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Monday, January 9, 2017

Meryl Streep, Ableism and Help

Social media as related to disability rights has been abuzz the last 24 hours. Meryl Streep's speech after receiving the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globe ceremonies is being lauded by many. Mainstream news outlets maintain she "brought down the house". Words such as amazing, inspirational, phenomenal etc are being used to describe her speech. It was without question a good speech. In a pithy 6 1/2 minutes, Streep took the president elect to task without mentioning him by name and did so with grace, dignity, and humor. Link to transcript: Streep stated:

There was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good. There was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it. I still can't get it out of my head because it wasn't in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it's modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody's life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose. 
Streep's word fall flat for me and I many who champion disability rights. In no way do I take exception to what Streep had to say. She was spot on and it was an excellent critique of the President elect. It is not a new critique nor is it nuanced--and this is where my frustration starts. Trump's mocking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski is old news. It is widely regarded as the low point of the Trump campaign. Trump support took a steep drop in the polls after the video went viral.
In the months leading up to the election the Clinton campaign seized on the video and for the first time a mainstream candidate made disability rights a core issue of the campaign. Much more is involved here than the mocking of a single reporter with a disability. The mocking however is where the critique begins and ends. Think about Streep's words:

"out ranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back"

"it broke my heart"

"I still can't get it out of my head" 

In my estimation, Streep's words are ableist in the extreme. They reinforce deeply ingrained ableist beliefs woven into the fabric of society. Disability rights and civil rights are rarely considered to be one in the same. Forty years of progressive legislation designed to protect the rights of people with a disability has yielded no social demand to enforce laws such as the ADA. The inclusion of people with a disability remains a problem. Hence my existence is a never ending problem that must be managed by others--typically non disabled others. The ordinary, even 26 years post ADA, is illusive. Every time I leave my home I must navigate a hostile world. The hostility takes a myriad of forms. Here in gritty Syracuse, snow removal on sidewalks is non existent. I can no longer navigate my way to the bus stop. Syracuse University spent millions of dollars constructing a promenade and, as one person humorously stated, it has more steps than an Irish folk dancer. When I stated the promenade was a symbolic fuck you to every person on campus that uses a wheelchair all I heard in reply was silence (and that silence included the university ADA coordinator). Syracuse University also dedicated itself to OrangeSUcess knowing it was inaccessible to blind faculty and students. The lack of inclusion is not limited to Syracuse. Barriers abound nationwide. Indeed, I encounter barriers, social and physical, every time I leave my home. Those barriers peak when I travel. Good luck finding an accessible bathroom. Good luck finding an accessible hotel room that is actually accessible. Good luck finding a restaurant that has wide enough aisles to navigate using a wheelchair. Good luck finding airline personnel that are not point blank rude. Good luck purchasing tickets to a concert or sporting event that do not involve calling a special number and paying box office rates.

Again, I appreciate Streep's passion and support. I agree whole heartedly that Trump has emboldened bigots and racists nationwide. Trump's reliance on hatred and ignorance has indeed filtered down to the rest of society. With regard to disability what I find fascinating are public myths versus reality. Like Streep I am broken hearted but for different reasons. The mocking of a reporter with a disability was perceived to be in exceptionally bad taste. There is the public perception that one must be kind to the handicapped. There is a hazy idea a law was passed long time ago that solved all the problems people with a disability encounter. Some people with a disability have "overcome" their disability but remain vulnerable and somehow less. Given our lowly status, Streep is broken hearted and cannot get the way Trump mocked a reporter with a disability out of her head. The reporter in question does not have the power, prestige or privilege of Trump. This line of reasoning is as ableist as Trump mocking a reporter with a disability.

What we people with a disability need is political allies. I for one do not need protection from bullies like Trump. I need steady employment. I need reliable and easy access to mass transportation. I need affordable and plentiful choices in accessible housing. I need equal access to our health care system. I need to leave my accessible home and not encounter physical and social barriers. My needs, the needs of all people with a disability, are no different than what typical others take for granted.  I also know I will not live to see the day when my crippled body is equal. In short, I am sorry Streep's words ring hollow. A 6 1/2 minute speech at the Golden Globe awards delivered to a room of A list celebrities is not going to change my life or the life of others with a disability. I saw a room full of privileged people and a stage that required Streep to walk up steps to access.

Imagine a different scenario. What if Streep spent 6 1/2 minutes addressing the fact Hollywood producers consistently hire non disabled actors to play the part of disabled people. What if Streep talked about this sort of "cripping up". I know she would not be lauded for her words. She would not be described as amazing and inspiring. Simply put, I am weary of heart felt emotions and the lack of social progress in the real world. For me, Trump mocking a disabled reporter has become a game of dodge ball. All express outrage--Trump mocked a disabled reporter. That is the start, middle, and end of discussion.

