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Friday, October 31, 2008

ER Super Crip Almost Gets the Hot Chick

Long ago ER "jumped the shark". Once an engaging drama/soap opera, ER is no longer a popular show. NBC really needs to put this show out of its misery. I do not get to see ER often but when I do it is usually dreadful. I was up later than usual last night grading papers and reading a new book. I had ER on as background noise which was a big mistake. I had read that a former character was returning, Dr. Barnett, a double amputee, for a cameo appearance. I was curious as to how ER would portray his return as a disabled character.

Dr. Barnett returned to ER and was in great shape. He is no longer an ER doctor. Instead he is now specializing in rehabilitation medicine, a logical switch given his disability. Dr. Barnett has radically transformed himself. When he was last seen he was a pissed off angry amputee and transformed into a super cripple. I am not sure which gross mischaracterization is worse, obviously subtle nuance is not possible for Dr. Barnett or disabled people. We have just character types: angry or perfect. What is clear is that Dr. Barnett has experienced a radical transformation and possesses advanced super human social skills. No mere mortal, he is a super cripple able to dispense advice to one and all. He is an "amazing man", mature, good looking, and he can not only walk but run. But he does not just run well, he has a high tech pair of prostheses like Oscar Pistorius. So when he goes for a run with the Nila, who is forever unlucky in her love life, along the Chicago Lake shore he not only runs faster than her he leaves her in the dust. The viewer is left to think: wow, those disabled people sure are great. They can run! They can walk! They can work! Gasp, they can fall in love! Holy cow, I sure hope to meet one of those people some day.

The scene that annoyed me the most was not of Dr. Barnett running like Oscar Pistorius. In a heartfelt scene with Nila his former lover before he was an amputee Dr. Barnett comes across as Ghandi-like in terms of sensitivity. He tells Nila he went home to Baton Rouge to mend a broken heart and body. Thanks to high end prostheses he does not appear to be disabled in any way. He tells Nila he has been through a hellish time and during rehab even tried "hurt himself". What is not spoken is that attempting suicide is a "normal" reaction to the prospect of living a life with a profound disability. But Dr. Barnett possess super human ability and if not for an importune knock at her door may have swept Nila off her feet and into her bedroom. This may make good drama but is so devoid of reality even I am virtually speechless. At no point does one get a sense of how hard rehab is, the obstacles amputees face when health insurance often dictate the type of prosthesis they will pay for, nor does one get an idea how expensive (over priced) artificial limbs are. I realize this is TV but even I can think of a few ridiculous ways the real obstacles amputees encounter could be hyped. In failing to portray Dr. Barnett as a normal man with a disability the producers of ER have lots of company. This also makes me wonder when or if it is possible to have a disabled character on TV show whose disability is used illustrate the social impediments to inclusion. This would be great drama and good TV.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

People with a Disability are Real

I glance at the Wall Street Journal on a daily basis and have a love hate relationship with the newspaper. I am drawn to the sober financial analysis and appalled by the conservative editorials. Given this, I tend to avoid reading the editorials and stick to the financial reporting. Today I was reminded why I dislike the editorial content of the WSJ. I read "Palin Shows How to Transcend the Culture Wars" by William McGurn. I decided to read this editorial because of its subtitle, "A society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members". This was a big mistake as I do not think much of Mr. McGurn's opinions.

I take exception to much of what Mr. McGurn wrote in his editorial. For instance, he maintains that the national press corp has been accommodating to Obama and hostile to Mrs. Palin. McGurn also thinks that Obama has not worked very hard to move past entrenched culture war debates. In Mr. McGurn's opinion this failure on the part of Obama is unfortunate because Palin has given Obama a perfect opportunity. What is this glorious opportunity? Trig Palin apparently "has made the issue of special needs very real for the Palin family. Trig's presence on the campaign trail has also made him real to most Americans". This sort of logic is deeply disturbing to me because it ignores 40 years of legislative initiative and social progress. Between 1968 and 1990 fifty acts of congress were passed designed to protect or enhance the rights of people with a disability. These efforts culminated with the passage of the ADA and yet according to Mr. McGurn it was not until Trig Palin was born that people with "special needs" became real to the Palin family and most Americans. I can assure Mr. McGurn children with special needs are real as are adults with disabilities. We have rights and some people such as myself are not afraid to assert them. The real issue extends well beyond the mere fact disabled people exist. Simply put, the core issue is that disability rights and civil rights are one in the same. This is not a connection your average American makes.

