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Saturday, November 8, 2008

NYT Provides Adaptive Sport Stereotype

The media and the New York Times has provided a perfect example of how to not cover adaptive sports and the Paralympics. Placed under the heading "More Sports" Richard Sandomir has written "Long Overdue, Telecast Isn't Short on Emotion", a review of the NBC documentary about the Beijing Paralympics.

This is how Sandomir started his review: "As I write this, I have finished crying inside my cubicle after watching NBC's documentary about the Paralympics in Beijing. It is a 90-minute, continuous "oh my" journey with amputee sprinters and swimmers, wheelchair basketball players, a paralyzed shot-putter, a sailor with Lou Gehrig's disease..." As I noted yesterday, what always comes first when describing an adaptive athlete is not the person but the disability. While I will acknowledge Olympic coverage always focuses on individual athletes and past struggles, the point of such stories is to highlight an athletic accomplishment. There is no such focus when the media covers adaptive athletes. In fact Sandomir wrote that one athlete "devastated by a brain tumor" was "not competitive in the race that was shown, but that was not the point". Hugh? Winning was not the point? When I read this I was stunned. Would any athlete that competed in the Olympics be characterized in this way, where "winning is not the point". I was under the impression that any athlete that competes in the Olympics or Paralympics is a world class athlete driven to win. Given the sacrifices involved in training, winning must present an overwhelming drive. Word class athletes compete to win, to be the best, and defeat other world class athletes. It is the ultimate success in a given sport. But after reading Sandomir's article, one could easily conclude this is not the case. For Paralympians winning is not the point!

Among other poorly chosen lines include the following:

Quoting the producer "Every race, every event has some incredible story of inspiration".

"Not to denigrate the best of them, but Paralympians really have life stories to stir the soul".

The producer "would return home. usually teary, after editing footage. My wife thought I was going hormonal on her".

"A paralyzed veteran of the war in Iraq, who found new purpose in the shot-put. He cannot spin on strong legs".

NBC should have shown the Paralympic games live. Even now they are only showing highlights of the games on Universal Sports from Monday through next Saturday. For those that are able to watch I am hope you see athletes competing to win not inspire. I hope viewers will acknowledge the athletic prowess involved not a physical deficit. When this happens viewers will see an intense athletic competition that is gripping.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Adaptive Sport Imagery

This Sunday November 9 NBC will broadcast a 90-minute documentary about the 2008 Paralympic Games held in Beijing. The documentary will be narrated by NBC Sports Bob Costas. Produced by award winning NBC Sports producer David Michaels, the documentary will focus on the lives of eight athletes and the men's wheelchair basketball team. The documentary is sponsored by GE.

I look forward to watching the NBC documentary. Readers of this blog know I am interested in adaptive sports and enjoy skiing and kayaking. I ski and kayak because it is fun but am all too aware that the inclusion of disabled people in sports remains out the norm and is socially significant. Society simply does not associate athletic ability with disability. Thus when people see a paralyzed person such as myself skiing or kayaking they often question their preconceived notions of what life must be like with a disability. When participating in sports I feel like I become an ordinary person, that is my disability is not the first thing people observe. In sharp contrast to the positive reaction I get when participating in a sport, the media does a dreadful job covering adaptive sports. Televised stories about adaptive sports reduces the athletic achievements of disabled athletes to "feel good stories". At issue is not the athletic accomplishment but the fact a person "overcame" their disability. This observations is not original but is important. Why is it important? Disabled people in American society are routinely required to provide explanations about disability. Every person I know who has a disability is asked "What happened to you?" or "How did you become paralyzed?" Leonard Davis and Kenny Fries, gifted disability studies scholars, maintain these rude and intrusive questions set the tone for a particular sort of disability based narrative. In Fries The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory has written:

when we speak of disability, we associate it with a story, place it in a narrative. A person became deaf, became blind, was born blind, became quadriplegic. The impairment becomes part of a sequential narrative. By doing this we think of disability as linked to individualism and the individual story. What is actually a physical fact becomes a story with a hero or a victim. Disability becomes divorced from the cultural context, and becomes the problem of the individual, not a category defined by the society. The dialectics of normalcy--for someone to be normal, someone as to be not normal--is kept intact.

