Ellen Corby

Writing Aphasia Into a Television Show

Ellen Corby died in 1999, but she is remembered as Grandma Walton on the hit television show, The Waltons. Her work on the show earned her three Emmy awards. Yet her career almost ended in 1976 after a stroke that left her with aphasia. Clever screenwriters turned her aphasia into an opportunity, working the situation into the storyline.

Before and After a Stroke

The Waltons ran on CBS from 1972 to 1981. The cast was four years into filming when Corby suffered a stroke that impaired her movement and speech. She took off from the show for over a season for medical reasons and returned in the 1977-1978 season, bringing her stroke into the storyline. Her character—Grandma Walton—also experienced a stroke, and she provided a way to show an American family navigating a member’s aphasia.

Working Aphasia Into the Television Storyline

Corby convinced CBS that she could work after her stroke. Like many people with aphasia, she found she could still sing but speaking was difficult. The solution: Give Grandma Walton aphasia, just like the actress portraying her. While she could speak more fluently than Grandma Walton, her character was given “one word or one-phrased dialogue, such as ‘No’ or ‘Home’.”

Her character also navigated the emotional side of aphasia, including “struggling with her new condition, worrying that The Waltons didn’t need her anymore.”

While it’s not the only show to include aphasia, it was groundbreaking in its time. The screenwriters creatively kept Ellen Corby working, and Corby brought authenticity into the American living room, depicting the experience of life after a stroke.

What shows have you seen depict aphasia?

Image: CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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