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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This is to be Expected

In Britain disability is news worthy and two stories are of particular interest. First, Tory leader David Cameron created a stir when he sent out Christmas cards. What made Cameron's archetypical Christmas card photograph of his family controversial was that it included his young song Ivan who has cerebral palsy. Some pundits suggested that Cameron used his son as a political prop designed to make him appear caring and sympathetic. The second story concerns Cerrie Burnell. Ms. Burnell is a presenter on the popular British children's TV show CBeebies. Ms. Burnell's mere presence has upset parents. Within days of her debut the BBC received complaints that Ms. Burnell was "scaring" children and one parent alleged his child had nightmares after seeing the show. What made Ms. Burnell's appearance so frightening? She has no right hand.

I had hoped that these two stories would spark a nuanced debate about disability in the British media. I reasoned that in 2008 the death of Daniel James and Barry Baker provided the foundation for a less hysterical and more substantive debate about disability. I was wrong. A glance at the website for CBeebies revealed a flood of comments, some of which were so nasty they had to be removed. I was stunned by the viscous nature of the comments made about Ms. Burnell. None of the many negative comments came from children but rather parents. To me this is proof that bigotry is learned behavior. The public debate about Ms. Burnell reveals what people with a disability already know: discrimination is an every day phenomenon. Thus when asked by the BBC if she were surprised by the complaints that were levied about her presence Ms. Burnell replied "This is to be expected". Sadly, Ms. Burnell is correct. Worse yet, her sober dignified reply to questions about her missing right hand have been ignored. Instead, there is hysteria, fear, and panic under the guise of "protecting children".

The criticism levied against Ms. Burnell is baseless. It is akin to the raw sort of discrimination that black people, women, and other minority groups encounter. In Ms. Burnell's estimation, discrimination against people with a disability remains common because there are so few disabled characters on television. This point is undoubtedly correct but the inherent prejudice people with a disability encounter runs deeper and is more insidious. In order for people with a disability to make substantive progress in terms of equal rights they need to assert themselves and embrace an identity that tied to their disability. In short , be "disabled and proud". Those unfamiliar with disability don't get this. It is a foreign concept too far removed from "common sense". No one wants to be disabled, right? Correct, no one wants to acquire or be born with a disability. But this does not mean one should hide a disability or be ashamed of it. Yet, this is exactly what we teach children when their disabled peers are sent to school on the "special bus", spend most of the day in "resource rooms" and have to go to the nursing office to use the bathroom because it has the only accessible toilet. The message being sent is clear and accepted without question: disability is very bad and society will, out of the goodness of our heart, provide a "special" place for you. In another era this was called segregation and the Supreme Court ruled it was inherently unequal.

People with a disability that demand equality know a different reality from their bipedal peers. Any disability is part of who we are as human beings. Ms. Burnell maintains that "I'm just like everyone else in that I wear what I feel comfortable in. I don't deliberately try to make people confront my disability, but I do not try to hide it. This is me, and I am neither ashamed nor embarrassed by it". Francesca Martinez, a comedian, considers this to be the "huge secret" about disability--"a disability is like hair colour, eye colour, height, or weight, just another arbitrary feature". Few people without a disability grasp this concept. In Ms. Burnell's case the fact she does not have a right hand is used to dehumanize her--this a a social not a physical failure on her part. What comes first is her disability and her humanity second. Thus people with a disability are public property, subject to intense scrutiny and rude or intrusive questions are the norm. These questions are designed to assert a socially superior position the questioner enjoys. Disability is not "normal" and such difference is supposed to be hidden. Every day more people with a disability are rejecting this idea. I for one see nothing wrong with my paralyzed and twisted body or Ms. Burnell'a lack of a right hand. Disability is simply part of life and society needs to become less discriminating and people with a disability need to assert their civil rights.