This narrative is the reason why I dislike documentaries that focus on adaptive sports and disability in general. Disabled people are just not normal every day people. Their lives are ever so special and they are perceived to be "amazing role models" for others. The focus here is exclusively on the individual and a given physical deficit. It is very easy to gush about adaptive athletes. For instance, David Michaels has stated that "In 30 years of covering Olympic sports, I have never witnessed such a rich tapestry of stories and competition. Every race, every event brings wonder and excitement". If adaptive sports are so exciting, filled with such gut wrenching drama why do they not appear on television? Why is there no reporting of adaptive sporting events in newspapers on a daily basis? Why did no major network broadcast the Paralympics? Why does the NCAA basketball tournament in March dominate the news but no one discusses wheelchair basketball? Why are Paralympic athletes woefully underfunded by the USAOC?

The questions I want answers to are rarely if ever discussed. Answers I want to know would require a radical rethinking of the accepted discourse associated with disability. The point I am trying to emphasize is fundamental. It gets to the heart of the disability rights movement. Like others, I do not want to be defined by my disability. I am not Mr. Wheelchair dude. I am a person with a physical disability. I am a human being. I am a father, son, teacher, writer. All these personal characteristics have nothing to do with disability or my wheelchair. Like I said, I am a human being.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election Victory and a Dose of Reality

I am thrilled with the Obama victory. I am equally thrilled with the massive turn out and overwhelming number of votes cast for Obama. For the first time in almost a decade, we have a president who is not only competent but an eloquent speaker. We also have a man in office that understands disability and included a mention of us in his victory speech. This is amazing to me as I was deeply worried that a silent bigotry existed in this country that might affect the election result. After all it was less than 50 tears ago that George Wallace won 17% of the general election based on his support of racial segregation.

Lost among the back slapping and happy news about the Obama victory is what took place in Colorado. I hate to be a harbinger of doom and gloom but I am disturbed by the fact Colorado voters soundly rejected Amendment 51. What was Amendment 51? It was supposed to provide more than 12,000 people with Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and Mental Retardation with critically needed care by raising the sales tax in the state by 1% That number, 12,000, is how many people in the state are not currently receiving any support or care. These are people that are among among the most vulnerable, those that are reliant on others to support them. What the voters of Colorado have done is send a very clear message: voters stated that they would not spend a penny on every $10 dollars spent to fund services for people with developmental disabilities. Yes, a penny is too much to ask for. An extra penny is too much to spend on support services for 12,000 people with developmental disabilities. This extra penny was also a short term tax--lasting only two years.

Those that supported Amendment 51 such as Marjio Rymer of ARC of Colorado and chairwoman of the coalition to End the Developmental Disability Wait List has been gracious in defeat. She blames the economy for why voters soundly rejected the tax increase. Newspaper reports all echo Rymer's comments about the economic basis for why Amendment 51 was rejected. While the economy is undoubtedly a major factor, I think at a fundamental level the percentage of people that voted against Amendment 51 indicate an inherent bias against people with developmental disabilities exists. Given this, what you do not read about is how woefully underfunded Colorado expenditures are for people with developmental disabilities. According to David Braddock at the University of Colorado expenditures in the state are 73 % below the national average. In rejecting Amendment 51 by a ratio of nearly 2-to-1 the voters have sent a clear message to the disability community: budgets are tight, revenues are decreasing and we do not value your existence. This reality has and will continue to hurt disabled people and their families. Simply put there is no safety net in Colorado for a group of people that desperately need one.

