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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This is to be Expected

In Britain disability is news worthy and two stories are of particular interest. First, Tory leader David Cameron created a stir when he sent out Christmas cards. What made Cameron's archetypical Christmas card photograph of his family controversial was that it included his young song Ivan who has cerebral palsy. Some pundits suggested that Cameron used his son as a political prop designed to make him appear caring and sympathetic. The second story concerns Cerrie Burnell. Ms. Burnell is a presenter on the popular British children's TV show CBeebies. Ms. Burnell's mere presence has upset parents. Within days of her debut the BBC received complaints that Ms. Burnell was "scaring" children and one parent alleged his child had nightmares after seeing the show. What made Ms. Burnell's appearance so frightening? She has no right hand.

I had hoped that these two stories would spark a nuanced debate about disability in the British media. I reasoned that in 2008 the death of Daniel James and Barry Baker provided the foundation for a less hysterical and more substantive debate about disability. I was wrong. A glance at the website for CBeebies revealed a flood of comments, some of which were so nasty they had to be removed. I was stunned by the viscous nature of the comments made about Ms. Burnell. None of the many negative comments came from children but rather parents. To me this is proof that bigotry is learned behavior. The public debate about Ms. Burnell reveals what people with a disability already know: discrimination is an every day phenomenon. Thus when asked by the BBC if she were surprised by the complaints that were levied about her presence Ms. Burnell replied "This is to be expected". Sadly, Ms. Burnell is correct. Worse yet, her sober dignified reply to questions about her missing right hand have been ignored. Instead, there is hysteria, fear, and panic under the guise of "protecting children".

The criticism levied against Ms. Burnell is baseless. It is akin to the raw sort of discrimination that black people, women, and other minority groups encounter. In Ms. Burnell's estimation, discrimination against people with a disability remains common because there are so few disabled characters on television. This point is undoubtedly correct but the inherent prejudice people with a disability encounter runs deeper and is more insidious. In order for people with a disability to make substantive progress in terms of equal rights they need to assert themselves and embrace an identity that tied to their disability. In short , be "disabled and proud". Those unfamiliar with disability don't get this. It is a foreign concept too far removed from "common sense". No one wants to be disabled, right? Correct, no one wants to acquire or be born with a disability. But this does not mean one should hide a disability or be ashamed of it. Yet, this is exactly what we teach children when their disabled peers are sent to school on the "special bus", spend most of the day in "resource rooms" and have to go to the nursing office to use the bathroom because it has the only accessible toilet. The message being sent is clear and accepted without question: disability is very bad and society will, out of the goodness of our heart, provide a "special" place for you. In another era this was called segregation and the Supreme Court ruled it was inherently unequal.

People with a disability that demand equality know a different reality from their bipedal peers. Any disability is part of who we are as human beings. Ms. Burnell maintains that "I'm just like everyone else in that I wear what I feel comfortable in. I don't deliberately try to make people confront my disability, but I do not try to hide it. This is me, and I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed by it". Francesca Martinez, a comedian, considers this to be the "huge secret" about disability--"a disability is like hair colour, eye colour, height, or weight, just another arbitrary feature". Few people without a disability grasp this concept. In Ms. Burnell's case the fact she does not have a right hand is used to dehumanize her--this a a social not a physical failure on her part. What comes first is her disability and her humanity second. Thus people with a disability are public property, subject to intense scrutiny and rude or intrusive questions are the norm. These questions are designed to assert a socially superior position the questioner enjoys. Disability is not "normal" and such difference is supposed to be hidden. Every day more people with a disability are rejecting this idea. I for one see nothing wrong with my paralyzed and twisted body or Ms. Burnell'a lack of a right hand. Disability is simply part of life and society needs to become less discriminating and people with a disability need to assert their civil rights.


Becs said...

This is how much disability scares kids: As much as the parents want them to be scared.

When I was about four, our next door neighbor was a Korean War veteran. He had been wounded and both legs were amputated.

On the days my grandma got tired of watching me, she sent me over to John's house.

John and I would play on his front porch for hours - he would let me put my feet on the tip bars of his wheelchair and hang on as he went zipping around the porch.

Oh, yeah. I was terrified. Yeah.

william Peace said...

Becs, Kids learn a lot from their parents and one of the sad things they learn is to be afraid of people that use a wheelchair. While shopping in the grocery store I cannot tell you how many times I have watched a mother or father grab their kids hand and pull them away while saying "stay away from that man". The message sent is very clear: be afraid of wheelchairs and the people that use them.

Kateryna of the Cenotaph said...

I was taught that disability means death by my parents and ran into that with my nephew. He asked me without malice why I have not died yet, because my legs are useless he thought I should die.

That is what he was taught. My mother started to yell at him and I cut her off. She who taught me to ignore dangerous things for her own comforts has no right to correct a child for his lack of knowledge. Instead I taught him how the nervous system works and taught him that life is actually pretty good when you can go eight miles per hour.

yanub said...

Bipedal? William!

OK, having got that out of the way, let me say that you are right that what is needed is for people with disabilities to "be disabled and proud." The notion that to be disabled is to be without pride keeps so many people from accepting their own disability, which is why there are so many "human interest" stories wherein the subject insists they don't think of themselves as disabled. It comes from the same cultural expectations that have nondisabled people aghast that a family portrait would include all family members or a person with a missing limb would dare show her face on tv.

william Peace said...

Yanub, Remember that I am an anthropologist. I am delighted you picked up on the word bipedal. I like to use this word because it stops people. Bipedal is rarely used and like cripple is not easily glossed over. I hope that it stops people and makes them pay attention to what I am trying to get across. Disabled and proud is a very hard concept to grasp. Many simply don't get it at a fundamental level. I wish I knew how to overcome this without being confrontational.

Kata, What some parents teach children boggles my mind. I love to be around elementary school children because they are so open and direct. They have no reservations about asking questions. I also find it interesting about the sort of questions boys ask as opposed to girls. Boys often want to know how fast I can go while girls want to know if wheelchairs come in in different colors. I assure the boys I can go very fast and tell the girls I have seen neon pink wheelchairs. This reply always prompts a smile from the child and parent. In fact last year I was compared to the Red Power Ranger by a 1st grade boy--this was a big compliment.

FridaWrites said...

Ivan passed away very recently, unfortunately. He was a beautiful child and clearly loved. I can't imagine a family *not* including him in the picture.

What some kids miss out on because of their parents is seeing what a really cool ride a scooter is (I've given rides to friends'/acquaintances' kids).

"Boys often want to know how fast I can go while girls want to know if wheelchairs come in in different colors."
I had to laugh/smile about this--this doesn't change with adults! Women always want to know what color I'm getting (new scooters) or what other colors are available. Men, yes, it's all about the speed and the cool tight turning radius and other physics matters.

What I'd like to know about some of the BBC-watching parents is whether they've asked themselves or been asked what they would want if their own child had or acquired such a disability. Would they really want their child locked away? I doubt it--they'd instead want what's best for their kids. But I'm not sure they could handle the cognitive dissonance in the abstract. I think a lot of those who can't see themselves or their child as disabled harbored some prejudices in this regard in the past (though some have just internalized those prejudices and may not think of others with disablities negatively).

And do they really expect BBC to just fire her? Also, what's wrong with just turning off the TV if they can't confront and think about their own discomfort? The amount of vitriol about Burnell and their own inability to cope is telling--it's an attempt to control and exclude people with disabilities, to mobilize others in more direct discrimination and abusive acts.