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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SNL: Bad Taste or Bigotry?

I am not blind. I do not know a great deal about visual disabilities. I have read multiple memoirs written by people with visual deficits and find the discrimination they encounter strikingly similar to what I experience as a person that is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. When the average person encounters a person with a disability like blindness or paralysis preconceived notions abound. Blind people cannot navigate the world. They have hyper sensitive hearing and mystical abilities. Paralyzed people cannot have sex or bear children. Paralyzed people are bitter or have a chip on their shoulder. These stereotypes exist for a reason and are difficult to subvert. I know this as does Governor Paterson who has been skewered by SNL. While I enjoy the life of an average and anonymous person Paterson is public figure who has asserted that SNL skits are not the least bit funny. I agree and detest the puns and world play used by the mainstream media when the subject comes up. For instance, an Opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times concluded that the humor Paterson objected to amounted to bad taste not bigotry and that "those that equate the two may have eyes but they do not see".

Let me be clear on the SNL skits: go ahead make fun of Paterson. His rise to power was unexpected, he used drugs, butchered the handling of Caroline Kennedy for Senate, his marriage was a mess, and some of his decisions in office are questionable. This is archetypical SNL political fodder. Paterson knows this and has not objected to this aspect of the SNL spoofs. What Paterson has vehemently objected to is the bigoted humor that mocks the fact he is blind. Holding charts upside down, wandering aimlessly, using binoculars as a prop is not funny. This simply reinforces decades old and antiquated notions about blindness that one would think would be long forgotten. It also makes me realize how great the social divide is between disabled people and people without a disability. The skits on SNL that spoofed Paterson are akin to the basest forms of humor that would be offensive if one replaced blindness with race, religion, gender, or national origin. Paterson has reiterated this point and it has been ignored.

Paterson has not impressed me since he became governor with one exception: his response to the SNL skit has been consistent and on point. He has maintained that the biggest problem with the SNL skit is that it reinforces existing problems all disabled people encounter: attitudinal barriers that account for the high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities. The SNL skits have no basis in fact. Governor Paterson is not an inept blind man. I for one have never observed a blind person doing any of the the things portrayed in the SNL skits. Given this, I cannot help but conclude Mr. Paterson is correct when he stated that SNL mocked his disability and that this "humor" was particularly damaging because it assumes any person that is blind, deaf, or paralyzed is incompetent. I was subjected to this sort of ridicule in college and I did not find it funny when I was 18 and I don't think it is funny when I am 48.

Those that are unfamiliar with disability may consider Paterson and myself to be kill joys. This is not true. Much humor can be found in disability but it requires a depth of knowledge that SNL ignored in favor of third grade chuckles. And I assure you that such humor is indeed damaging to all people with a disability. I know this is true because I am routinely subjected to baseless prejudice that is dependent upon antiquated beliefs. For instance, once in a while when I go out to eat the waiter or waitress will ask if I can read. The assumption is that paralysis and cognitive deficits are in n the same. I am also asked on a regular basis if I am the "biological father" of my son. The assumption made is that no paralyzed person could be a father. This sort of baseless bigotry is exactly what Paterson is objecting to. This is why I find no humor in SNL skits that mock Paterson's blindness and wish instead of clever word play editors of major newspapers would read some of the many wonderful memoirs published by blind people. Steve Kuusisto's Planet of the Blind would be a wonderful place to start. Perhaps I should ask Steve to send the SNL producers a copy of his book. Of course this would mean they would need to read it and use their considerable skills to create humor that is based on fact not bigotry.