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Friday, April 17, 2009

On Being Ugly and Disabled

I dislike most television programs produced by mainstream networks such as NBC, ABC and CBS. I have a sharp aversion to popular talent shows such as American Idol and Dancing with Stars. These so called talent shows are based on two extremes: first, the audience loves to laugh at and see the judges rip into contestants that possess little talent. The ridicule heaped on such contestants is often mean spirited. The audience loves this and the judges comments are cutting and prompt much laughter. Seeing people become the butt of a joke is not my idea of entertainment. Second, some contestants have true ability and are thrust onto a national stage that would otherwise be impossible to attain.

Thanks to the internet I can selectively watch these talent shows. I usually view these shows when a contestant such as Scott MacIntyre who is legally blind appeared on American Idol. I find the appearance of people with a disability on these shows interesting because the mainstream media does a horrific job dealing with disability. Steve Kuusisto has noted on his blog Planet of the Blind that "American TV doesn't know how to handle disability. Accordingly it can't present real people with disabilities because in North American TV Land disability must always (and here we need to emphasize "always squared" be represented in quaint, saccharine or monstrous Victorian symbolism." At issue is never a disabled person's ability but rather how they "overcame" their particular physical deficit. The worse the deficit the better the visual--think beauty and the beast.

The beauty and the beast analogy struck me when I heard about Susan Boyle's appearance on the British program "Britain's Got Talent". To be blunt, Ms. Doyle is physically ugly. She also has an amazingly powerful and beautiful voice. However, no one knew about her voice when she walked on stage. She did not help her cause by stating she was unemployed, had never kissed a man and lived with her cat. The audience laughed at her when she appeared on stage and the judges openly mocked her. For example, Simon Cowell asked Ms. Boyle how old she was and when she replied "I'm 47" he rolled his eyes in disgust. When Boyle joked that she was 47 on "only one side of me" and shifted her hips another judge Piers Morgan, seemed to be in pain. This prompted much audience laughter. It was clear to one and all this woman was delusional--no one so poorly dressed and ugly could possess talent. After Boyle was finished singing Les Miserables I Dreamed a Dream the audience and judges looked befuddled. They were simply astonished by Boyle's voice. One judge, Amanda Holden, commented the she was "thrilled because I know that everybody was against you".

What I want to know is why was everyone against Boyle? The answer to this question is simple: it was assumed "ugly" women have no talent. Ugly women are not supposed to be gifted much less competent. Such women are supposed to become old maids forever wishing they were beautiful. They live alone and are miserable. This is of course totally wrong and it made me think that people with a disability have the same problem Boyle encountered. Society assumes people with a disability are inept. People with a disability are either physically or mentally incapable of excelling. It is assumed that all people with a disability have a singular focus--locating a cure for their disability. Christopher Reeve was a perfect example of this stereotype. The media ate up Reeve's search for a cure to spinal cord injury hook line, and sinker. They fawned over Reeve because he was the antiquated archetype of disability. Why is being ugly or disabled such an afront to others? The answer to this is social and theoretical. Socially we are part of a global capitalistic system, one that values youth, self reliance, and individualism. These traits are not associated with disability and result in something Karl Marx wrote a great deal about--alienation and false consciousness. Capitalism has a penchant for alienating members of society that are not productive. When you consider the fact 70% of people with a disability are unemployed it is easy to become alienated from others. Thus disabled people are perceived to be misfits, unable to contribute to the greater good. Yet people with a disability still want to fit in and be part of the mainstream. The effort to fit in is what Marx called false consciousness. The ability to fit in, to be like others is an illusion. In my case, I know I will never truly fit in. My difference, paralysis and wheelchair use, is too isolating. Social and architectural barriers abound. I do not foresee these barriers being eliminated in my life time. Thus like other people with a disability I have become "disabled and proud". This slogan puzzles many and I perceive it to be a metaphor. Disabled and proud as a metaphor undermines the great value placed on the ability to walk, see, and hear. I am not a failure because I cannot walk nor is my character flawed because I am paralyzed. The problem people such as myself and others with a myriad of different physical deficits encounter are largely social. It is hard to be a productive member of society when you are unemployed, have no access to mass transportation, housing is inaccessible, and stigma is attached to disability in the broadest sense of the term. These are the issues that desperately need to be addressed when it comes to disability. Yet this is what the media, my neighbors, school boards, and corporations try to avoid thinking about. Instead, pity and scorn are placed upon those that demand equality. This is why I am disabled proud--I am not afraid to assert my civil rights and bear the brunt of society's wrath. Frankly, I do not see that I have much of a choice. If I do not assert my civil rights as an American citizen who else will?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cumulative Impact of Disability Based Bigotry

