, when a Canadian show premiered last year and one of the main characters was neurodivergent. I was even more surprised, and even happier, when I saw that how this was addressed was respectful and accurate. Then I almost burst with happiness when a little boy with Down syndrome was introduced, and a story based on Action T-4 became an important part of the show.

The show is X Company, and it is about World War II, about spies and about Camp-X in Ontario, CA. Camp-X was a “spy school” and its story is worth researching.

In the interesting way that life makes its turns, I came across this show because of music and synesthesia. I wrote about it before. The lead vocalist in my favorite band is also an actor and part of X Company. One of the main characters is a synesthete. I was curious, not only because Hugh Dillon was in the show, but because of the synesthetic character.

It was a relief to see a neurodivergent character be treated with respect. “Alfred” has five-fold synesthesia, where one sensory input triggers all the other senses. He also has a perfect memory and is recruited to be a spy in Nazi-occupied France.

The character is never pitied, or shunned. He is a little “weird” but the focus is on his assets as an ally to the resistance (with some hints of romance, it is a drama series after all). The acting is superb – as it is the writing and the special effects that show how he “sees” sounds – and leaves us wanting to see more of how he experiences the world and, for the neurotypical viewers, maybe learn more about neurodivergence.

Then there is the T-4 theme. The story is based on the life of a real Nazi officer who had a child with Down syndrome. In the show, “Franz Faber” is an Oberführer (a military title) and “Ulli” is his little boy. The child is a secret, until another Nazi officer finds out and we are treated with the most heartbreaking scene of season one: the evil Nazi – and he is evil – deciding to kill his son because sending him to “the beautiful castle” to be murdered is unbearable.

The scene is openly emotional but there is a message behind the speech. The message that disabled people were “real people”, not “useless eaters” and that they were loved. Ulli’s scenes before that were full of joy and love. We are also forced to see the humanity of the main villain, a Nazi who has no problem ordering the complete destruction of a village and all its residents. An evil man who does not see his “defective” child as a burden.

Everything about the scene is perfect. The writing is well researched, the words used reproduce, almost verbatim, the official reasoning behind the program, and the acting is fabulous.

Telling these stories is important.

Showing neurodivergent characters and their assets is important.

Educating viewers about the ableism, discrimination and elimination of disabled people during the war is very important today.

 

The ideals behind such hateful program is what led to the idea of killing so many Jewish people, the one thing the majority associates with World War II. What most still don’t know is that disabled people were the first victims of the holocaust, and that there were other groups “marked” for elimination (in the show there is also a character who is a gay Nazi officer).

The writers don’t stop there. There is the eugenics program and the “engineering” of “perfect Aryan babies”. Disabilities and neurodiversity are present in every episode, and it is always done accurately and respectfully.

Why I think it is so important that pop culture tell these stories?

Because there is a growing movement to allow the infanticide of disabled newborns, and the euthanasia of healthy disabled adults. In some countries it is already in the law books and the only requirement is that doctors testify that living disabled is tragic. With all the ableism in the world, and the fact that our voices are rarely heard, it is not at all difficult to find doctors who believe that we are better off dead.

Television is for the masses and television can teach. Seeing our history in a show is important because it can serve as an educational tool.

The show is now in its second season and disability is a main theme. Alfred is captured and interrogated by Faber. An unexpected bond forms between the characters. In some ways, Alfred reminds Faber of his son. The characters and the scenes are very complex but one part of the dialogue caught my attention. Alfred relates his story, how his father told him “people don’t like anomalies, they will think you are a freak”. I have heard the same things being told about me so many times!

It not only me. Even today neurodivergent people are talked about in the same way, expected to comply with societal normative rules, forced into abusive therapies so they don’t look like “freaks”.

Society’s idea of how “normal” one should look and act hasn’t changed much. Being neurodivergent is still not fully accepted and embraced. Looking disabled still elicits pity and sometimes aversion. Being disabled is seen as burdensome and tragic. Our lives are not valued.

X Company is an important show because it touches on long forgotten themes, it shows how disabled people were devalued and, hopefully, will make more people aware of how disabled people are still discriminated against and abused in unthinkable ways.

Knowing our history is important.

Telling our history is more important.

We should never forget, or history will repeat itself.

It is already happening and I hope more people can learn and speak up against the devalue of disabled lives.

X Company is doing just that. I heard from one of the creators himself. I know they are listening and I know they want to tell this story with accuracy and respect. And I can’t wait for the next episode.

Note: as a bonus of all the good things in this show, we are presented with a female character (Aurora) who is the badass in charge.

X Company : CBC Canada. First season on Netflix Canada. You need VPN service to watch in the U.S.

Alfred: Jack Laskey

Faber: Torben Liebrecht

Ulli: Bence Tarkó

Aurora: Evelyne Brochu

Co-creators: Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis

Amy Sequenzia
Amy Sequenzia Writer
Amy Sequenzia is a non-speaking Autistic, multiply disabled activist and writer. Amy writes about disability rights, civil rights and human rights. She also writes poetry. Amy has presented in several conferences in the US and abroad, and her work is featured in books about being Autistic and Disabled. Amy is deeply involved with the Neurodiversity Movement and has been outspoken about the rights and worth of disabled people. Amy serves on the Board of Directors of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), and the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST). Read more from Amy on http://nonspeakingautisticspeaking.blogspot.com and Autism Women’s Network.
Loading...

One Comment

  1. No Name February 10, 2016 at 11:50 am - Reply

    X Company sounds like a really good show, I’m definitely going to watch it. Another that portrays disabled people really will is Good Doctor.

    http://www.dramago.com/korean-drama/good-doctor

Leave A Comment