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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tabloid Propaganda and Paralysis

Like many men, I read tabloid sports sections. In New York that means I read the NY Post and NY Daily News. The writing quality is not impressive. I am certainly not breaking any new ground here with this observation. Sports reporting relies heavily on well worn themes--praising the under dog, over coming injury, winning in spite of long odds etc. Redemption and overcoming are constants and often the subject of special interest pieces. A few weeks ago I read one such story. The story, "A Life Back on Track" February 6 NY Daily News, annoyed me to no end. The article by Wayne Coffey was about Andrew Lakeman. Lakeman was a New York based jockey. I use the past tense because in 2007 he suffered a bad spill at the track--that is his horse fell and " his body was crushed as if it were a potato chip". Lakeman suffered a complete spinal cord injury. The tone of this article is so over the top it is hard to believe. For example, Coffey wrote: "It's almost impossible to imagine anyone overcoming more than Andrew Lakeman, who knows little of what the future will bring beyond this: he will spend every day of it in a motorized wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down". Please enter here soaring melodramatic music. I do not mean to diminish or belittle Mr. Lakeman. Any paralyzing injury requires a tremendous adjustment and time to accept. I do not nor I am sure does Mr.. Lakeman recommend the experience. But what the article does not delve into at all is why--why is paralysis so difficult. Why is it "impossible to imagine" how a person "overcomes" such an injury. I would maintain the hardest part about a paralyzing injury is not paralysis but rather the way society responds to paralyzed people. The article in the NY Daily News highlights the inherent social problems Mr. Lakeman will encounter. I find this ironic in that the article also chronicles with Mr. Lakeman's struggle with alcohol and drug abuse as well as bulimia. All these issues are handled well and respectfully. If one reads the article carefully it is obvious paralysis is terrible, a fate worse than death.

There is no way Mr. Lakeman can be average, normal if you will. There is no way he could respond with nuance to his disability and spinal cord injury. His friend, Kristina Dupps, a former trainer makes this clear. She is quoted as saying: "He's either going to shoot himself or make something good of his life". The fact is reality for people with spinal cord is somewhere between. It is not a world of extremes. What is extreme is the social reaction to Mr. Lakeman's injury. He apparently has the choice of giving up, committing suicide, something he considered, or overcoming his disability. Mr. Lakeman is no longer human for he has entered the dreaded territory i refer to as the "Super Crip" image. I have railed against this concept again and again. The "super crip" notion is a gross generalization that defies reality. It is also inherently dehumanizing. A paralyzed person can not lead a normal life and is reduced to the "super crip" who puts all those other weak willed lazy crippled people to shame. Mr. Lakeman is a hero! He refuses to give up. He wants to work at the track and train horses. Wow, is this not amazing! He is a saint because he is "happy to be doing what I'm doing now. I really would't change a thing. This is what I love". My question is simple: what other choice does Mr. Lakeman have. He is a good horseman and has spent his entire life around the track. It seems to me becoming a trainer or selecting any of a number of other jobs at the track is pretty reasonable response.

What bothers me about articles such as the one described above are the assumptions made and not so subtle subtext. Life after paralysis unbearably hard and an ordinary life is not possible. Those that attain such lofty goals such as a job and a complete life are hailed as super humans. Mr. Lakeman I am sure would agree is as flawed as he was before he was paralyzed. He is no different than any other trainer that can walk. Here is fascinating fodder for an article. How many paralyzed trainers are there in New York and elsewhere? What obstacles did they encounter at the track. Was it hard for them to find trainers willing to trust them with horses that routinely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I can think of one other name horse trainer based in California who trained Derby horse Brother Derek. Is there an association of paralyzed trainers? Mr. Lakeman trains one horse. How is his quest for owners and other horses going. Such questions are not addressed. Instead we get unfortunate lines such as: "Andrew Lakeman doesn't ride horses any more. He trains them. He moves his chair onto the platform and is hoisted up, and rolls forward and turns on the ignition [to his car]. For Andrew Lakeman, everything is new, his life free of alcohol and bulimia and free of limitations, too, no matter what the wheelchair suggests".

What exactly does a wheelchair suggest? To me it signals Mr. Lakeman simply moved on after a severe injury. It means he has a job and, like others trainers works long, hard, if not brutal hours with high strung animals that are worth a small fortune. The pressure Mr. Lakeman deals with is intense. But this is not the message the general reader will come away with. Mr. Lakeman is reduced to a stereotype--the "super crip". Thus the real hard questions are not addressed. Why are people with disabilities routinely unemployed? Why are housing options severely limited? Why is independence a struggle? Why is mass transportation still difficult to access twenty years after the ADA was passed? These are issues passed over and deflected. Coffey wrote that Mr. Lakeman "knew he wanted to be independent--he rejected the idea of returning to England because he did not want his parents to care for him:". This begs the question why Mr. Lakeman could not be independent in the United States. What support services were available? If there were none why was this the case. And more to the point why does it seem as though accepting such dependence was a reasonable response to paralysis. Like every other american I know, we fiercely value our independence.

Do not take my words as a critique of Mr. Lakeman. He works in a tough industry. The race track is littered with people who have substance abuse problems, marriages fail often under the stress, and a nomadic or seasonal lifestyle is the norm. While majestic, thoroughbred horses require intense effort to maintain at peak performance. The hours people work at the track are long and hard. Success at the track is based on one thing--wins. Those wins are hard to come by. If I were Mr. Lakeman I would be delighted by the article in question. It raised his profile and he may attract the interest of a horse owner. But I am not Mr. Lakeman. I am not a novice to paralysis and have spent 30 years thinking about the social ramifications of paralysis. I utterly reject dominant sociocultural norms associated with disability. I hope with time a more nuanced understanding of disability will emerge. For that to happen the content of articles such as the one discussed need to shift fundamentally. The questions asked need to be about the social implications of disability and not rely on outdated stereotypes. Such articles may sell papers but are ultimately destructive to the people with disabilities that merely want to lead an ordinary life.


Carl Thompson said...

Hmm, a very interesting post!

william Peace said...

Carl, Language is important. I do not parse words unless I think it is worth my time and effort. In this case I felt compelled to write something. Among the many things that struck me was the nuance alcoholism and drug abuse received as opposed to disability. I hope Mr. Lakeman has many winners in his future.