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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Inspiration Porn at the Republican Convention

The Republican National Convention started yesterday. I have not addressed the election process beyond a few comments on various social media outlets. The only time I wrote about the election was a few months ago when Trump mocked a reporter with a disability. Each day the election seems to reach a new low. Top put it mildly, I am no fan of Hilary Clinton. I like what Bernie Sanders has to say and think he is stating truths that need to be said about the way this country is being governed. I am obviously drawn to his critical comments about capitalism and the disparity between the rich and poor. But would I vote for Bernie if he ran for president? I don’t know and it appears I will not encounter that quandary. Hilary Clinton will be the Democratic Party representative. I find this depressing. The alternative, however, Donald Trump, is unimaginable. Trump is an embarrassment of epic proportions. I watched in horror as Trump and his running mate Mike Pence were interviewed on 60 Minutes. As reality television goes it was classic, as a political venue it was an abomination. Trump talked over Pence and the interviewer Leslie Stahl. He repeated the nonsense he has been saying for months. Trump is a demagogue on steroids. I need not mention other demagogues who have risen to power in this country. They are mostly relegated to cautionary tales and serve as footnotes to how wildly wrong the American political system can operate.

There is a remote possibility history will be made this week at the Republican convention. History here meaning the Republican establishment will somehow derail Trump as its nominee. It is far more likely, inevitable perhaps, that the Republican Party will continue on its current course and nominate Trump as the Party’s candidate of choice. Based on the hatred spewed by a host of abysmal speakers last night on day one of the convention the election truly looks like it will take the form of a warped reality television show.

Regardless of what happens over the next four days I will have the convention streaming live on my computer.  Conventions are tedious affairs and typically they are carefully scripted. Not this year. Trump repeatedly hits new lows with his senseless rhetoric and aversion to the truth. As I glanced at the list of speakers one name struck a bell—Brock Mealer. I had no idea why the name was familiar and quickly googled his name. In seconds I knew who he was. In 2007 Brock Mealer was in a deadly car crash. His father, Dave Mealer, was killed, as was his brother’s girl friend, Hollis Richer.  Brock Mealer experienced a low-level spinal cord injury (T-12/L1). Doctors told him he had less than a 1% chance of walking again. Of course Mealer figures into that 1% That is why he has been in the news. Over the last decade dozens of stories have appeared in the mainstream press about Brock Mealer. The story is always the same. Mealer defied the odds and has walked again. He regained the ability to walk via hard work. He refused to accept the fact he was paralyzed. Bipeds love these stories.  This sort of inspiration porn abounds and tears are shed in voluminous quantities. The Mealer family represents the very best or worst inspiration porn has to offer. The family is from good midwestern stock—think Normal Rockwell painting. They are white. The Mealer family men are all tall, muscular football players. The family is in the construction business. They make things. They repair things in an emergency. They are Churchgoers. The family is a pillar of the community. The fatal accident that ended the lives of two people took place on the way to Christmas party for goodness sake. Of course Brock Mealer overcame his injury. He is a hard working boy who unlike most lazy crippled people worked harder than anyone else ever has.

A few years post injury Brock Mealer accepted an invitation to lead the Michigan football team onto the field before 113,00 cheering fans. Of course he walked to midfield using a pair of canes. His mother and two brothers flanked him. Think Rudy like simplicity with a healthy dose of Christopher Reeve, Super Man, effort. Damn it, I refuse to accept the fact I will not walk again. Cheers abound, as did glowing newspaper and television stories about how Brock refused to accept the fact he was paralyzed. He overcame! He wore a shirt that proclaimed “1%--Glory God”.

Judge for yourself:


Hollywood could not have made a better script. In various stories published over the years much credit has gone to Mike Barwis of Barwis Methods in Plymouth Michigan. Barwis met Brock when he was still in a hospital bed in 2008. Barwis stated he knew Brock had the fire and determination to walk again. “I saw his willingness to work and his unwillingness to submit to the fact he was going to be paralyzed”. The timing was perfect. Insurance had just finished covering physical therapy. In steps Barwis, who had never worked with a paralyzed person before. Of course Brock did not stop working in 2010. Two years later he walked down the aisle at his wedding. This story is replete with the below photograph:




Inspiration porn of this sort is soothing to those that know very little or nothing about disability.  In no way am I questioning the integrity of Brock Mealer and his family. I am sure they are good people. Not just good as I noted already. The family is a pillar of the community.  I am equally sure Brock wants to make the world a better place. He is an inspirational speaker. He wants others to inspire others. This is a simple direct approach. It works too. To reiterate, my critique is not about Brock Mealer and his family. My critique is that life in general and life with a disability is far more complex. Remember, Mealer is in the one percent. 99% of people who experience a serious spinal cord injury remain paralyzed. Hence when I read about Brock Mealer I think about how much more complex paralysis has become. I was paralyzed long ago when one either had a complete or incomplete injury. Today we have an ASIA Scale that illustrates the wide range of paralysis. 





