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Interviews with David Kelley, Christopher Reeve, Camryn Manheim,
Michael Badalucco and Carolyn McCormick by Chet Cooper
In the world of disability, there are those who were born with a disabilityor acquired one at a very early age in lifeand 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
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 moments
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 didnt feel he was a whole human being. Ironically,
some believe these people fiercely condemning Reeve should have been the
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, Reeves candidness about
his feelings were empathized with and welcomed by many who have shared
his frustrations, anger and grief.
Proving to all that hes still got it, Reeve recently guest starred
in an episode of The Practice, which was a collaboration between himself
and the shows 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 Magazines 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 theyre doing now. Interview with David E. Kelly:
Chet Cooper: How did this collaboration between you and Christopher
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 wasnt counting on
his ability to definitely be in it at the time, but was certainly hoping
CC: Have you had the opportunity to see the episode?
DK: You know, Ive not seen the episode because I dont see dailies. I see the first cut. Ill 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. Im really happy, extremely happy with Chris performance. I enjoyed the story and Im 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
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: 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
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
CC: Still, even before the merger, you were branching into quality of
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.
CONTINUED IN ABILITY MAGAZINE...... subscribe!
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