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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Mr. Magoo and Disabilities

Published April 9, 2015 12:30 PM by Debra Karplus

Raised in the 1950s, like many children, I spent hours in front of the television, an innovation in home entertainment back then as well as a large piece of furniture. There were only a few channels. TV was not on 24/7 as it is today.

I confess that one of my very favorite shows was the animated "Mr. Magoo". The voice of Quincy Magoo was played by actor Jim Backus; watch old reruns of "Gilligan's Island" and you'll immediately know that he plays Mr. Howell on that classic show. The premise of the Magoo cartoons, which started in 1949, was that a goofy-looking short and chubby old hairless guy who badly needed eyeglasses found himself in all sorts of misunderstandings and confusion as a result of not being able to see well. The episode "When Mr. Magoo Flew" is about the time he drives (remember he's nearly blind!) to the movie theater but instead ends up at the airport. Why Magoo didn't just go out and purchase some glasses is still a mystery to me to this day. 

The "Mr. Magoo" show was quite popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In fact, several companies, including General Electric, used Mr. Magoo in their commercials. It was very appealing for its time. To my surprise, when I told my pre-teen grandchildren about Mr. Magoo they insisted on seeing what I was talking about. So we looked online and sure enough, YouTube had various shows, in their entirety, as well as some of the commercials to watch. My grandchildren found them as hilarious as I did at their age. I have mixed feelings about that.

Cartoons, as early as around 1900, have a long history with political incorrectness, even related to disability. The years between 1930 and 1950 seemed to be the peak of this lack of good taste. Snow White's buddies were seven dwarfs who acted stupid and had stupid names, such as Dopey. Then "Mr. Magoo" surfaced on TV. From 1972 to 1985, fans of Saturday morning cartoons could watch "Fat Albert". Indeed, he was very fat. But the redeeming quality of that show was the snippets of educational value added by Bill Cosby as important life lessons.

Political correctness started to become an issue in this country in the 1970s, but it wasn't until the 1990s that people really became much more sensitive about language and behavior to those who might be viewed as different or less fortunate. In my recent quest for information about Mr. Magoo, I discovered that in 1997, a remake of the series was shown in theaters. It used people not animation, and starred the late funnyman Leslie Nielson, but was a box office flop. I really don't feel too bad about that.

We, as occupational therapists, need to be exemplary role models in portraying people with disabilities in a respectable way. As funny as some of the old cartoons might have been, many are unflattering to people with disabilities. Sensitivity is crucial.

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