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Monday, October 5, 2009

People with a Disability as Tragic Victim

Over the weekend, October 4, 2009 to be precise, the New York Times had a long article in the health section about the safety of chop meat and by extension hamburgers. The story, "Trail of E. Coli Shows Flaws in Inspection of Ground Beef" by Michael Moss discussed what many already know: ground meat safety is no sure thing. E. Coli outbreaks occur with regularity (16 in the last three years) and what we know as ground beef is not simply chunks of meat run through a grinder. I for one do not eat hamburgers and only use ground beef when it is cooked for extended periods of time (think tomato sauce or chili). What was of interest to me about the story regarding meat safety was the picture and nine minute video that featured Stephanie Smith, a 22 year old dance instructor. In 2007 Ms. Smith ate a hamburger her mother cooked and got a severe form of E. Coli. Ms. Smith was in a coma for weeks and almost died. The NYT dramatizes Ms. Smith's experience and uses her as a worst case scenario. While the text is bad and filled with lines such as "The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed", the accompanying video is far worse. The video, provocatively titled, "The Burger that Shattered Her Life", makes it clear life with a disability is the worst possible fate. People must not only fear hamburgers but fear disability even more. Of the eleven people tied to the E. Coli outbreak Ms. Smith was the most seriously affected.

The story of Ms. Smith's hamburger is used by the NYT to sensationalize the risks associated with eating ground beef. The video in question is offensive. I was stunned when I watched it over coffee Saturday morning and have waited two days before writing a word because I was so outraged. The video begins with melodramatic music and Ms. Smith speaking. The voice over states she ate a home cooked burger and ten days later was in the hospital. She "emerged nine weeks later paralyzed and brain damaged". With soaring music, images of a dancer and Ms. Smith at the super market the message sent is unmistakable: poor Ms. Smith, her life is ruined by eating a hamburger. Sitting in a wheelchair she is depicted as an object of pity. The photos of her are shot from a low angle and depict her in a grocery aisle and at the check out center with only her head visible. The imagery is purposeful and intended to dehumanize. With this introduction over, most of the video focus on the lack of meat safety and Ms. Smith is used as a bookend for the video (she appears at the beginning and end of the video). When it is obvious the bad guys are private meat companies such as the giant corporate entity known as Cargill that is tied to the out break of E. Coli that affected Ms. Smith she reappears at the end of the video. This last part is what sent me over the edge and is in my estimation grossly biased and beneath the standards of accepted journalism. Just as the voice over ends by blasting Cargill Ms. Smith appears again as she slowly gets out of bed into a wheelchair. The image is meant to prompt an emotional reaction--pity. Pity this poor vibrant young woman that did nothing wrong: she cannot walk, is brain damaged and struggles to get out of bed. By extension the viewer must assume we should pity all those that use a wheelchair and have any sort of disability. Worse yet, is the way Ms. Smith is exploited for she reinforces negative conceptions of disability. She is filmed sitting in her wheelchair tearfully expressing herself: "I have to work at it, get somewhere. I know I will be back to me. I know I will walk again. I know I will dance. I know I will not be walking with a walker. I will be dancing". Oh, please spare me the melodrama! Why is Ms. Smith so miserable and unwilling to accept her life as it currently is? This is as simple to answer as it is complex. Society thinks less of Ms. Smith and has placed social obstacles on top of her disability. Obstacles such as the NYT video in which she is used as an object of pity. When she is finished speaking the voice over cuts in and states "She will most likely spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair according to her doctors". What the voice over is really saying is that Ms. Smith's life is ruined. Using a wheelchair is a fate worse than death. The video cuts back to Ms. Smith in tears. She states "I honest to God think they should be in jail". Pause while she composes herself. "So I hate them and I don't know how they can sleep at night. I ask myself every day, Why me? and Why from a hamburger? This is so unfair". More tears flow as the video ends.

I am outraged. What other person would be depicted in such a manner? Why, no one of course except a person with a disability. Like it or not I am still thought to be a second class citizens by many people including those at the NYT. There is a word for this--ableism. Yet when I use this word no one knows what it means. Most people have an idea of what Jim Crow Laws were thanks to the public school system and the civil rights movement. However, ableism is unknown in spite of the fact the ADA is almost 20 years old. Few people outside the disability community appreciate how damaging and dehumanizing videos such as the one discussed are. People just don't get it. Instead of being outraged I am too often thought to be over sensitive or politically correct. As Mary Johnson wrote in Make Them Go Away just because no one is out to get the handicapped does not make the bigotry we experience acceptable. I have no doubt the NYT did not mean to insult people with a disability. But that is exactly what they have done. Moreover, they have reinforced negatives stereotypes associated with being disabled that are as wrong as they are old. Thus when I go to the supermarket the person that read and viewed the story about Ms. Smith will have learned something: the safety of ground beef is questionable and my life and the life of all those who use a wheelchair is a quasi tragedy. I am not a sentient being but an object of pity. I am miserable and wonder every day why me, oh why oh why must I use my wheelchair. People do not see me for what I am, a human being with a life as rich and rewarding as any other person that gets through the day on two feet.


Rachel said...

I'm offended that she's is such a crappy wheelchair configuration.

I'd have problems if I was seated like that.

I couldn't even watch the video. I didn't want to see it.

william Peace said...

Rachel, The video will only piss you off. Don't watch it. I regret in some ways that I did. The NYT consistently gets disability as a subject wrong but this was nothing short of gross. I missed the seating configuration. You are correct and I wonder if it was purposeful--to make Ms. Smith look as pathetic as humanly possible.

Becs said...

Ditto Rachel on the video. And as Rachel said, the woman was slumped into the chair as if she'd never had a seating consult.

It's annoying as hell that they used her like that, that the reporter obviously spoke to no one else about their consequences of eating tainted meat - or couldn't get enough pity from it.

I saw a woman waste her life because she could never accept her disability. She was miserable and she made everyone around her miserable, too.

Terri said...

Disability as a mechanism for moving readers/viewers--so much easier than quality journalism...

There are consequences? People with disabilities aren't just props kept in stasis to be dragged out whenever someone wants to tug heartstrings? The message that they are tragic victims with horrid sufferings makes it harder to be accepted, or respected or included in society?

Who'd have thunk??


Wheelchair Dancer said...

I've finally found the words -- thanks...


Letter to Stephanie Smith

william Peace said...

Becs, Annoying does not begin to cover the degree to which Ms. Smith was exploited by the NYT. In looking at the comments posted to the article not a single person expressed outrage over the way Ms. Smith was portrayed. This too is a problem.
Terri, I am tired of people with a disability being used as props to provoke a pitiful response. It was wrong 20 years ago and is wrong today.
WD, Wow, what a great open letter to Ms. Smith. Well done! You built upon my anger, Kuusisto's clarity, and made a positive contribution. I sure hope Ms. Smith somehow comes across what you wrote. Your views support my contention that adaptation and willingness to negotiate difference is the key to any physical or cognitive deficit.

CupHolderGuy said...


I came across your site from a Google alert for "wheelchair". Since my product's blog is related to this, and because Google is fond of content related links, I was hoping you'd be interested in a blogroll link exchange. This is where I link to your site, and you link to mine.

For examples of this (under the "Blogroll" category on the right side of my blog), for more information on my product/blog, or to contact me, please visit .

Thanks in advance for your consideration.


william Peace said...

Cup Holder, Did you read this entry or any others on the blog? My words are all about disability rights as civil rights, a point many unfamiliar with disability don't get. I have no interest in selling any product or advertising another site. My only interest is equality. I wish you well on your business endeavors.