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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

More on Oscar Pistorius

I just read an outstanding essay about the Oscar Pistorius at Feminist Philosophers. See Andrea Scarpino deftly points out the real problem associated with heros or what I would call super crips or feel good stories.  Scarpino wrote:
This image of the heroic overcomer is familiar. And it’s something that increased media coverage of the Paralympics – with all its focus on “human interest stories” – intensifies, much to the chagrin of some disabled people. Usain Bolt is a track athlete, and he’s allowed to simply be a track athlete. Oscar Pistorius was supposed to be an inspiration, a beacon of hope for future generations of disabled people, a testament that any adversity can be overcome through sheer determination.
That’s what we’re comfortable with, when it comes to disabled people. That’s what we like our stories to look like. Disabled people can be inspirational, or they can be pitiful. They can’t just be normal, everyday people. The man without legs who heroically overcame all odds to be a track star – we like that story. (We like it so much that we’ll conveniently cover up the previous domestic violence arrest, the public temper tantrums, the drunken boat crash, all to preserve the story we want.) The man without legs who desperately needs your charitable contribution to afford a new prosthesis so he can walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding – we like that story too. The man without legs who became an accountant but is facing some access barriers at work – we’re pretty uninterested in that story.
We want disability to be a story of the individual – of individual need or individual bravery. But for most disabled people, disability isn’t the story of the individual. Barriers to access are primarily social – they’re not a matter of individuals lacking guts or bravado. And no amount of individual charity will solve the social inequality that disabled people face each and every day. The longer we focus on the heroic individual achiever, the longer the everyday social ills are obscured.

The social problems, bigotry really, associated with disability rights is simply not a story people want to discuss. We fawn over Oscar Pistorius, Helen Keller, Franklin Roosevelt, Christopher Reeve, and other individuals who "overcome" a given disability. This is a smoke screen that obscures the real every day barriers people with a disability encounter. Let me relay one incident. The other day I went the post office. The parking lot paint was recently redone. Handicap parking is for the first time in years clearly visible. When I get out of the post office I see a car has blocked the ramp. I am deeply annoyed. I can wait for the driver or walk about one block to the next curb cut. I then would reverse direction by going into the parking lot itself. I am far from thrilled. Navigating the parking lot is dangerous as a departing cars reversing out of spots are not expecting to see a man using a wheelchair. As I think about what I am going to do a few people walk by and know exactly what the issue is. Do I get any support? In a word no. One person laughed and another shrugged his shoulders. I am sure they thought this is an individual problem--my problem. While the incident is minor it reveals exactly what Scarpino articulated--"the every day social ills are obscured". I will know when I have become equal to my bipedal peers when the reaction to my minor problem of accessing a curb cut is radically different. Instead of laughter and shrugged shoulders I hope some day to see anger. I want others to see what took place for what it is: a social violation that will not be tolerated.   


Elizabeth McClung said...

It seems that your idea of a role model in disability is itself reductive. Your throwing around of Oscar Pistorius, Helen Keller, Franklin Roosevelt, Christopher Reeve is itself a bow to the social shallowness and willful determination not to look at the individual.

Because William Gibson made a dramatic interpretation of what would be interesting theatre in The Miracle Worker, that doesn't make it who Helen Keller was. And I am sad to see that you don't approach the source critically.

Why isn't Harriet Johnson a role model? Or Terry Fox? Buying into an archtype because it is easy and demonizing those who do is as easy.

Oscar Pistorius opened up the Olympics to allow T44/3 participation. That particular path as a choice available is worth the appreciation for a trail breaker. Less so a corporate image (though 2012 had the highest crowd participation for the Paralympics due in part by him...even if he didn't medal).

It is easy to condemn people for not being empathic. It is harder to assist them from getting from where they are in awareness to a place where they can be empathic. Unless you merely wanted pity in the parking lot - but as you rail against it so oft, I assumed not.

magicalersatz said...

Hi William,

I'm really glad you liked the essay! But it isn't by Andrea Scarpino. I wish it were - I'm a huge admirer of hers, and I'm sure a similar essay by her would far surpass my clumsy prose. Anyway, the posts at Feminist Philosophers are written by pseudonymous bloggers - mostly academic philosophers - who don't use their real names simply because blogging publicly about gender and feminism when your email address is publicly available on a university webpage can get uncomfortable pretty quickly. My pseudonym is "magical ersatz" (which is a really geeky philosophy joke, but nevermind about that), and I'm a philosopher who works on disability and wellbeing (among other things). I love your blog, btw!

Elizabeth McClung said...

I think this is because we approach the world in very different ways. And part of that is my acceptance that unless I participate in assisting others in understanding, or in moving degrees at a time, toward understanding the diversity of people, those who are equal in human rights, I should not expect it to occur. And for me that the most effective way is to remove that from the theoretical to the personal, opening up my experiences, and paying the cost of that.

You write things with a greater critical and intellectual approach; often writing about things which are beyond simply you but critical of a larger group (e.g. those who view Oscar Pistorius, Helen Keller, Franklin Rooosevelt, and others as having heroic qualities including overcoming obstacles as 'fawning' and other negatives).

I remember your writing about going skiing and the difference you found in disability culture; how people expect to be assisted and how that bothered you. Here, you don't wish assistance, but anger at...your inconvienance, your individual experience. It is at odds with what you laud. For me, all stories are that of the individual, disability themed or otherwise.

Perhaps this was not an act of human laziness in parking combined with what Morris would call being 'outside the personal village' but 'social violation.' What solution do you propose for inclusion, or for expanding the understanding of diversity?

I believe you failed to make your case, and said why. You fail to see the value of role models. I see your view of what makes a role model to be pandering to your own ends, and do find uses in role models.

The parking lot: a) you could have asked for assistance in having someone notify the driver, b) you could have noted down the number and taken a snapshot to report to the police and educate with economic reenforcement, c) you could have got on with getting on reminding yourself to write to the council member of that area to suggest other sites to ramp on that street, d) you could have laughed and been glad this wasn't one of those places where you need to go a full block wheeling into oncoming traffic to get to a curb cut or e) you could have used the curb lift trick or asked for a 'handshake lift' and just been glad you didn't have a wheelchair 80 years ago when Franklin Roosevelt, who shouldn't be fawned over, hadn't a clue what a curb cut was.