I am thrilled by the broad based advances in medical treatment when a spinal cord is damaged. I am delighted Brock Mealer has been able to recover what appears to be a useful bipedal gait. He is a direct beneficiary of the great advances in medical care.  To reiterate yet again, my critique is not about this man or his family. What is lost is the fact life is needlessly difficult for those men and women not in the 1%--men and women who have adapted to paralysis.  This is not easy. The hard part is in small part physical. There is much to learn post spinal cord injury. Some adapt quickly, others adapt slowly. A small percentage do not adapt.  It is the outliers that draw attention. Mealer has gotten a lot of attention. He will be speaking at the Republican Convention on Thursday. The Trump campaign wants him to tell his story. In the Detroit Free Press Mealer stated: “One of the things that is going to be in my heart to speak about my faith. There’s certainly a lot of bad news out there in the world, and I’ve really had a powerful message to share. I’ve been blessed with so much, and I really would like to share one of the positive stories in the world in the hopes that somehow, some way, things can be better and be better”.

In the Detroit Free press Brock Mealer dismisses out of hand the fact Trump has mocked a reporter with a disability. He suggests that the candidates have all had their fair share of mishaps and misunderstandings. In part the Trump campaign contacted Mealer through his aunt, Sandy Mealer Barber who is the Republican Party chair in Fulton County Ohio. I understand why the Trump campaign wants people with a disability to be a visible presence. Disability, more than in most elections, has become an issue.  The Clinton campaign has a well-received commercial entitled Grace that attacks Trump.  



I do not care one bit about Brock Mealer’s political beliefs. I do care about the simple and misleading message he is conveying. A tiny minority of people who experience a spinal cord injury get movement back. An even smaller percentage like Mealer are able to ambulate in a way that is of use. The reality is most of us do not achieve such recovery. This is not because we did not try hard enough. It was not because we were inferior beings and could not will our body to move as Christopher Reeve once claimed. What most people do is adapt. We move on with life. We master the art of the disability experience. We direct our anger against ableism. We call out disability-based bigotry. We embrace a social model of disability and refuse to be bullied at home, school, and work. We fight an uphill battle against social oblivion on a daily basis. We navigate a world hostile to our presence. We advocate that out built environment be made accessible for all via inclusive design.  We get married, have children, support our families, and work hard. Yet we are a class apart and our civil rights are protected by a bevy of laws passed in the last 40 years.

All the laws and social progress have been hard fought victories. Yet, as I age I am forced to acknowledge I will never be equal to the bipeds that surround me. The law is on my side but there is no social mandate to support and enforce the law. Just this week I wanted to attend the Onondaga Regatta. It was a big affair nearby. It was not accessible. I was thinking of going to the annual meeting of the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities in Washington DC in the fall. The hotel selected is largely inaccessible and the ASBH itself is hostile to the inclusion of disability as a subject matter and especially hostile to academics with a disability. Indeed, every day I must stop and think—how can I avoid disability-based bigotry today. I typically cross off many restaurants nearby because they are not accessible or the aisles so narrow it is impossible to navigate. None of this will fit into Brock Mealer’s talk. I have no doubt tears will be shed. He will be hailed as inspirational. None of the issues I am forced to deal with, the disability-based bigotry that is rampant, will be mentioned. The message is short and sweet. I overcame. I am strong. I worked hard. The obvious extension of this logic is those that use a wheelchair are lazy scam artists. Sorry but no. The reality almost all people with a disability deal with is far from the rosy message of overcoming with hard work. We overcome for sure—we overcome disability based bigotry called ableism. It is a word many people have never heard of. Ableism is not part of civil rights education in secondary schools. It is a concept many people without a disability forcefully reject. It is a word I embrace. It is a reality I have spent most of my life fighting. It is my hope to live to see the day when ableism no longer exists. I assume I will not live that long but I can still dream.

4 comments:

Elizabeth Henning said...

Great piece, Bill--I always enjoy your writing on ableism.
In fairness, the "Grace" commercial was the product of the Dem super PAC Priorities USA Action and not the Clinton campaign.

william Peace said...

Thanks for the kind words. The issue with Grace and other commercials that deal with disability is always the same: the person with a disability never speak for themselves. And yes this was produced by a Democratic super pac. Sigh...

Matt Stafford said...

Well they did post a second ad, Dante, in which the disabled person does speak for himself.

However both ads focus too much on a single moment of Trump being a twit and not enough on the Republicans' increasing hostility towards the disabled. Justin Dart would be drummed out as a RINO today.

http://franktalkdisabilities.blogspot.com/2016/07/dantegrace-ads-miss-opportunity.html

Mark said...

His appearance last week at the RNC was beyond nauseating. I appreciated your commentary on this. Wondering what the DNC will used to "inspire" people.