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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Christopher Reeve in the News

Several years ago I published an extremely critical article about Christopher Reeve in the Ragged Edge. Although the Ragged Edge is no longer being published, it remains in my mind one of the most important disability rights periodicals ever produced. For many years after Reeve was paralyzed I refused to criticize him because I assumed he would eventually learn and understand what disability rights were all about. Many newly paralyzed people vow to walk again and most eventually realize that life after spinal cord injury is every bit as rewarding and fulfilling as life was before an injury. Most paralyzed people also come to realize that the major problems they encounter are not medical complications caused by paralysis. Rather the real problem that prevents paralyzed people from being incorporated into society is social, more specifically it is very difficult to "overcome" or avoid the social stigma and isolation associated with using a wheelchair. Reeve never learned this and the longer he remained paralyzed the more obnoxious he became about his quest for a cure. In his quest for a cure, an honorable goal by itself, he reinforced every negative stereotype about disability and set back disability rights for at least a decade. When he was alive I cringed every time I heard him speak and found his willingness to let the media portray him as a tragic figure, a mere shadow of his virile Superman persona, nothing short of despicable.

Reeve is back in the news again thanks to the release of a new unauthorized biography with the dreadful title Somewhere in Heaven by Christopher Andersen. Mr. Andersen is out and about hawking his book and clearly projecting the most simplistic view of disability. Reeve's paralysis was a tragedy, his life hopelessly compromised and elevates his wife, Dana, for sainthood. In interviews Andersen is happy to portray Reeve as a real life super hero. The subtext however is the knowledge that all those unfamiliar with disability consider Reeve's life after he was injured to be pitiful. Anderson and the mainstream press rely a hopelessly out of date perception of disability that Reeve embraced. Thus the focus is on Reeve's supposed "inner strength" and his wife Dana's "remarkable" dedication to her husband. Utterly lost in this feel good portrait is the gross social, economic, and political inequities disabled people encounter every day. Ignored are more than two decades of disability rights legislation that the Supreme Court has tried to overturn given half a chance. No where do I hear about the person with a similar injury to Reeve who within weeks is sent to a nursing from where they are highly unlikely to ever leave. I do not hear about an unemployment rate of 70% among those with a severe disability. Where are the reports about the ADA Restoration Act? Does the average citizen even know the ADA is civil rights legislation?

The focus on Reeve as an archetype for disability often makes me break out in a series of curse words that would make a sailor blush. Reeve was indeed a tragic figure but not for the reasons most people think. I think he surrounded himself with all the wrong people and that his ego did not let him understand that one can be disabled and proud. His singular focus on cure while admirable allowed him to view himself as some how different from every other disabled person. To me, this is the real tragedy in Reeve's post injury life. He could have advocated for cure and been embraced by disability rights activists bent on social change for all people. Instead Reeve accepted and incorporated an overwhelming negative view of disability and thoughtlessly used the ramps and elevators that disability activists fought so hard for. I think Reeve missed an opportunity to radically change the cultural perception of disabled people in this country and that this missed opportunity was particularly unfortunate. This point is reinforced every time I listen to or read about Reeve's life as those unfamiliar with disability spout off about how heroic he and his wife were. The effort to portray him as a heroic figure reveals nothing about Reeve and much about the bigotry and ignorance paralyzed people encounter every time they leave their house. This is the story I want people to think about.

1 comment:

Sarah Heacox said...

Great piece, Bill! Thanks. Well said.