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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lives Worth Living

Thursday night, Lives Worth Living, a documentary film about the history of the disability rights movement will be broadcast by PBS. The advance reviews have been outstanding. The film maker, Eric Neudel, has received many awards. Beth Haller, author of Representing Disability and an expert on the mass media, was "completely wowed by this powerful documentary that packs 50 years of disability rights history into 54 minutes." I will not be able to see the film Thursday but I am sure PBS will rebroadcast it. I urge all those with even a passing interest in disability rights and history to watch the film. I for one am deeply moved when I see disability activists from the 1960s and 1970s. For me it is like looking back in time. I get to see the old hair styles, clothes and terrible wheelchairs produced by Everest and Jennings. If this sort of imagery is interesting check out the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund You Tube videos on line.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

More on Dr. Oz and Assisted Suicide

Stephen Drake at Not Dead Yet has put up another post about the Dr. Oz show. He refers to me and provides a link to my post about the Dr. Oz show. For this I am very grateful. It is very important that people read what Stephen has to say. He has been on the front lines so to speak for quite some time and Not Dead Yet is needed now more than ever. The Dr. Oz show highlighted this in spectacular fashion. Drake and Diane Coleman are forward thinkers whose voice needs to be heard. For instance, Drake anticipated the Dr. Oz show was going to be hopelessly biased in favor of assisted suicide. This has not been a good week or two for disability rights. We have the Dr. Oz show pushing assisted suicide and Mayor Bloomberg spouting off about the "dangers" of having accessible NYC taxis.

In an effort to reaffirm the rights of people with a disability and for the skeptics out there who may think I was exaggerating what I wrote about the Dr. Oz show, below is part of what Drake posted at Not Dead Yet. I had not met Danny Robert and Nadina LaSpina before last week and was duly impressed. I think their take reinforces what I wrote and exactly why Not Dead Yet is needed. I urge all to read the final paragraph very closely.

Bushwhacked in the Land of Oz

Danny Robert & Nadina LaSpina

Wednesday was a dark and rainy windy day here in the Big Apple. We were invited to be part of a taping for the Dr. Oz Show on the topic of assisted suicide. Our car service pick up was scheduled for 7:15 AM. We couldn't find the van which was parked far from our door and got soaked but we got to the accessible entrance to 30 Rock before 8:00.

Julie Maury, Bill Peace, Hope Derogatis and Ari Ne'eman, all people with disabilities and disability rights advocates, were already there. We had each been interviewed by producers prior to being invited to appear on the show. We were directed to a large elevator to the sixth floor where we all showed our IDs and were given our tickets. We were received very cordially, with big bright smiles, by the production staff who all looked like high school cheerleaders. “Are you excited to be on the show?” one of them asked. “As much as I am when I go to the dentist,” Nadina answered.

Though we had never seen the Dr. Oz show, we expected it to be low quality, shallow and (especially having read Steve's blog) extremely biased. But we had no idea of how great the bias and how blatant the hostility that awaited us in Oz's studio would be.

We were brought back to the elevator and then escorted into a small “holding room." With some difficulty, we all squeezed in. Dr. Byock, a palliative care doctor who opposes assisted suicide, stopped in to introduce himself and we all pleasantly shook hands. He was scheduled to be on the small expert panel, and we were scheduled to be in the pro-or-con segment of the audience.

We talked among ourselves, deciding who would make which point. Very naively, we thought we would all get a chance to speak. Then a young man, accompanied by someone with a video camera, entered and introduced himself as Greg. He said he was a producer and asked us to articulate our opposition to physician assisted suicide. Each of us had something to say and he listened and asked questions. He explained that in the first segment of the show, Dr.Oz would bring out his special guest, Montel Williams, who would explain why he is in favor of assisted suicide, then Dr. Ablow would argue against, and then a woman with ALS would be brought out. Greg asked that we not interrupt or heckle, and that we would get a chance to speak after the woman with ALS.

Montel gave a dramatic performance, grabbing his legs from time to time while he spoke, his face contorted in pain. He said he wants to have a way out when the pain gets unbearable and he wants to die with dignity. Dr. Ablow gave some good arguments, saying "I would never legally allow physicians to decide who should live and who should die... physician assisted suicide is a slippery slope..." But right from the start it was very obvious that Dr. Oz and most of his audience were not interested in hearing any arguments against.

Then Dr. Oz introduced Dana, an African American woman in her late 40s or early 50s with ALS. Her attendant rolled her to a spot right in front of the panel. She sat in a manual chair, somewhat reclined, wearing a ventilator mask. A video played on the big screens, showing Dana before tragedy hit, healthy, strong, athletic... (very exploitative). Then the ventilator mask came off (the ventilator alarmed briefly) and Dana began to speak. She said she had been living with the progression of ALS for 8 years and she was tired. She hated having to depend on others for her care and she couldn't take it anymore. She said she was depressed, lonely, had no friends left and she wanted to die. Nadina and I looked at each other and said “that's why she wants to die.” Nadina quickly jotted a note in preparation for her comments.

As Dana spoke, the sighs and the sniffles from the audience kept getting louder. The cheerleaders went around with boxes of tissues, the bright smiles on their young faces now replaced by mournful expressions.

