One of my favorite shows growing up was Quantum Leap, so when I saw Netflix is now streaming it, I knew what my next series marathon was going to be. While I vaguely remembered the writers covering a lot of social issues in their own unique way, like race and gender, I didn’t realize just how many they addressed.
While I was working on knitting a gift for a friend, an episode from the second season, Jimmy, came on. It was evident from the first scene that the main character, Sam, had entered into the body of someone who lived a life like that of a child.
Then the older brother came in to get the morning started, and voiced the line titling this entry, “Just tell him you’re not retarded; you’re just slow.” I knew then that the episode could go either well or terribly wrong.
Based in 1964, the episode is about the struggle behind mainstreaming a young man with intellectual disability named Jimmy. Back then, it was common place to institutionalize people with those sorts of disabilities, rather than mainstream them. The only other choice was to care for them at home.
They weren’t seen as capable of holding a job or living with any sort of independence. It was Sam’s, the protagonist, job to make sure Jimmy would be accepted into the workplace, which would be a small step in the direction of the disability civil rights movement that’s still ongoing today.
I was impressed with how well the writers did in portraying the internalized ableism that comes with not having much experience with people who have disabilities. It was a little unsettling to see how well the actors portrayed the various forms of ableism so prevalent then and today.
The workers at the dock Jimmy got a job at bullied him, one in particular sabotaged him and Jimmy’s family, though well meaning, infantalized him. The older brother seemed to have a more realistic understanding of Jimmy’s ability level, but he still called him a kid and treated him as such.
As the episode progressed, Sam grew more and more anxious. He was either bullied or belittled, which only compounded on the mistakes he was making every day.
Eventually, he started understanding what was happening on a deeper level, and was able to start turning things around, as happens in that particular show.
There was also a note of internalized ableism and ignorance regarding dyslexia. The bully, Blue, was exposed as being dyslexic. Sam recognized it, and called him out on it. Blue, having been hiding his troubles as best he could up until that point, denied it.
I don’t know if the character would have been diagnosed as dyslexic back then, since testing wasn’t as prevalent then as it was now, but that doesn’t change the struggle faced with countless people who have some sort of LD. Bullying has been a documented coping mechanism for those struggling to continue hide their difficulties.
Jimmy couldn’t hide his cognitive struggles, which made him an ideal target for Blue, who was fighting hard to hide his.
While there were apparently a few details that didn’t fit in with the ’60s, the show did a great job of demonstrating the social struggles that come with intellectual disability and LD.
With all of that said, though, there were a couple of problems that come with the territory of the premise itself. Sam obviously knew things that Jimmy didn’t, less because of different cognitive levels, and more because of the fact Sam was from the late 20th century.
I highly doubt Jimmy would have known what dyslexia was, or that most of the other people at that workplace would have, but he may have caught on to the mistakes Blue made. I just don’t know if he would have pointed them out, though he could have.
Generally speaking, though, the show makers did a better job of representing this type of disability back in the ’80s than a lot of shows do today.