My son and a group of friends went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina for a week. We had a great time even if the weather was a little cold and windy to sit out on the beach. Yesterday I tried to catch up with the news as I spent most of my time in North Carolina relaxing and reading one bad novel after another (I have terrible taste in fiction). Regardless, I was interested in an interview Governor David Paterson did that was broadcast by the Capital Connection while we were away. Paterson was interviewed by Alan Chartock of WAMC and revealed for the first time just how deeply the SNL skit that mocked his blindness hurt. My initial reaction was not positive--anyone elected to a highly visible public office has no grounds to complain about media bias. Mean spirited humor, biased news coverage, and viscous political attacks are the norm today. As I fell asleep last night I began to wonder if my lack of sympathy was a bit too hard edged. Paterson was not elected to the Governor's office and his performance to date has been a mix of success and failure. In short, Paterson strikes me as an ordinary man and a competent politician. But what struck me in the interview was the the degree to which the SNL skit hurt him.

Previously, through his spokesman, Paterson remarked that he can "take a joke" and objected to the way SNL ridiculed the fact he was blind. Paterson's bland reply made me wonder if he really had a heart. During the Capital Connection interview Paterson gave a clear indication of the impact the SNL skit had on him. Paterson stated that the SNL skit brought back a flood of memories--none of them positive. Like many people with a disability, Paterson was taunted and teased growing up. Play grounds, school buses, and hallways demonstrate there is a hard edge to humanity. People with a disability are easy targets and children can be shockingly cruel to each other. I have no doubt Paterson suffered and he noted:

"I noticed I caught myself in the days after the Saturday Night Live event especially since the media was asking me about it so much being a lot more careful how I moved around. Being a lot more conscious of trying to face the audience and not appear to be looking away. And being just a lot more insecure about how I presented myself when I don't think disabled people should. People are who they are. And I thought to myself, you know, I thought I had gotten rid of those demons when I was a teenager. But I guess somewhere latent in my personality was this reaction if I felt I had been humiliated."

Humiliated--that is the perfect word to describe what the SNL skit sought to accomplish. It effectively humiliated Paterson and by extension every person with a visual disability. Paterson was an easy target and his blindness just to good a target to pass up. The problem with this sort of humor is that it is never ending. Its cumulative impact is impossible to ignore and works its way into our concept of who we are. I know far too much about this as do most people with a disability. I was subjected to the same sort of ridicule and humiliation as Paterson growing up. Indeed, I am unaware of any person with a disability that escaped such abuse as a child. While I have moved on with life, the words and taunts I was subjected to left invisible scars. Thus like Paterson I often am struck by how I internalized this sort of disability based abuse. To this day, I almost never try to enter the front door of any building. I am never surprised when people think I am not competent. The rudest and most intrusive questions rarely bother me. When I teach architectural barriers in the classroom are common. Elevators, bus lifts and mass transportation hassles always occur. This is the norm for me, it is my life. I do not expect to be treated with the same respect as a person that can stand or walk and I do not assume any where I go will be accessible.

In the America, we have laws such as the ADA that are designed to make sure none of the above takes place. Heck, we have a legacy of almost 40 years of laws and legislation designed to make inclusion possible for people with a disability. Yet I encounter disability based prejudice daily, it is a common occurrence. Why does society tolerate and condone this? Most people simply do not care. Disability is not relevant to their lives. From an economic viewpoint, access is not valued. Why spend the money on ramps, elevators, or wheelchair lifts on buses when so few people need them? This is why SNL can get away with humiliating Governor Paterson. Our society does care about people with a disability. Children are taught from the moment they enter school that separate is acceptable when it comes to people with a disability. Kids with a disability arrive at school on the "special bus". Once in school kids with a disability are shunted off to "resource rooms". Parents with a disability are not included because gyms, auditoriums, and ball fields are not accessible. The message learned is not hard to miss--people with a disability are different, they are inherently inferior. Given a socially inferior status, they are free game. Go ahead ridicule and humiliate children and adults with a disability. Why even the President of the United States can make bad jokes about the Special Olympics. This utter lack of social standing, pun intended, leads to a 70% unemployment rate, segregated housing and transportation. This all takes place decades after Brown v. the Board of Education that ruled separate is inherently unequal. Paterson knows all this and wisely chose to keep hi mouth shut. Me on the other hand I am too much of a hard ass. I don't like being treated unequally and quick to point out the inequalities in life. This does not make me popular but I do sleep well at night knowing I have done my best and somehow in a small way advocated on behalf of those not willing or unable to assert them self.