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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why Equality is Elusive

I came across this ad campaign this morning. I am offended. I am worried too. My son is about to get his drivers license. Like most parents, I have mixed feelings about this milestone. Part of me is proud and delighted I will no longer need to taxi my son to and fro day and night. However, this thought is tempered by the knowledge an unacceptable number of teens die every year in car accidents. I am worried about his lack of experience and judgement. I am also not happy about what is going to happen to my car insurance rates that will surely sky rocket once he has his license. But what I have really been thinking about is the meaning of this ad campaign. A clear message is being sent and it extends well beyond the tag line "Don't Drive Stupid". I am not opposed to the idea that teens need to be educated about the inherent dangers of distracted driving. I am all for anything that effectively saves the lives of young people that have so much of their lives ahead of them. But I seriously question if such damaging efforts at mind control work. Sadly this is what passes for education today that is routinely directed at teens. Nuance is absent and in its place is fear mongering. Based on my experience and knowledge of my son's peer group ads such as the one above are grossly ineffective. Teens lack experience and I question their judgement but they are not stupid people. Treat them with respect and give them the facts. With regard to driving, the facts are crystal clear--teens are far more likely to get in an accident than other drivers. This is not in dispute. Even the most jaded teen will admit this. I hammer home this point every time I drive with my son and I hope the message sinks in when he is on his own.

So what is the point of the above ad and why am I offended? The point of the ad is to scare teens. And what should teens be afraid of? Why using a wheelchair of course. Lost among the text and sad sack image is the fact that "nothing kills more Utah teens than auto crashes". This statement is more than sobering enough. But the ad relies on antiquated and deeply rooted fears to scare teens noting that "every year far too many Utah teens go from cool to crippled in the blink of the eye". Great, this undermines forty years of legislative initiatives meant to empower people with a disability. Teens are being taught that a wheelchair is akin to a tragedy, a fate worse than death. Thus if you drive stupid you can "start shopping for your wheelchair now. And hey, if you think that's harsh , wait until the day you roll it into school". Note the use of the word it. This is the ultimate dehumanization. A person that uses a wheelchair is not recognized, they are an it. And that it, a wheelchair is bad, very bad. By extension anyone that uses a wheelchair is not fully human and that is indeed a harsh reality. Yet that reality, dehumanization, is a social creation. I am just as human as someone that can walk. Well, I was fully human until this ad was posted and this human is pissed off.

When I combine the dehumanizing aspect of the ad with the fundamental flaws of secondary schools it is no wonder people have a skewed view of disability and its meaning. Based on my son's experience to date, I cannot help but conclude schools do a terrible job teaching history. Sure students learn a lot of supposedly important dates and milestones (mostly in American history) but no attempt to is made to teach them the importance of the many facts they are required to parrot back on standardized exams. What they are taught quickly becomes boring if not meaningless. Worse yet is what they are not taught. Foremost on that list is a vibrant history related to disability rights. They are exposed to the Civil Rights Movement and Women's Rights as being essential moments in American history. Yet in my son's AP American History text book not a single word is devoted to the ADA or disability rights. I am sure there is not a single student or teacher in my son's school that has ever heard of Ed Roberts, the man known as the founder of the independent living center movement. This omission is glaring and has far reaching implications. In place of knowledge students are exposed to well financed and public ads that depict wheelchair use as a fate worse than death--"to go from being cool to crippled in the blink of an eye". What I want to know is what do teens in Utah think after they see this ad? Do they really change their driving habits? Maybe they do. But they have also been sent a blunt message about disability and wheelchair use. No wonder people with a disability encounter so much bigotry nationwide. I cannot possibly be cool. I am afterall the ultimate symbol of all that go wrong in the blink of an eye. Surely we can do a better job educating young people.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. I am tired of our bodies (PWD's) being used as "worst case scenario" symbols for educational purposes or as metaphors for "abstract concepts". - G
PS. I twittered this post, hope you don't mind.

Claire said...

Oy, Bill, what an awful ad...I wonder if there will be complaints?

Becs said...

Yes, it is offensive. Yet I tend to dismiss it because it's from Utah and they have a very different sense of things out there. This is not to lay it directly at the feet of the LDS, but the culture there is about fifty years behind the times.

I know it's no excuse, but consider the source.

And obviously no one out there has checked the Tilite or Colours or Quickie websites. That might change their ideas about cool new rides.

william Peace said...

Claire, The ad is almost four years old and has been in use since 2006. I am unaware of any complaints. Ads like this pop up all the time. This one was just worse than most. Nike had a similarly terrible campaign a few years ago they had to pull.
Georgina, I too am weary of being used as a classic example of all that can go wrong. Words hurt and images can be damaging. There is nothing abstract going on here. Twitter away!
Becs, Yes, the LDS is a major player in Utah and beyond. Yet this is a piss poor excuse for such demeaning language and imagery even if the state is behind the times. In addition, Utah and many of the states it borders are popular outdoor destinations. What do residents think when they encounter someone such as myself who visits and is an adaptive skier and kayaker? Am a human being or human tragedy? And finally yes the wheelchair depicted was akin to a Model T. This was used to highlight disability as a tragedy theme.

H said...

Seeing an ad like that just makes my heart sink.

Matthew Smith said...

There's also the issue that it associates wheelchair use with drunk driving, much as lung cancer is commonly associated with smoking when in fact someone can get lung cancer despite never having smoked in their life. People will see this and assume that the person they see in the wheelchair probably brought their disability on themselves.

FridaWrites said...

Doesn't do much to counter the pity model or prevent hate crimes against the "uncool."

I will be using a $20K wheelchair. So very sad. I think I'll go cry now. Or maybe because of the copay.

But really not because it's so sad. Because of the freedom.

william Peace said...

Matthew, Your point is well taken. When people find out I was paralyzed by a rare neurological condition rather than an accident of some sort they often appear disappointed. It is as though my story does not mesh with what they think they know.

Frida, A wheelchair that costs that much is both sad and wonderful. Sad because many that need it could never afford the expense. It is wonderful because it is a liberating adaptive device. I also hasten to point out no one gets rich in the wheelchair business since the monopoly E&J enjoyed for decades was broken up.

Matthew Smith said...

Actually, I didn't realise your paralysis was caused that way. What was it, transverse myelitis? That is how my friend Kim ended up as a quad.

william Peace said...

Matthew, I had something called hydromyelia. In the 1970s there was little to be done aside from surgery, steroids, and repeated spinal taps. For ten years I went through the medical mill. Except for the pain this was a positive experience for me as I grew up much faster than an average person.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Matthew's right, I know because I've noticed that people want to find a reason why someone else is in a position they don't want to be in. If that person is at fault somehow, then you can tell yourself that YOU would never smoke, drive drunk, etc., and therefore that will never happen to you. The idea that stuff happens contradicts the illusion we would like to have, that we control our lives. It's scary to face that sometimes.

Having your kid drive is also scary. I think sometimes the best thing that can happen is that, early on, the kid have some kind of mild fender-bender. You think you're being careful and paying attention, but you don't know what that really means until you're bopping along one day with the radio blasting and you pull out in front of somebody. My daughter's first and so far only wreck (knock wood) totalled the car and was so distressing to her that she couldn't drive again for years. I'm very grateful no one was hurt; I think she'd never have driven again, ever, if anyone had been.

william Peace said...

Laura, When it comes to disability people love a good story--the more tragic the story the better it is. Thus people want to hear about gruesome car accidents, horrible accidents, shootings, etc. Given the reality that disability is ordinary, common, and random is exactly what people do not want to think about.