Dr. Oz asked Dana's son how it felt to live with his mom. He said it was sad and that, though he didn't really want her to die, he also didn't want her to suffer anymore. Dana's daughter said: "It's heart-breaking, unbearable to watch her suffer. She's had enough." Dana's sister, who has her health care proxy, reiterated: "She can't take it anymore. She's suffered enough." It was obvious to us (but I guess to no one else) that the family had “had enough.”

Greg had promised that after the break, we would have a chance to speak. After we heard Dana, we decided that I should go first, since my physical condition is, outwardly, very similar to hers, and my need for a ventilator is actually greater than hers. So I told my story, including my MS diagnoses, the break up of my marriage, how bleak the future appeared to me then, and the resulting near-suicidal depression. I said how glad I was that no lethal prescription was available for me then. I said that meeting disabled people and becoming part of an activist community got me out of the depression. That I fell in love with Nadina 18 years ago and, in spite of my losing function and at times becoming depressed, I lead a full, rich and very happy life.

Nadina picked up here and said that losing function often is accompanied by temporary depression, and that having available a lethal prescription would be very dangerous for someone with a progressive disability. Then she started saying that assisted suicide was usually presented as a “choice for the terminally ill,” but here we were talking about people (Montel, Dana) who were not terminally ill but had disabilities. Dr. Oz didn't let her continue. He quickly walked away with the mike, while Nadina yelled “I'm not finished.”

During the break, Nadina complained to Dr. Oz that she had not been allowed to speak. "I'll come back to you," he said. But he never did.

In the next segment Dr. Oz brought on two more panel guests, Dr. Ira Byock and Barbara Coombs Lee from Compassion and Choices. Dr. Byock was very good, stating there was no need for assisted suicide given the availability of good palliative care. He pointed out to Dana that she could refuse treatment. He did so in a very gentle way. He asked her: “do you want to tell your doctors, maybe next time you're hospitalized with pneumonia, that you'd rather not have them do anything, let nature take its course?” (Maybe not his exact words, but something like that). Dana did not answer. Dr. Oz quickly stepped in. “Let her answer” Nadina yelled out, “she doesn't want to die.” But Dr. Oz had quickly changed the subject.

Montel kept repeating he wanted to maintain his dignity. A few times we yelled out “What do you mean by dignity?” and “Do you think we have no dignity?”

Barbara Coombs Lee didn't say much. She didn't need to. By the time she came on, the argument in favor of assisted suicide had been completed (if there ever was an “argument” – from the beginning it was clear which side Dr. Oz was on and that the show had been scripted). Dr. Ablow was booed a few times. Dr. Byock was booed when he said, "We're not talking about choice but about control. You want to make sure you die with your boots on and make up."

Every time a new segment started, Dr. Oz would say things like: “The question today is: do we have the right to end our own life if we're suffering?” or “if our quality of life has deteriorated?” On the big screens the question was: “Do you think you have the right to end your own life?” (just as sloppy and as the show’s online survey, conflating suicide with assisted suicide, conflating the right to refuse treatment with assisted suicide).

The final segment was supposed to be questions and comments from the audience. We were divided by an aisle into pro and con. During the break, Nadina managed to get the attention of the producer, Greg, who interviewed us before the show. “Dr. Oz didn't let me speak,” she told him. “NDYers have a unique perspective. We want to be heard.” He answered: “I'm sorry.”

Dr. Oz let a right-to-lifer speak briefly. He called me (Danny) a hero. And Montel replied: “let's not pit patient against patient.” Julie yelled out: “We're people not patients”, but without the microphone, none of us could be heard. A hospice nurse spoke against assisted suicide, mentioning how a woman's life was prolonged long enough for her to hold her grandchild in her arms. But most of the comments were from the other side of the room. Horror stories about people made to suffer, told by someone other than the person, and you couldn’t tell the real cause of the suffering.

Nadina, Julie, Bill, Hope and Ari kept raising their hands but Dr. Oz totally ignored us. One guy said: "These Not Dead Yet members are selfish. They don't care about people suffering. They don't want anyone to have choice.” We yelled out “It's the other way around.”

Dr. Oz kept ignoring us. But at one point, he was right next to Ari and Ari had his hand raised right in front of Dr. Oz's face. Dr. Oz asked him: "Are you right to life?" Ari answered: "No, I'm with the National Council on Disability.” Dr. Oz let him speak and Ari was great. He gave some statistics about Oregon, and even mentioned the Latimer case, the Canadian farmer who got a lot of support from the assisted suicide movement when he was prosecuted for murdering his 12-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy.

We tried after the show to reach out to Dana. Julie tried to catch up with her and her family, but was pushed away by Dr. Oz's production assistants. All of us NDYers were extremely frustrated and agitated. We all agreed we had been setup and just used as window dressing.

That audience was a microcosm of our society. Most every one in that audience was convinced that disability is a fate worse than death. Most of those in favor of assisted suicide thought we were selfish for wanting to live no matter what. Others, like the right-to-lifers, sitting along side us, saw us as heroic and saintly for putting up with what they imagined was great suffering and not succumbing to sinful thoughts of suicide. Sitting in that studio, we saw more clearly than ever how very important Not Dead Yet's work is and how extremely difficult.