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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Glee Makes me Glum

I have refrained from commenting on the television program Glee. Much has been written about the fact the actor that plays Arnie, a paraplegic, is not paralyzed. Like many others, I find this troublesome. Surely there must be a paralyzed actor in America that is qualified for the part. I have not commented on Glee for two reasons: first, I do not like the show in spite of its apparent popularity with young people. Second, the episodes I have seen that deal with disability are a bizarre mix of astute observations and dreadful stereotypes. However the most recent episode contained no insights and just demeaning images and messages. I was stunned by what I saw. It was as if the directors took a step back in time, well before the ADA was passed to an era in which disability was akin to a social death.

At WHEELIE cATHOLIC it was observed:

"The problem with all this is that children and teens, who still buy into the fantasy of the entertainment world, are watching Glee in large numbers. Meanwhile, kids I love are being excluded in real life from class trips and social and educational opportunities, mainly because of how society thinks about disability. Just think about the messages sent in last night's episode:

You can't walk, so you can't dance.
You can't walk, so you can sit over there and wait while I get you a pretzel upstairs.
You can't walk, so sit in one spot and hold this for me.

And then:

I can't walk, so get another partner.
I can't walk, so I can't dance, I'll just sing.
I can't walk, so I can't realize my dream.

Message after message of what Arnie, the kid in a wheelchair, can't do. No wonder kids with disabilities are still excluded from opportunities. It's not because of their wheelchairs or because they can't walk far enough- it's because of how we think about disability. How teachers, educators and peers think about it. How they themselves are taught to think about it."

I have been paralyzed for over 30 years and I find it impossible to understand the constant never ending focus on what cannot be done. I cannot walk. That is a fact. So what. Walking as I have noted many times is over rated. Bipedal people really need to get over themselves. Just because a person can walk does not make them superior to those that cannot. But this is deeply embedded cultural belief. Disability is bad, walking is good. It is a mantra we are all unknowingly taught. The ramifications as WHEELIE cATHOLIC eloquently puts it are profound. Here is what I think when I come across other paralyzed people: What are they good at? How have they adapted and overcome social bigotry? Do they rail against social oblivion? The key difference is that I only see possibility and ability. I do not think or much less consider what cannot be done. This is the exact opposite from the message sent by the latest episode of Glee. For goodness sake I have never met a person that is paralyzed and dreams of walking or dancing. If a person that uses a wheelchair wants to dance, well, they dance. I do not know one person that researches for cure nor anyone dumb enough to try and get out of their wheelchair as Arnie did. This is stupid and melodramatic. Sadly, the producers must think this makes good drama and television.

Sadly, I see no hope for the future. Television caters to cultural cliches and dominate ideals held dear by society. If Glee wants to provide a gritty dream by a real life crippled guy here is one I would love to see. A hard ass crippled dude that refuses to take any crap. A person that asserts their rights and when they are violated lets others know it. How about a buff high-school paraplegic that blocks a school bus from leaving school because there is no wheelchair lift. Rather than support, our bad ass crippled dude is jeered by his peers. This sort of visual image and message sent would not sit well with the general public. However, it would be educational to a young audience. I would even like to believe such a message would be well received by young people.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Feel Good Stories are Impossible to Kill

The signature wounds of the Iraq war are to the best of my knowledge traumatic brain injuries and amputations. Stories about traumatic brain injury are hard to find but it seems to me that I routinely read about amputees. The focus when dealing with amputees, especially returning veterans, is the same--prosthetic technology technology is amazing as is the will to move on with life on the part of some people. I am a sucker for these feel good stories that mix technology and with raw emotion. I am drawn to them and repulsed at the same time. Once such story that appeared on CBS news last week has stuck with me. The story was about Brendan Marrocco, a man from nearby Staten Island, N.Y and the only soldier to lose all four limbs and survive. The fact Mr. Marrocco is alive is amazing--he was not expected to live. What is not so amazing is the way his story is portrayed. In melodramatic fashion, CBS reports: "Every once in a while, something happens or we meet someone and the experience is so powerful, it forces us to stop a minute and think--and maybe readjust how we feel about our lives and the world around us". Thus begins the story by David Martin about Mr. Marrocco who is characterized as an "amazing man" who "lost all his limb fighting for his country but never gave up his American spirit". According to Martin, Mr. Marrocco has "a very good sense of balance--physical and emotional" who vows "I will not sit down and let my injuries take over my life". Mr. Marraccco's physical therapist, Luis Garcia, notes that working with a quadruple amputee is "a lot easier than I thought it would be because of his character and personality".

I have no doubt Mr. Marrocco is a strong willed man. I have no doubt he has worked hard during his rehab. I am sure he will lead a productive life. I may sound harsh but I cannot help but add so what. Think about it this way" Mr. Marrocco is 23 years old and engaged to be married. His entire adult life is ahead of him. Why should he not be looking ahead and planning to live a rich and rewarding life? Does he face daunting obstacles without limbs? You bet he does. But are those obstacle social or practical? One gets only a passing reference to the real struggles Mr. Marrocco will encounter. What I found of most interest was his comparison of missing his arms as opposed to his legs. Mr. Marrocco is quoted "Without legs you can still be independent. You know, without arms there's so much more you can't do". While I am not an amputee I can directly relate to this observation. To me, my legs are superfluous appendages. My legs do not function though they are still useful in many ways. And yet I often wonder what my life would be like if I did not have the full use of my arms. Now this is a story worth reporting about. What obstacles do people without arms or the use of their arms face in comparison to those without legs or the use of them? How does the rehab experienced differ? What sort of future do such people have? What do we get in place of these sorts of hard questions? Fluff. Mr. Marrocco met Tiger Woods! Mr. Marrocco hit the ski slopes. Again, I emphatically state so what. Why shouldn't Mr. Marrocco ski and play golf? That is what adaptive sports is all about and Mr. Marrocco is no different than many others. But this thought process is never what the mainstream media presents. Instead we get dreadful lines such as those already quoted or "After meeting Marrocco its hard to take anything in your own life for granted".

No wonder the social interaction between those with and those without a disability is so skewed. We people with a disability are not really fully human but an ever present reminder of how grateful others should be for having an ordinary life, one that does not involve paralysis or losing limbs or any other physical deficit. When I read stories such as the one in question I want to run out my door and shout "I am a human being". I do not envy Mr. Marroccco for I can well imagine the practical and social obstacles he will encounter. I can also state I do not nor did I ever want to be paralyzed. But life this is my life I will make the best of it. This is a uniquely human penchant and thus I differ not one iota from others. The difference I experience as a paralyzed man is socially constructed. The socially constructed barriers are propagated by feel good stories the mainstream media loves to publish and the public soaks up. Until this changes the social obstacles I encounter will never be ameliorated.