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The Practice Magazine Article: Interviews with David Kelley, Christopher Reeve, Camryn Manheim, Michael Badalucco and Carolyn McCormick by Chet Cooper

The year was 1995 and host to events that have shaped American history and culture. Friends, a new comedy about six close friends living in New York City, won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite New Comedy Series in its first season. Terrorism became personal with the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building and an unrelated first mention of the Taliban was heard across the news wires. Pierre Omidyar announced on AuctionWeb a new site for non-computer items called eBay and Christopher Reeve, the idolized actor who portrayed Superman, experienced a fall during a charity equestrian event that would lead him to become one of the most controversial celebrity advocates of all time.

In the world of disability, there are those who were born with a disability—or acquired one at a very early age in life—and there are those who, due to heredity, illness or accident, find themselves learning to live with a disability later. Statistically, people in this second category, who have lost a level of mobility they once experienced, tend to direct their focus toward finding a cure rather than quality of life issues, such as lowered sidewalks or Braille keypads on automated teller machines. Campaigning for a cure is often met with harsh opposition by many who see their disability as an extension of themselves and have consequently devoted themselves to fighting the legal system on issues of accessibility and equality.

In her recent book, Disabled Rights, author Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer likens Christopher Reeve to Jack Kevorkian as, “…one of the most despised and cursed individuals by many disability rights activists.” Some, such as activist and researcher Phyllis Ruberfeld, credit Christopher Reeve for pushing the disability rights movement back a “zillion years.”

The feelings are strong and the accusations are harsh. The question is, will the comments made by Reeve in the initial years following his accident contribute to a decrease in equity or attention paid to the disability rights movement? Probably not. When ABILITY first met with Reeve shortly after his accident, he discussed specifically that he did not want to be perceived as a disability advocate. Yet, the media could not get enough of him. Perhaps it was a summoning of awareness of our own mortality, the possibility that any one of our lives could change without a moment’s notice. He was Superman, after all. Disability advocates were dismayed when Reeve talked to Barbara Walters about his brief thoughts of suicide or the fact he didn’t feel he was a whole human being. Ironically, some believe these people fiercely condemning Reeve should have been the most understanding.

The notion that a human being can survive a severe traumatic accident without desire to use his resources for the betterment of his position, or even the possibility of restoring himself to his original freedoms, is ridiculous. While he may have alienated a few who are fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, Reeve’s candidness about his feelings were empathized with and welcomed by many who have shared his frustrations, anger and grief.
The life of Christopher Reeve has served as a perfect illustration of the evolution that occurs within a person who has experienced a life-changing disability. Together, we watched a man go from a Hollywood hero who had it all, to a quadriplegic contemplating the value of life and now, to a self-described disability advocate. Through his work with the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the Christopher Reeve Resource Center, Reeve has proved that finding a cure and the promotion of quality of life issues need not be mutually exclusive.

Proving to all that he’s still got it, Reeve recently guest starred in an episode of The Practice, which was a collaboration between himself and the show’s executive producer, David E. Kelley. He is an actor and a disability advocate. He is addressing issues such as ‘caregiver burnout’ and raising millions of dollars toward spinal cord injury and stem cell research. Most of all, he has done it all with humor and as Camryn Manheim later states, an “unbelievable grace.”

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper was on the set of The Practice and spoke with David Kelley, Christopher Reeve, Camryn Manheim, Michael Badalucco and Carolyn McCormick. The following interviews take you from how the show originated to glimpses of working with Christopher Reeve and a look at what they’re doing now. Interview with David E. Kelly:

Chet Cooper: How did this collaboration between you and Christopher originate?

David E. Kelley: The genesis of this was Christopher himself. He came up with a storyline he thought would be viable to The Practice and submitted it to me. I read it, responded favorably to it and we spoke. He actually did a treatment for it and then I went about writing it with the hopes that he would be available to actually act in it. He was, so it all worked out.

CC: Do you think he originally conceptualized the episode with himself in mind as the actor?

DK: Well, I actually thought it felt right. Whether or not he was available to act in it or not, he was interested in telling the story. It worked out that he was available, but as he was traveling a lot at the time, we had a small window with which to get him as an actor. So, I was taking a little bit of a risk when I was writing it. I wasn’t counting on his ability to definitely be in it at the time, but was certainly hoping for that.