What we people with a disability need is a revolution. Our power is in our ability to adapt and press forward. We are remarkably creative people routinely underestimated by others. Our lives are not bleak nor are they devoid of work, friendship, love and sex. We are humanity reduced to its most basic elements and as such we are feared. The resulting disempowerment via unemployment and the lack of accessible housing and transportation is a deadly mix that is a human rights crisis no one talks about (exceptions exist of course). What we people with a disability want to do is the work of science fiction novelists. We want to build a better world for all people. We don't need nor desire pity or charitable efforts. We have no special needs nor do we need special education. What we need is the imagination to think and dream of a society that is inclusive and values our existence.

I just cannot bring myself to feel the warm glow of Streep's words.  I know I am not alone. Many people with a disability have acknowledged Streep's speech was excellent but that it failed to resonate. Link: I look forward to reading what other activists and scholars will write in the coming days. What I fear is ingrained ableism. I have done my level best to maintain a respectful tone in this post. For I know one must not bite the hand that feeds you. That old phrase often gets trotted out when a person with a disability such as myself has the audacity to comment on the efforts of non disabled others who want to help. Sadly, I have learned not to trust those that want to help. For example, non profits abound that are designed to help people with a disability. The vast majority of them have no employees with a disability nor is a person with a disability on the board of directors. That sort of socio-economic structure is objectionable to me. What I need help doing is inciting a wildly creative revolution. I know for sure what I want to do cannot be done alone. I am not turning my back on Streep and others who support disability rights. Our freedom and civil rights are intertwined. What I ask is simple. Do not ask me when will I be satisfied about the status of disability rights. I doubt I will ever live to see the day I am satisfied. My words here put me in the company of the great Martin Luther King whose famously noted in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.


Unknown said...

Yes! Thank you!

Unknown said...

Trump took piss out of powerful Washington Post reporter. Why shouldn't he, why do you want to do the same as Streep and play powerful reporter can't be powerful if disabled, the game when we get patronised and no matter how much you tell somebody to fuck off that's okay because if your body don't work your brain can't too. Trump insulted reporter and reporter was perfectly capable of telling him to take a flying fuck. You and the world dismiss that fact dismiss his power and every other disabled person's power. Trump treated that reporter with equality, he did not believe that his disability required kid gloves he attacked him in the same way he would attack an able-bodied reporter and that my friend is EQUALITY. Trump assumed that reporter to have power Meryl Streep assumed all disabled people are incapable, incapable of Journalism, Law, Science, Medicine and every other precious thing we contribute to.

william Peace said...

Shona, Trump mocked Serge Kovaleski, at the time, he was a pulitzer prize winning reporter for the New York Times not the Washington Post. Trump targeted Kovaleski and as I wrote sent a very clear message it is acceptable to mock people with a disability. Trump is a crass demagogue and relies on hate and ignorance. I have no interest in being "a powerful reporter" but rather one whop supports social justice.

Unknown said...

You are not a powerful reporter and I don't give a fuck whether or not you want to be one he is and was, reporters don't crumble when somebody takes the piss because they are stronger than that. Yes people do take the piss and you know what it is acceptable because I want equality not Meryl Streep's discrimination and insults - equality means dealing with the same shit as everybody else. People take the piss out of each other for many reasons none of them are pleasant but none of them kill us either. The fucktard politically correct approach means you can insult and patronise me to death just as long as you never have the balls to do it honestly like Meryl Streep, SHOCK I prefer honesty rather than the patronising who refuse to accept their patronising from a left that sees the disabled as their political toys and not humans.

JJ said...

Most disabled/differently abled know there are problems with discrimination, its time to start asking what is the cause of these effects & what are possible solutions to start implementing & how do we get them into law. Much if not all of the problem starts in government, the main problem being the medical system & the lack of proper healthcare for disabled/differently abled people, they fabricate false scarcity, & why? because behavioral conditioning thats why, there is no oversight for government or the medical system, no punishment for not helping/doing wrong & reward for doing proper care, they do nothing/wrong & they still get 5-6 figures a year, so of course they continue their corrupt ways

william Peace said...

Shone. Thank you for demonstrating hate and ignorance drive those that support Trump.

sean carver said...

Hollywood is not the shining beacon of the world, I have a disability.

pissedoff2011 said...

Hi Shona.
Trump chose to mock Kovaleski's disability. Not his work. He could've excoriated Kovaleski's reportage if he found it repugnant or insulting. But, like all bullies, he chose what he perceived to be a 'weakness' and made that the focal point of his abuse. He wouldn't have mocked an abled reporter like that and that's the point. That's not equality. A bully picking on you for having red hair and picking on your friend for having a limp doesn't mean you and your friend are equal. It means there's a bully in the playground. 'We deserve to be abused the same way as everyone else' is essentially what you're saying here, but that isn't progress and it isn't helpful. And the fact that as a disabled person you feel it's OK to use the ableist slur 'fucktard' is worrying. Perhaps you have internalised ableism and aren't aware of it. Because I don't think many disabled folk would take being abused by an 'equal opportunity' bully as a sign of equality.

william Peace said...

I am getting a large number of comments that can only be described as hate mail. As I have done in the past with controversial posts, I will no longer be publish comments pro or con. I do not have the time or inclination to wade through a sea of comments that are largely profanity laced tirades.