Michael J. Fox’s appearance at the Emmy Awards this week brought him a standing ovation from the celebrity audience. But was the applause recognition of Fox’s extraordinary record as a five-time Emmy-winning actor? Or was it perhaps the equivalent of “pity-applause” because of Fox’s public battle with Parkinson’s disease?
Hard to tell. But with the premiere of the Michael J. Fox Show Thursday night, Fox’s role as an actor could transition him into a major civil rights leader for people living with disabilities.
Television has the power to change lives. From our favorite sitcoms to the evening news, polls show that television is the lens through which Americans form opinions. Indeed, TV can have a stronger impact on both viewers and this country’s laws than even education or our own families.
Consider, for example, the media’s central role in the progression of civil rights. The Cosby Show and Oprah charted new territory for race relations in our nation. For the first time, African Americans were welcomed like family members into the living rooms of white Americans.
On another front, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Will and Grace and Married with Children helped advance LGBT issues. These TV programs shifted public opinion on marriage equality so quickly that elected officials and courts have been falling over each other to change their views — and legislation — on these issues.
In the Michael J. Fox Show, the popular actor will portray a reporter with Parkinson’s who re-enters the workforce. Because Fox is already so well-liked and talented, the disability community harbors high hopes that viewers will not only root for him, but will also absorb and accept the fact that people with disabilities can succeed in the workplace.
Why such big hopes and dreams? Consider this: 70% of working-age Americans with disabilities don’t have jobs, even though most of them want to work. That compares to 28% of Americans without disabilities who don’t have jobs. This disparity has resulted in extremely high levels of poverty, isolation and financial dependency for Americans with disabilities, costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year in government benefits.
Unfortunately, the American public has a negative misimpression of what it’s like to have people with disabilities in the workplace, even though some of the nation’s greatest presidents and thought leaders lived with such challenges. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example, were thought to have been dyslexic; President Franklin Roosevelt used a wheelchair; Albert Einstein is believed to have been on the autism spectrum; and, despite physical challenges, Stephen Hawkins is literally unlocking the secrets of the universe. But none of them had or have the power of television propelling them forward like the wind at their backs.
The Michael J. Fox Show may be the catalyst for a welcome change and its star can be the Martin Luther King of our era. After all, according to the U.S. Census, almost one in five people — approximately 57 million Americans — identify as people with disabilities. With the advent of the Michael J. Fox Show, this population will now have a visible positive role model in the eyes of millions of America.
Some major businesses have already made the effort to include people with disabilities in their workforces. They have found that it brings them an economic advantage. Walgreens, for example, is a proven model for hiring people with disabilities. The company, and others who have made similar decisions to hire people with disabilities, find that they are often exceptionally loyal workers, have fewer accidents in the workplace and can make a company more profitable.
With any luck, Michael J. Fox and his new show will chart a new course, moving jobs for people with disabilities beyond the fantasy of TV screens and into our real lives.
This article was written by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a person with a disability, is the president of http://www.RespectAbilityUSA.org, a non-profit organization working to empower people with disabilities to achieve the American dream.
Published by USA Today.