Monday, November 3, 2008

New York Times and Palin as Potential White House Friend

I look forward to having a fire in my wood burning stove tonight. The first section of the New York Times I will burn to get my fire going will contain an article by Julie Bosman entitled "In Palin, Families of Disabled Children See a Potential White House Friend" (11/3/08). For those unfamiliar with disability issues Bosman's article is misleading. If I did not know better, it would be easy to conclude that every disabled person in America, especially parents of disabled children, support Palin. Bosman wrote that Palin "continues to attract enthusiastic crowds wherever she travels, and invariably among her supporters are those drawn by her advocacy for children with special needs". Bosman also notes that since Palin was named by McCain to be his running mate she has "made Trig, and children like him, the emotional center of her campaign".

I agree Palin has indeed made her son Trig and the issue of "special needs children" the emotional focal point of her campaign. Palin has said many things that strike a chord with disabled people and parents of children with "special needs". As many disabled people know, the biggest obstacles they encounter are social. Thus it is heartening to hear Palin acknowledge the stigma and social isolation that is placed on top of existing physical and cognitive deficits. Sadly, this is as far as Palin has been willing to go, acknowledge bigotry against special needs children exists. Her supposed "policy speech" about disability broke no new ground. Her hastily constructed position on disability pales in comparison to what Obama outlined long ago. Palin's advocacy for special needs children is a myth--it simply is devoid of any basis reality. Palin has not been nor is an advocate for disabled people. What Palin has is plenty of emotion. Sarah Palin hugs children with special needs and her son Trig is often seen being held by his older siblings. We also know that Trig went trick-or-treating with the Palin entourage and was dressed as a baby elephant. All these images are supposed to let us know Palin understands the struggles special needs children encounter.

When I see the imagery the Palin campaign generates two things happen: first, I get angry that people unfamiliar with disability fall for such obvious emotional ploys. Second, I wonder why journalists, professionals who are paid to report the news, rarely if ever refer to the disability rights movement. Disabled people I know all openly mock Palin. There are plenty of blogs, editorials, and protests such as those organized by ADAPT that are ignored by major news outlets--it is as though disabled adults simply do not exist. We disabled adults are not nearly as cute as the little kids Palin is shown hugging. Visuals of adults that use wheelchairs asserting their civil rights are not what others want to see. This is the reality that Palin has conspicuously ignored--those cute disabled kids she likes to be photographed hugging eventually become disabled adults. The reality for disabled adults, especially those with a cognitive deficit, is that support services are grossly inadequate. The fact is support services from day care to job training for people with cognitive deficits is woefully under funded. The lack of funding today has reached draconian levels. The people that suffer the most in my estimation are the very children Palin is seen hugging. Palin is opposed to the Community Choice Act. Palin recently spoke out against Amendment 51 in Colorado where 12,000 disabled people are on waiting lists for supportive services.

I do not get Palin's appeal. The parents of special needs children Palin loves to hug know more than I do about the exclusion of those with Down Syndrome and a host of other cognitive deficits. Why do such parents embrace Palin then? I suspect they come from the traditional base of the Republican Party and will vote for Palin because she is opposed to abortion and a devout Christian. Having a child with Down Syndrome is simply icing on the cake as it is assumed Palin has an inherent understanding of what they experience. This emotional response ignores the social reality of what it is like to be disabled in American society. It also shows exactly how desperate parents of special needs children are and places organizations such as the National Down Syndrome Congress in an awkward position. Politicians that publicly embrace the needs of special needs children are few and far between making it very difficult for them to critique Palin. What worries me the most is what will happen if McCain and Pain win the election. Palin will be portrayed as the caring person in the White House, the disability expert who has a personal connection with special needs children. This highly emotional and visible position will deflect attention from the hard reality of budget cuts for a host of services that could and should empower disabled people. Sadly, this strategy has worked in the campaign and I see no reason to doubt it will work for a McCain administration I hope I will never see.