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Monday, June 24, 2013

Disability and Inspiration: Complexity Abounds

As a baseball fan, I have followed from afar the story of Cory Hahn. Hahn was a recently selected in the baseball draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 34th round. The odds of a player picked so late in the draft ever stepping onto a Major League Baseball field are remote. Hahn was not your typical 34th round pick. He was a highly skilled prospect coming out of high-school. He elected to attend university and might have been chosen in a much higher round had he not experienced a spinal cord injury. As one might expect, the media has jumped all over this story. I have refrained from commenting on the way Hahn's story because any critique will end up with me being deemed bitter. I am weary of this superficial accusation used to dismiss my social analysis. Two things struck me over the last month: first, baseball's relationship with disability is firmly rooted to the past. The past as in Babe Ruth hitting a home run for a dying child and classic black white movies such as Pride of the Yankees. Second, sports reporters writing about Hahn, and in general, rely on an antiquated perception of disability. Disability is bad. Disability can be overcome. Those that overcome disability are an inspiration. This is the start and end of the discussion. Baseball is far more complex than hitting, catching, and throwing a ball. Baseball is more than a game. The famous French philosopher Jacques Barzun wrote "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and the reality of the game". Disability is just as complex as baseball. Disability is much more than a given physical or cognitive deficit. Of course a given deficit can play a central role in the life of a person with a disability but the social not physical barriers are far more of an obstruction. 

I think what the Diamondbacks did in drafting Hahn was a nice gesture. Hahn was clearly thrilled. Who can complain about seeing a young man's dream come true? Well, I can. My complaint is not directed at Hahn, the Diamondbacks organization, or sports reporters. My complaint is about the social barriers and stigma that stubbornly cling to all things disability. Hahn's story is not framed in social isolation. I refuse to classify the press conference as a public relations coup. I am not that jaded. I think the people in the Diamondback organization clearly likes Hahn and wanted to do something for him. Let me tell you I know all too well how hard those first few years are after a spinal cord injury. As stated by one man in Murderball, initially paralysis is "mind fuck".  I will not even complain about painful lines in print such as "the Diamondbacks hit a home run drafting Hahn". Dozens of these exist and are a testament to the poor quality of sport reporting. 

To disentangle Hahn's story and the way it has been reported about is virtually impossible. On the one hand I object to the use of words such as inspiration and hero. Hahn is an ordinary young man that did what the vast majority of people do when they are suddenly paralyzed--he adapted and moved on with life. This is not inspirational. It is simply what people do. Thus I find Hahn's story misleading if not inherently destructive. It is assumed disability is bad. Disability is framed against a broadly understood conception of normalcy. Walking is normal, using a wheelchair is not. If a person that uses a wheelchair does anything, lets day get in and out of a car, earn an education, work (gasp), have a family, (bigger gasp), and lead a rich and wonderful life they are inspirations to all. Sorry, but no.We crippled people are just like any person without a disability. We people with a disability merely navigate the world differently. And bipedal people, my neighbors, elected officials, teachers, doctors, lawyers and businesses refuse to negotiate our difference. The world is constructed physically and socially for people who ambulate on two feet.

What I find frustrating in the extreme are quotes from Derick Hall who was involved in the draft. He stated "It was a very emotional selection for us to make. When Ray Montgomery and his staff came up with the idea and presented it to me, it was a no-brainer. It's not about us. It's really about Cory and his family. When viewed through the narrowest lens humanly possible this is correct. It is about Hahn and the injury he experienced. But this reinforces a convenient truth that disability is about an individual  and nothing more. This let's the bipedal masses off the hook when they knowingly reject the idea of making the physical and social environment accessible to all. Sure there is greater physical access than ever before. This access is not valued and is begrudgingly created. Thus unlike your typical reader that gets misty eyed reading about Hahn, my reaction is very different. I wonder is every stadium the Diamondbacks play in accessible? Are all team facilities from double A to AAA ball accessible. So I imagine a different press conference one that states the Diamondbacks seek to become the first organization in baseball to dedicate itself to making every team facility 100% accessible.  The organization will not meet the ADA requirements but exceed them in every way possible.

On the positive side of the ledger, Hall also stated "we want to make this permanent. We don't want this  to just be about the selection and him being a draft pick, but about him working in full time employment with the Diamondbacks and hopefully we'll make that come to fruition for he and his family here soon." So in less than eight minutes we have two narratives. Hahn the hero who overcame his disability. This makes me cringe. In contrast, there is Hahn who has a job prospect within baseball when he graduates from university. Great but my goodness let me dream. Baseball is about America. It is America's game and we in the Diamondbacks organization will put people with a disability front and center of the employment line. Additionally, we call on every other major league team to do the same. Sadly, I worry about Hahn as I know the sort of physical and societal biases he has faced and will continue to face. Living with a disability can be crushing. Lives have been lost--an unknown number for sure. It is too bad the Diamondbacks organization, like the rest of America, cannot make a leap in logic and frame disability in a civil rights framework. 


GirlWithTheCane said...

This is brilliant, Bill. I haven't heard this particular story, but you've so clearly explained why labels like "inspiration" and "hero" are problematic that I'm going to refer people back to this post when I need something that clearly explains it. Thank you.

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