CC: Have you had the opportunity to see the episode?

DK: You know, I’ve not seen the episode because I don’t see ‘dailies.’ I see the first cut. I’ll see dailies if someone gives me a holler and says, “Wait a second, we have a problem here. Look at this.” I know people on the set were very happy with it and I have great hopes for the episode. I’m really happy, extremely happy with Chris’ performance. I enjoyed the story and I’m hopeful that when I see that first cut it will live up to my expectations.

CC: When you are writing an episode, such as this one, how much research is done on a new theory or defense, such as caregiver burnout? Did this defense come from your office or from Christopher?

DK: That started with Chris. We have researchers as part of our staff who get involved and talk to doctors and psychologists once we undertake a particular storyline, but it was conceptualized and brought to us first by Chris. I found the concept very interesting because I am always fascinated with legal defense theories and how they continue to evolve. These days they are as diverse and varied as the crimes themselves. I had never heard of caregiver burnout raised as a possible temporary insanity or diminished capacity defense, so it sort of caught my fascination a little bit and off we went exploring the idea.

CC: Do you know if this defense has ever been tried in a court of law?

DK: I don't know that it has been used in a court of law. It's certainly a real phenomenon as you probably know, but I don't think that it has been launched yet as an excuse to get away with a crime, certainly not homicide. Oddly, when we write episodes we tend to learn that something is happening just as the episode is airing. I wouldn't go out on a limb and say, "Gee, this has never happened," because we have been surprised before. Just as an episode is airing, someone brings to our attention that it is actually a case in Tennessee or in Florida. To my knowledge though, I don't know of someone employing caregiver burnout as a diminished capacity defense in a homicide case yet.

CC: Do you have any examples where a storyline has coincided with an actual case?

DK: I think the last one that comes to mind is that we did a death penalty case that talked about forcing medication on an insane inmate to make them sane for the purpose of executing them. Just as we were about to air, I think that issue came up again. It had been raised before but I think it came up in the courts so it was rather timely, fortuitously timely for us. That has happened on occasion.

CC: As we close, anything else?

DK: Over the years, especially in our criminal cases, we tend to go for juicy plots. We also have issue oriented storylines which are an examination of an issue, be it ethical or social. In our criminal cases, more often than not, there are juicy plot twists. The fun of this particular story is that it leads as a cause piece, but then it is not that at all‹it turns into a rather delicious criminal plot line. The episode certainly isn't all it appears to be at first blush. We really had fun with this story and with Chris in it.

 

An Interview With Christopher Reeve

Chet Cooper speaking with Christopher Reeve on the set of the Practice

Chet Cooper speaking with Christopher Reeve on the set of the Practice

Chet Cooper: There are many dramas currently running. What prompted you to choose "The Practice?"

Christopher Reeve: I spoke with Camryn Manheim a while back and began considering the show. I thought it was the most logical because it's very contained: it mostly takes place in the courtroom, the witness room and the judge's chambers. The audience is forced to focus on the words. I've also been following the show for a while and I think they do a good job. I wrote a story treatment and gave it to David Kelley and he called and said he liked it very much.

CC: Will you be credited as a writer of the episode?

CR: No, I collaborated with David Kelley on writing the story. Then he wrote the teleplay based on the story that the two of us came up with.

CC: Briefly describe the storyline of this episode and the role you will be playing as an actor.

CR: In this episode, I have a very wealthy older brother whose 16 year-old son, Justin, was in the car with me practicing for his driver's test. We got into an accident and he was killed and I became a quadriplegic. My brother, Derek, has never forgiven me for that‹he thinks it is my responsibility and my fault. After being estranged for a year, Derek has been killed and my wife is on trial and that's where the episode begins. My wife admits that she killed him, but is pleading temporary insanity due to caregiver burnout. She's been depressed, she's been having blackouts‹completely blanking out on what happened during an entire day. There is a record of phone calls, e-mails and meetings where she had begged Derek for money and he refused to help. The issue is whether the jury is going to recognize caregiver burnout as a legitimate medical condition, something that would warrant a release on temporary insanity. I am trying my hardest to support her in this.

