Blind Justice

The title of ABC’s newest detective series, Blind Justice, is precisely the sort of metaphoric abstraction that disability rights activists and scholars object to. The term doesn’t reflect “negatively” on blind people, but it does refer to an ideal of justice as “objective.” The point is that the metaphor is delimiting and overdetermines the material reality of blindness and/or extreme visual disability. It erases the subject it purports to represent.

Worse, the metaphor doesn’t even work particularly well in relation to this specific show. Even if some idealized jurisprudence is “blind” (which it manifestly isn’t, at least not “color-blind”), criminal justice most definitely isn’t, as the major thrust of the show is how the detectives of New York’s 8th Precinct “overcome” their prejudices against physical disability.

Ron Eldard is Detective Jim Dunbar, a most excellent homicide detective who is blinded by a one-in-a-million gun shot while on a case. Though he could have retired with full benefits, Dunbar sues the Police Department to get his job back. When he wins and is reassigned to the 8th Precinct, the other detectives, especially Tom (Reno Wilson), Marty (Frank Grillo), and Lt. Gary Fisk (Michael Gaston), don’t believe Dunbar can be anything but a burden. What can a detective “do” if he can’t “see” a crime scene?

Further, Dunbar represents what Lennard Davis has called, in Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body, a “disruption of the visual field.” The anxiety produced by the presence of disability for the “normal” is the unconscious recognition of their always potentially temporary able-bodiedness. Selway, Russo, and Fisk reject Dunbar because he represents and recalls the threat to their own “normal” bodily integrity inherent in their line of work.

The disabled investigator itself is an old saw of disability representation. Today we have PaxTV’s Sue Thomas: FBEye (deafness), and USA’s popular Monk (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Charlie Chan (fat) had a 50-year film career, from 1931-1981. Ironside was the paraplegic detective of the 1970s. Also in the early 1970s, Longstreet focused on a blind insurance investigator, and the films Eyes in the Night (1942) and The Hidden Eye (1945), both featured blind detectives. The list goes on, but the point is that the confluence of disability and detection is a common trope in which the disabled person “overcomes” his disability and others’ prejudices in order to impart a moral, namely, “tolerance.” Though Dunbar can’t see, he “sees,” and what and how he sees teaches those who doubt him (and “us” at home) our “proper,” tolerant, and respectful relationship to disability.

The show runs into another problem in how it imagines Dunbar “seeing.” More accurately, try as it might, it can’t imagine a detective being totally blind. So we get, throughout the series premiere, vague, deeply shadowed, blurry moments that suggest Dunbar has retained some rudimentary visual perception. This is doubly vexed in moments when Blind Justice tries to represent the ways in which hearing transforms into an understanding of spatial relations for the blind. At one point, while Dunbar’s reluctant partner (Marisol Nichols as Karen Bettancourt) is interviewing a potential witness, Dunbar is thinking to himself and listening to the surroundings. He hears the sounds of a subway train passing, a major clue in the case as it turns out, and for a moment we “see” his internalization. It’s a kind of stylized sky, with fluffy clouds, and a subway train clack-clacking above the ground with seemingly no support.

Okay, it makes some sort of representational sense. What doesn’t make sense is the similar attempt that occurs much earlier in the episode. Out in the field for the first time, Dunbar accompanies Bettancourt to a murder scene. As he stands alone, having been shunted off to the side by Bettancourt, we “see” how he makes sense of the space around him. This time, however, we see in his stylized mind’s eye the body of the dead girl, and dust swirling in the sunlight coming through a grimy window. What sounds could the silent corpse possibly be making that might allow a spatial understanding of its positioning? And do you really think, no matter how “acute” his hearing, Dunbar could “hear” dust-motes swirling around in the air?

Despite these shortcomings and its trafficking in able-bodied stereotypes, Blind Justice isn’t entirely without merit. The show attempts to depict how, institutionally and individually, we try to “deal with” disability. Around the middle of the premiere, Jim returns home after his first day back at work to his wife Christie (Rena Sofer). She’s anxious, and asks how his day went. He’s reluctant to talk about it, she becomes angry. She’s tired of “walking on eggshells” around the subject of his disability. He’s tired of having been forced to play the “triumphant” disabled person and reassuring his “normal” coworkers that everything will be okay in their relationships all day long. He assures Christie he needs her, to which she retorts, “You don’t need me, you need your dog.”

It’s corny dialogue. But here, as in the precinct scenes focused on Dunbar and his coworkers, Blind Justice, the exchange shows how people with disabilities and able-bodied individuals negotiate physical difference (sometimes unkindly, sometimes respectfully) in order to redefine individual, professional, and institutional relationships that might become more welcoming to physical disability.