Unfortunately, Mr. McGurn is correct in some ways that disabled people are not real. We remain an invisible minority, isolated economically, politically, and socially. The facts in this regard are grim. The unemployment rate among people with a disability has hovered at 70% for decades. Mass transportation remains difficult or impossible to navigate and the lack of accessible and affordable housing is a significant problem for all disabled people. Mr. McGurn and others should know all this but choose to ignore the real issues. For instance, Mr. McGurn wrote about a family that has a child with Down Syndrome. The birth of this child meant he and the entire family would have a "hard road" in life. What I want to know is why almost 20 years after the ADA was signed into law will this family encounter so many obstacles? Why are the civil rights of disabled people somehow different than all those that can walk?

What truly bothers me about Mr. McGurn's editorial is that he utterly ignored what disability rights advocates have written. He also fails to acknowledge that Obama has been far ahead of the McCain/Palin campaign in terms of disability rights. All this information is readily available and a few quick google searches away. I thus find Mr. McGurn's comments about special needs misleading and, like Palin's speech last week, designed to prompt an emotional response devoid of reality. When one looks at the cold hard facts a different reality emerges, one where the oppression of disabled people is not just common but rampant. This is exactly what the American people do not want to confront: complex issues that demand serious attention. Instead, Mr. McGurn and Palin trot out well-worn and antiquated lines about special needs children that pull on the hearts but not the minds of the American people.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Power, Courage and Disability

My weekend was a bust. On Saturday our power went out and I was reminded just how dependent I am on electricity. While I coped well without an oven, toilets that flushed, phone, television, and internet service, my son was beside himself. Teenagers are so hooked into electronics and the internet it is almost comical to watch them function without them. I write almost because I too struggled without what has become essential. For instance, I missed watching a stirring comeback win for the NY Rangers. I also could not post a thing about Sarah Palin's first policy speech.

Having had a few extra days to think about Palin's speech concerning "special needs children" I am far from impressed. I did not expect much to come of her speech and sadly I was not disappointed. Other bloggers have commented about the specifics of what Palin said. Special Needs Truth 08, Wonk Room, and Go Becky have parsed the facts as stated by Palin. Two things struck me about Palin's speech: First, it was not really a "policy" speech. Maybe I am too cynical but I thought the aim of the speech was identical to all the other stump speeches Palin has delivered, specifically intended to prompt a sentimental response. Do not misunderstand me: there is nothing wrong with being sentimental, it is part of the campaign rhetoric designed to sway voters. Rather, I hasten to point out that all the sentiment in the world is not going to help "special needs children" or the adults they will become. Absolutely no new ground was broken by Palin and her three proposals, more choice for the parents of children with special needs, fully funding IDEA, and "reform and refocus". Good luck trying with "reform and refocus", a concept that is vague and, after reading her speech three times, I still have no clue what it means. As for giving parents who have a disabled child greater choice, this sounds great. But this choice does not mean disabled children are welcome in either public or private schools. The social and cultural isolation disabled children encounter is not necessarily related to the school they attend but the educators that operate those schools. These educators are under intense pressure to stretch limited resources and disabled children will be perceived by some as an odious financial burden. Finally, IDEA has been under funded since its inception. With McCain's governmental spending freeze I am at a loss as to how more money will be available for this program.

The unoriginal policies advocated by Palin brings me to my second point. There is a cultural divide in this country between those with and those without a disability. This divide exists because American society is unwilling to accept and include disabled people in routine social interaction. That is, the social structure of our society operates under the assumption that disabled people foremost "problem" is a physical or cognitive deficit. This is simply wrong. Based on my experience, the vast majority of disabled people rarely if ever complain about their disability nor do they consider it an impediment to leading a rich and fulfilling life. The "problem" is not one's disability but rather the added prejudice that is placed on top of a given physical or cognitive disability. While no one I know wakes up and thinks they will purposely discriminate against disabled people, this lack of specific intent does not make bigoted actions magically disappear. Thus what I had hoped to hear from Palin was a shift in her unrelenting rhetoric about helping "children with special needs". What I had hoped was that she would reframe her understanding of "special needs children" to a broader civil rights approach to disability. This did not take occur and I wonder if it ever will.

On the day she gave her speech Palin was welcomed by the Down Syndrome Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Palin has also spoken to many families who have a child with special needs. Surely an individual has told Palin about the social struggles they have endured. I am equally sure a policy analyst has told her about the difference between a medical and social model of disability. In spite of this, Palin has not budged from her sentimental focus on "special needs children" and totally ignored the existence of disabled adults. I realize change is not easy and this is why I think Palin has failed to connect with a myriad of disability rights groups or garner the support of adults with a disability. At this time she lacks the will and courage to foster real change. By change I mean support the civil rights of all disabled people and focus the issue squarely within a human rights framework. She could do this by talking about the ADA, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, oppressive Supreme Court decisions such as the Sutton Trilogy or why the ADA Restoration Act was needed. All this could be done with direct reference to her son Trig who will be affected directly by these issues. In short, what bothered me the most about Palin's speech was that she lost an opportunity to make a fundamental difference in the public debate about the meaning and significance of disability in American society.