CC: Over the past few years, you appear to have deliberately shifted your role to that of a disability advocate. How does participating in an episode of "The Practice" correspond to your goals?

CR: My overall aim as a disability advocate is to reach out in various ways, whether that means promoting legislation in Washington, working with the media or conducting interviews to reach a wider audience. Within the framework of a TV drama, which of course has to have twists and turns in the plot, you can subtly introduce these issues.

CC: What exactly is caregiver burnout and how are you addressing the issue?

CR: In this episode, my wife, played by Carolyn McCormick, is handling my care by herself. That means dressing, feeding and cleaning up‹it takes over her life. People who are put in this position often end up feeling very depressed and hopeless. Worst case scenario: caregiver burnout usually happens when people living with disabilities reach the limit on the lifetime cap of their health insurance policy, which is usually a million dollars. While it sounds like a lot, if you have a severe disability, you can run through that amount in only a few years. After that you may have to sell your house or borrow from relatives‹anything to raise enough money. Ultimately it comes back to the relatives or the caregivers, and can become a tremendous strain on them. I'm trying to demonstrate to insurance companies that it would actually be profitable to provide proactive care, therapy and service for people with disabilities.

CC: How do you convince the insurance companies there's a benefit?

CR: If the insurance companies can pay for a treadmill, for example, to be installed in private homes, it's not a large investment and there are many benefits. People who have control of their upper body often walk again in a couple of months. Virtually all of them are able to walk on their own, using a cane. They're not cured, but they are rehabilitated. They're out of their wheelchairs. I've had the opportunity to exercise since October 1995. The benefit is my muscles have not atrophied. Pulmonary conditions and osteoporosis are huge issues which cost insurance companies a lot of money when patients need treatment or hospitalization. I haven't‹knock on wood‹needed to be hospitalized in more than five years.

CC: When we last met you had a pretty serious decubitus (bed sore).

CR: I'm doing much better. In fact, I was able to withstand a 13 hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney. I don't need to be turned at night and I can sit up in the chair for longer. All of that is important.

CC: Your recovery has actually made unprecedented progress in some areas.

CR: In September 2000, when I found I was able to move my index finger on my left hand, they began a study conducted by Dr. John McDonald of Washington University in St. Louis. Results from the study were made public last September both in the Journal of Neurosurgery and in the Proceedings of the Academy of Science. It showed that I have been reclassified from ASIA A all the way down to ASIA C, and that I have some sensation now on approximately 70% of my body. In regards to the functional recovery of my legs and arms, most of the movement I can do can't be done in a chair because of gravity. By lying in bed or floating in a pool, you take the gravity away and gain quite a lot of movement back. I've been fortunate to have the best possible care, but this care and the equipment should be made affordable to everyone. For example, an FES Exercise Bicycle right now costs about $15,000 retail. I know a manufacturer who says they can be made for $1,500. It is going to be up to a combination of small companies who are willing to manufacture equipment for a lower price, but they will only be able to do it if they get the support of healthcare plans, insurance companies and rehab centers. I really think that if the whole community works together and doesn't look at each other as adversaries, we could absolutely revolutionize rehabilitation.

CC: How has the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation changed over the past few years, and what significant achievements have been accomplished?

CR: The foundation originated as the American Paralysis Association by Henry Stifel of Springfield, New Jersey. Mr. Stifel founded it in 1982 after his son, at the age of 17, was in a car accident which resulted in a spinal cord injury. The foundation had a few people working and was able to raise a modest amount of money. It grew over the years and in its course developed relationships with the best scientists in the world. I came on board in 1996, and in 1999 the name was changed to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Since that time we have quadrupled the money raised for our research and quality of life programs. Now there is also the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, just down the road from our main office in Springfield. It's funded through a cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first of its kind, the Paralysis Resource Center is a clearinghouse of information for people who are newly injured or people who have been living with paralysis for more than a couple of years. There they can find referrals to whatever they need.

CC: Still, even before the merger, you were branching into quality of life issues.

CR: I was. In 1997, I became the Vice Chairman of the National Organization of Disability, which fights for accessibility, job opportunities and recognition of the rights of people with disabilities. I wear two hats and they are both equally important.

 

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More stories from The Practice issue:

Interview with World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn

CSUN Adaptive Technology Conference

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