From Able to Disabled: Seeing Disability on FOX’s “Bones”

by Jaime O. Mayer

It wasn’t until I was twenty-nine years old that I saw a character onscreen to whom I could relate. I saw a character’s grieving process eerily similar to my own experience when an able-bodied person becomes disabled. It’s not perfect, but a lot of it rang true. Midway through season 11 of Bones, Fox’s long- running forensic drama, Dr. Jack Hodgins is injured at a crime scene and ends up paralyzed from the waist down. I’ve been a fan of the show–warts and all–for a long time, but it wasn’t until this development in Hodgins’s character arc that I related to the show (any show) on a personal level.

At the end of 2012, my family was involved in a car accident that killed my parents and left myself, my husband, and my older sister with physically disabling injuries, and my younger brother with minor physical injuries but awful emotional ones. I broke most of my lower half starting at the ribs, including my pelvis and both femur heads. My husband had similar injuries to mine, though he added several in his upper half as well, including a traumatic brain injury. He lives with chronic nerve pain, walks with a visible limp, and uses a forearm crutch. My sister suffered broken bones as well, but her most significant injury is an incomplete C4 spinal cord injury and she is now a quadriplegic.

We went from being able-bodied, active 20-somethings to disabled in varying degrees. I was fortunate to have the largest margin for recovery and am now able to walk without a mobility aid. These days, non-medical people who meet me can’t tell that I’m disabled, but that wasn’t always the case. I was non-weight bearing for three months. Not “bed rest:” non-weight bearing. I did not physically leave my hospital bed for routine activities like eating or bathing or using the restroom because my lower half was too broken and fragile. My mobility progression was marked by wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and a cane, with family and friends taking photos to celebrate each “graduation.”

So, how does this tie-in to Bones and Hodgins? TV and film–when they depict disability at all–usually jumps straight from the disabling accident to “let’s find a cure!” I’m looking at you Avatar and Dr. Strange. I get it. Becoming disabled sucks. I don’t think many able-bodied people who become disabled look back at that moment and think it was great. But I’m not saying that becoming disabled is awful and I’d rather be dead (Example: Me Before You).

But getting from Point A: Dealing with a life-changing injury, to Point B: Making peace with your new condition, is a journey and a spectrum with regard to how each person comes to terms with their disability. In Bones, when we find out that Hodgins is paralyzed (Season 11, ep. 10), I cringed. I figured it would be more of the same, “oh no my life is horrible, oh wait magic cure!” from a show that I enjoy a lot. I expected the show to fail me.
I’m happy to say I was wrong–for the most part. For the next four episodes we see Hodgins’s grieving process as he comes to terms with becoming disabled. The way he deals with it is sped up probably faster than is realistic, but I can give that a pass since it’s a TV show and has to fit within the season’s timeframe.

I was drawn to Bones and how it depicted the cycle of grief/recovery that echoed my own, whether from my personal experience or my family’s. At first, Hodgins is very upbeat. He’s sure he’ll recover feeling in his legs and walk again, and he’s got a positive attitude. It’s understandable: he thinks his nerves are re-growing because he felt phantom pain. But at the end of the eleventh episode we find out that his nerves are actually decaying, and his doctor’s opinion is that he will not recover.

For the next three episodes, we see Hodgins grieving. The sense of no longer fitting in, of his changed circumstances, and his loss are portrayed in a manner that felt very real to me. I lived it. He’s angry, lashes out at everyone, refuses to do physical therapy. He refers to himself and his situation in negative terms, calling his friends’ efforts to help or cheer him up “charity work.” He refers to his legs as “the rest of [him] being the problem.” He snaps that “the world is full of messed up people. I should know, I’m one of them.”

He refuses to accept help and is resentful of adaptive aids even though they enable him to do his job. To him, adding the automated wheelchair lift to the examination platform isn’t an aid but a loud, slow reminder that he’s broken. That the once mighty “king of the lab” has been undone by three little steps. Through his eyes we realize how lacking in ADA accommodations the lab is, watching as another employee jauntily trots up the stairs to the lab’s loft area–a place where throughout the seasons the characters have hung out to wind down. Now he can’t get up there. That aspect of his life is gone, probably forever.

