I want to start by saying that I am a Dick Wolf fan-girl. I don’t say that about a lot of producers or show runners, but I watch Dick Wolf shows, religiously. It started with Chicago Fire and then P.D. Somewhere in the middle of those shows, I went back and started watching Law & Order: SVU from season one and managed to watch 17 seasons in a few months. So, I like his shows. I also watch Chicago Med, and there’s a good chance I will watch Justice when that airs, as well.
The one problem I have with Dick Wolf’s shows often deals with disability. It bothers me how disability is represented. The writing is often filled with stereotypes and is sometimes pity-driven. At times, they do use actors with disabilities, which is great, and other times they don’t. Whether they do or not the acting is usually over the top, which likely has something to the director not understanding disability enough to recognize a good performance where disability is concerned.
The issue with Dick Wolf shows and disability isn’t necessarily a new issue. SVU has had their share of embarrassing and/or unintentionally comical episodes where disability is used inappropriately or displayed in an inaccurate manner. But my issue today isn’t with SVU. It’s with Chicago Med.
Chicago Med introduced a new doctor this season by the name of Dr. Isidore Latham. Latham is played by Ato Essandoh, who you might know from Django Unchained or Blood Diamond. On the show, he plays an Orthodox Jew. He is emotionless, doesn’t understand social cues, and is absolutely bewildering. It didn’t take me long to realize they were planning to make him Autistic, as a result.
Less than eight episodes into Dr. Latham’s run on the show, he realizes that he can’t read people like others can, and so he asks if the resident psychiatrist, Dr. Charles (played by the wonderful, Oliver Platt) can help him. Through this meeting it is discovered that Dr. Latham is Autistic. This is where things go off the rails. When discussing treatments Dr. Charles at first mentions the usual answers like therapy and medication, and then, somewhat offhandedly it seems, he mentions the success that some have seen with a therapy called TMS. Dr. Charles explains that TMS has only been approved for depression, and he should research and think on it before considering it for himself.
After a trying night in the hospital, Dr. Latham finds Dr. Charles still at the hospital at 3 a.m. and tells him that he wants TMS. After researching he has learned that people who are Autistic have reported the ability to understand emotional cues almost immediately. Dr. Charles explains that those results are temporary and certainly don’t include all people, but he wants it and he wants it now…and since it’s TV, he gets it that night.
Shortly after the surgery, he goes back to the video that helped to diagnose his Asperger’s and he is able to notice the social cues, right away. When Dr. Charles notes the remarkable change, Latham responds, “It’s like I’ve been blind.” There is even a scene later where he stands watching people in the doorway, paying attention to what they are doing and their body language.
Maybe he’s “cured” and maybe he isn’t. Maybe this storyline will just die off like the bad idea it was. Either way, I find this entire storyline to be socially irresponsible. People that have no experience with Autistics see a brilliant heart surgeon who lacks social grace, but has accomplished many things. He almost instantly seeks out the most controversial therapy available to him, so that it will “fix his wiring” and essentially remove his Autism.
If you have limited experience with anyone actually Autistic, and you see a doctor that wants to erase any visible signs of his disability on your favorite television show, what do you imagine anyone else would be like who is Autistic in real life? Unfortunately, it seems where invisible disabilities are concerned, you have the put-together but emotionally unavailable cure-seeker like Dr. Latham or you’ve got Rain Man. Unfortunately, there has been little in terms of realism made available to the public in terms of the actual lived experiences of Autistic people.
Normally, my first gripe would be that this character is not played by a person with a disability. I will admit that it does bother me that Essandoh is not Autistic. I think the reason that it bothers me most of all is that disabled actors are rarely cast in roles designed specifically for them and that number becomes infinitely smaller when you consider people of color, like Dr. Latham.
I firmly believe that we need actors with disabilities playing disabled characters, but in this instance, with this storyline, I would encourage Dick Wolf to consider adding disabled writers to his writer’s room. On a show like Chicago Med you expect to see disability play a part, but it would be a refreshing change to see it play a part that exists on a human scale rather than one that speaks from a place of pity and erasure.