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Monday, February 23, 2009

David Paterson and the Blind NY POST

A few hours ago I read Planet of the Blind blog entry "Governor Paterson's Blindness and the Public's Incomprehension Leads to an Avalanche of Stereotypes". In Steve Kuusisto's wonderfully acerbic entry he deconstructs the flawed logic of Ben Smith, a writer at Politico, and a New York Post editorial that assert Governor Paterson has failed to perform adequately because he is blind. Smith and the NY Post acknowledge the Spitzer fiasco and the financial crisis are major variables but they maintain Paterson's "troubles" are largely of his own making. Politically, they have a point but like Kuusisto I strenuously object to their assertion that Paterson's failure is tied to the fact he is blind. The NY Post is entertaining to read but often unbalance, biased and in this case dead wrong. On February 19 the NY Post maintained: "Paterson's blindness severely constricts his ability to acquire basic information. His administration is adrift; he is inconsistent, imprecise and often contradictory in his public statements. To put it bluntly, the governor needs competent help". I don't disagree with the political content of the NY Post editorial. Paterson has truly struggled since he took office and some of his decisions make me scratch my head. But connecting Paterson's blindness with his struggles in office is wrong and based on antiquated stereotypes. Kuusisto deconstructs this logic better than I can and as he points out it is based on painfully simple logic: "Blind People can't see. One must see to read. Therefore blind people can't read".

I have just one point to add to Kuusisto's comments about Paterson and that has to do with Ben Smith's opening remarks in "Paterson's Blindness" made on February 19. Smith wrote: "New York Gov. Paterson's story was, when he unexpectedly took office upon Eliot Spitzer's fall, told in familiar terms as triumph over adversity. He had risen to the highest level of government despite being almost entirely blind since birth, and despite not ever having learned to read Braille. This is how America talks about disabilities, and there was no reason to initially not to portray Paterson as having risen to the challenge". Sadly, this is indeed how Americans think of disability in the broadest sense of the term. Governor Paterson overcame "adversity" but what sort of adversity did he encounter? Paterson has been clear on this point: the "adversity" he had to overcome was an educational system that did not want to teach him because he was blind. Schools did not want to spend money on the technology that would make it possible for him to read. He was not worth the effort or expense. This is a form of bigotry few who can walk, see, and hear are willing to acknowledge. In refusing to recognize the civil rights of people with a host of disabilities society clings to stereotypes and the result is that Paterson becomes a straw figure in the eyes of many. He "overcame" a disability and thus is a prime example of superman iconography. He is no mere mortal but a super human person who in spite of his blindness puts all others to shame. The other way Paterson is portrayed is the SNL version: a bumbling fool, disoriented, unable to read, and grossly incompetent.

The total lack of nuance associated with media portrayals of disability ignores a basic fact: people with disabilities are no different than anyone else with the exception of the way they have adapted to a type of physical deficit. We as a species, that is the animal that we humans are, possess an inherent prejudice against all those that are different. Difference is feared and stigmatized. This is learned behavior and people with disabilities are considered a class a part. In Paterson's case he is not just an ordinary politician who has struggled once he took office in a prominent position. No, Paterson is the "blind governor" and what comes first and foremost is that word blind. Blindness is feared just as much as paralysis and many other disabilities. This infuriates me and I for one wonder why can't the media delve into what "legally blind" means? What are the options open to people with profound visual deficits? How many people use guide dogs and what other mobility options exist for blind people? Sadly, these sorts of questions do not generate catchy titles and are heavy on substance. Instead we read editorials such as the one about Paterson in the NY Post that assumes Paterson failed because he is blind. This is an opinion based on a stereotype and lacks any foundation. The implications are great for one could easily assume not only is Paterson incompetent but so are all other blind people and by extension anyone with a disability. To me, this accounts for why so many people with a disability are unemployed and encounter needless obstacles on a daily basis. We as a society can do much better if we would only be willing to use our best asset: our powerful and ever adaptable minds.

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