I’ve been there. This was my family’s life. The anger, the sense of loss, the desire to be unbroken again and despairing that it’ll never happen. The jealousy harbored against random strangers as they run around doing menial tasks, ignorant of how important those legs are that they take for granted. For the first time, I could watch a show and say “that was us. We went through that.” It showed the grieving process in an unflinching light for multiple hour-long episodes. The audience doesn’t get a few minutes of unpleasantness and then we’re back to sunshine and rainbows as everyone’s happy with disability. Too often during my recovery it felt like there was pressure to appear heroic or inspirational. Disability had to be painted in a nice light, always with a focus on “getting better” and being positive. I loved the portrayal of Hodgins’s injury because it’s not pretty. His attitude can make you feel uncomfortable, conflicted on wanting to empathize with his situation yet get mad at him for being such a miserable person to those who love him. My family went through this too.

Hodgins’s anger and the way he takes it out on his friends and family isn’t fun to watch, but it rang true. I’m guessing most able-bodied people have no idea it happens and it can be exactly as vicious (if not more so) as it appears on the show. The ugliness is skipped over even though it’s sometimes the most real.

Not on Bones. Hodgins’s uses his disability as a justification for being mean (“You’re going to tell the paraplegic what’s fair?”) more than once, excusing his behavior and implying that no one else can call him on it because at least they’re not disabled. The show demands you to watch, and try to understand. For several episodes, the audience lives with Hodgins’s pain and know why he’s struggling, but you also live the hurt he puts his friends and wife Angela through too. Hodgins’s arc shows his grief but also how it affects more than him alone. It offers a way for people to relate on multiple levels.

This grieving process is usually dropped as shows go straight to the character getting “fixed,” or maybe them becoming ok with their situation. I’m all in favor for being at peace with your circumstances and moving forward, and I honestly think it gets easier once you reach that point, but it can be a long process. And, not everyone gets there. Fortunately, Hodgins does, but it’s gradual.

Hodgins’s grief cycle has ups and downs on his journey to finding his “new normal.” He joins an online support group, investigates and applies for experimental treatment programs, anything to get back to where he was pre-accident. But, that’s never going to happen. Not with his injuries (hematoma that crushed the nerves in his sacral plexus). And, eventually he accepts that, and is able to move forward. He almost destroys his marriage in the process, but Angela convinces him to keep fighting for them. In episode 14 (“The Last Shot at a Second Chance”), when Hodgins tells her he’s miserable and would rather cut ties and separate their lives than continue to make her miserable too, she says, “So change.” Which could sound callous, but it fits with the message of that episode and the stage of grief/recovery Hodgins is at.

During the episode, multiple characters make comments and have discussions with or about Hodgins along the lines of him needing to want to change–and come to terms with his disability–in order to be happy. But he shrugs it off, seemingly content to stay miserable. Angela’s plea, for him to change his attitude, to accept and to fight, signals a turning point. Hodgins is faced with accepting what his new normal is–that he’s paralyzed–and though he can’t change it, he does have a choice in how he decides to live. At the end of the episode, Hodgins returns to their house, ready to move forward.
The next stage in Hodgins’s grieving process sees him moving away from grief and more into recovery as he learns to accept his limitations. Instead of getting angry and despairing about not being able to do something the same way as when he was able-bodied, he finds ways to change his situation so that it works. The show goes over the top in that Hodgins can afford adaptive aids that most people can’t, and the same can be said about some of the “fixes” he rigs up at the lab. There’s also a moment where he comments on being “grateful” about being in a wheelchair because it saves his life. That’s a bit too corny for me, but ok. I prefer positive Hodgins to angry, mopey Hodgins–even if the latter is realistic.

I do have one big qualm with how the show presents this process, because there’s a lot of implied victim-blaming couched in good intentions. This plays out in two ways. First, in the episode after Hodgins is injured, there’s a lot of groundwork laid for his failed recovery to be his fault–even if the show didn’t mean it that way. The effect trumps the intent. In episode 11, “The Death in the Defense,” Hodgins is cleared to leave the hospital with his doctor’s parting warning: “[The] hematoma crushed the nerves in your lower spine but it didn’t sever them. Which means they’re still prone to further damage. Right now, you have mobility above the waist. You can breathe on your own. Protect that.” Seems like a practical piece of doctorly advice to not push himself, but it foreshadows that he’ll fail to protect what he has. A cautionary tale of what not to take for granted.
Hodgins isn’t supposed to go back to work, but he does anyway. Throughout the episode there are multiple instances where other characters (primarily Angela and Cam) argue that Hodgins needs to take it easy, and others (primarily Booth and Wendell) argue for the decision to work being left up to Hodgins. Both Booth and Wendell make “hope” arguments. Booth is very optimistic about Hodgins’s chances, citing hard work as the reason that Hodgins will get his legs back. When Brennan cautions against it, Booth says, “There’s nothing more important than hope.” This is a big setup for the blatant victim-blaming that will occur in Season 12’s premiere.

