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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Even More on Oscar Pistorius

The mainstream media response to the arrest of Oscar Pistorius for allegedly killing his girlfriend has been devoid of insight. Nothing I have read in traditional news outlets such as the New York Times or Washington Post has been remotely interesting. Online sources such as the Huffington Post, Salon, or Slate have not faired much better. The tabloids such as the New York Post have published humorous headlines ("Blade Gunner") and juicy gossip. As one might expect, many people with a disability, myself included, have weighed in on the larger cultural significance of the Pistorius story. In my opinion the best essays about Pistorius are located in various feminist websites. I read three particularly insightful essays. Here are the links:

Briana Rognlin at Blisstree writes that "overwhelming reactions fall into two camps: a) disabled people couldn't possibly be violent, especially not ones like Oscar Pistorius who must be saints because they're high achievers in a non-disabled way, and b) he might have been violent because he resented being disabled". Eddie Ndopu at Feministwire writes "I am both fascinated and perturbed by the narratives surrounding the fatal shooting". Ndopu points out the ironic fact that Pistorius "defense team and PR strategists are drawing from ableist tropes to make the case for his innocence". S.E. Smith was particularly insightful at Tigerbeatdown. Smith wrote that Pistorius

"was more of an icon for thenondisabled community than for the disabled community, because of what he represented. His very mainstream successes; adapting to prostheses, becoming an extremely talented and driven runner, working with custom ‘blades’ that were his distinctive trademark, were what made him appeal to nondisabled people. His success as an ‘inspirational’ or ‘heroic’ icon lay precisely in his ability to pass, to conform as closely as possible to nondisabled norms, to become, in essence, one of them. He was safe, comforting, and familiar, presenting a framework of disability that suggested all disabled people aspired to be like nondisabled people, and could if they just tried hard enough.He modeled a specific bootstrapping presentation of disability, one in which people ‘overcome tremendous odds’ and ‘keep persevering’ to achieve greatness. A very specific kind of greatness, one mediated by what is ‘great’ in nondisabled terms."
Smith states the real figures of inspiration within disability rights are people like Paul Longmore and Laura Hershey. Virtually no one outside of disability rights and advocacy knows who they were.  Worse yet, few know about the issues they championed: liberating people from nursing homes in particular and more generally the elimination of gross economic, social and political isolation. Smith contends the reason Longmore and Hershey are unknown is because their efforts were rooted in a disability identity and that "they were frightening to nondisabled people in their expressions of independence, of disability pride, or ferocity".  I am not sure fearful is the right word but Smith's point is well taken. When a person with a disability is proud, independent and assertive in defending their civil rights the reaction on the part of the nondisabled population is rarely if ever positive. In part, it is why I consider myself a bad cripple. I know my forceful support of disability rights will meet stiff opposition. 
What frustrates me is that people with no exposure to disability soak up inspirational stories such as Pistorius' like a sponge. However, when one tries to explain why such stories are grossly misleading and put forth a strident disability rights perspective one can see reluctance, anger, animosity, and resistance. I understand this response because it is based on deeply held cultural beliefs that have great value. We Americans are rugged individualists. We are all equal! What separates us is effort and will power. This simplistic take on disability and life in general reminds me of a book my son loved as small child. I read the Little Engine that Could many times. I love and hate the story. It is American folklore at its best. Or as John Kelly wrote in the Ragged Edge a decade ago: "I think we need to investigate disability inspiration as a form of propaganda that glosses over oppression while simultaneously reassuring normals about the superiority of their ways". Read the rest of Kelly at: I have no idea what will happen to Pistorius. I am equally unsure how the pending murder trial will pan out. Of one thing I am sure: the mainstream media will struggle mightily with framing this story as it unfolds. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

More on Oscar Pistorius

I just read an outstanding essay about the Oscar Pistorius at Feminist Philosophers. See Andrea Scarpino deftly points out the real problem associated with heros or what I would call super crips or feel good stories.  Scarpino wrote:
This image of the heroic overcomer is familiar. And it’s something that increased media coverage of the Paralympics – with all its focus on “human interest stories” – intensifies, much to the chagrin of some disabled people. Usain Bolt is a track athlete, and he’s allowed to simply be a track athlete. Oscar Pistorius was supposed to be an inspiration, a beacon of hope for future generations of disabled people, a testament that any adversity can be overcome through sheer determination.
That’s what we’re comfortable with, when it comes to disabled people. That’s what we like our stories to look like. Disabled people can be inspirational, or they can be pitiful. They can’t just be normal, everyday people. The man without legs who heroically overcame all odds to be a track star – we like that story. (We like it so much that we’ll conveniently cover up the previous domestic violence arrest, the public temper tantrums, the drunken boat crash, all to preserve the story we want.) The man without legs who desperately needs your charitable contribution to afford a new prosthesis so he can walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding – we like that story too. The man without legs who became an accountant but is facing some access barriers at work – we’re pretty uninterested in that story.
We want disability to be a story of the individual – of individual need or individual bravery. But for most disabled people, disability isn’t the story of the individual. Barriers to access are primarily social – they’re not a matter of individuals lacking guts or bravado. And no amount of individual charity will solve the social inequality that disabled people face each and every day. The longer we focus on the heroic individual achiever, the longer the everyday social ills are obscured.

The social problems, bigotry really, associated with disability rights is simply not a story people want to discuss. We fawn over Oscar Pistorius, Helen Keller, Franklin Roosevelt, Christopher Reeve, and other individuals who "overcome" a given disability. This is a smoke screen that obscures the real every day barriers people with a disability encounter. Let me relay one incident. The other day I went the post office. The parking lot paint was recently redone. Handicap parking is for the first time in years clearly visible. When I get out of the post office I see a car has blocked the ramp. I am deeply annoyed. I can wait for the driver or walk about one block to the next curb cut. I then would reverse direction by going into the parking lot itself. I am far from thrilled. Navigating the parking lot is dangerous as a departing cars reversing out of spots are not expecting to see a man using a wheelchair. As I think about what I am going to do a few people walk by and know exactly what the issue is. Do I get any support? In a word no. One person laughed and another shrugged his shoulders. I am sure they thought this is an individual problem--my problem. While the incident is minor it reveals exactly what Scarpino articulated--"the every day social ills are obscured". I will know when I have become equal to my bipedal peers when the reaction to my minor problem of accessing a curb cut is radically different. Instead of laughter and shrugged shoulders I hope some day to see anger. I want others to see what took place for what it is: a social violation that will not be tolerated.