The well-intentioned setup for victim-blaming continues. Wendell and Brennan argue over Hodgins decision to stay and work. Wendell claims that the lab is a morally uplifting place for Hodgins and he doesn’t want Hodgins to give up. He posits that Hodgins has to fight, referencing his (Wendell’s) own medical struggle in a previous season. Brennan points out that the metaphorical concept of Wendell’s argument has no bearing on whether or not Hodgins will recover. Being scientifically minded and with Hodgins generally sharing the same mindset, Brennan says that Hodgins may be offended by the idea that “he can fight his nerves back into growing given the extreme unlikeliness of recovery.” Wendell counters by stating that his own recovery was unlikely. This exchange again foreshadows the “hope heals” argument that comes up in Season 12. The entire episode smacks of victim-blaming and that it’s ultimately Hodgins’s fault he doesn’t recover because he doesn’t protect his damaged nerves–as his doctor warned.

Now, I can see why the “have hope” and “it’s his choice” arguments may appeal to people. We like to have autonomy and disabled people already struggle to assert rights over their bodies. Going from able to disabled, Hodgins is having to deal with that loss of control, and the sense of having a choice seems empowering (except he doesn’t have power because Cam eventually sends him home). I think the show meant well and wanted it to seem like Hodgins was in control, but to me it just set him up for failure. Because there are multiple instances of people warning him and he doesn’t listen, the decay in his nerves is his fault.

Season 11 ends with things up in the air regarding whether or not Hodgins will recover feeling in his legs. He’s trying out a new treatment plan designed by a consulting neurosurgeon, and lo and behold, Hodgins starts getting nerve spasms. This is problematic. In the episode (Season 11, ep. 21 “The Jewel in the Crown”) where Hodgins recovers some feeling in his legs there’s mention of changing to a new physical therapist, implying that his more rigorous therapy routine and hard work magically restored his legs. Aside from it handwaving his disability away, it’s a bit of a slap in the face to those with injuries that no amount of “hard work” will heal.
Then, for the second, more blatant way victim-blaming is portrayed, in the Season 12’s premiere, “The Hope in the Horror,” we find out that former intern Zack has been impersonating the aforementioned neurosurgeon, and that it was actually Zack who had been consulting with Hodgins’s therapist. When Hodgins goes to see Zack over the emails and ultimately thanks him because it’s working, Zack tells Hodgins the treatment isn’t likely to work. Zack’s reasoning for coming up with the treatment? “I have been told, although it has not been proven scientifically, that hope can sometimes have the power to heal. Hope is what I was trying to give you…”

At the end of the episode, we find out that Hodgins has lost the newfound feeling in his legs, and, as Angela says, “It’s probably for good this time.” This is infuriating and reeks of victim-blaming: Sorry Hodgins, but you didn’t hope hard enough so no legs for you. I wanted Hodgins to stay disabled on the show because the magic cure trope is bad enough, but this victim-blaming almost made me rage-quit the show. What saved it is that Hodgins tells Angela (really the audience) that he’s ok, stating that he’s not in pain and that they’re going to be all right. The truth is obviously a blow, but he’s finally in the mindset where he can take the bad news and move forward.

After that, Hodgins’s disability arc closes and it essentially becomes normalized, present but background. He’s still visibly disabled, but his wheelchair is never seen as a hindrance and he remains a fleshed-out character. He’s not spewing inspiration-porn about the disabled–he’s living his life. We never forget that he’s in a wheelchair, but instead of the grief, despair, and refusal to accept change, he’s embracing his new normal and making it work for him. Yes, the show is ridiculous in showing some of the ways he rigs up adaptive devices (as done in the previous season) that are so far beyond the means of most viewers, but again, I’m happy to have the show portraying a disabled man at work, equally as diligent and competent as his colleagues.

All hail the King of the Lab.

Jaime O. Mayer shares her Seattle home with her patient husband, two needy cats, and surrounded by too many fish tanks. Her nonfiction is available in the Invisible 3 anthology, and her short fiction is forthcoming in Cast of Wonders. She blogs infrequently at and can be found on both Twitter and Facebook.


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