This blog is about reconciling the two worlds of disability understanding. On one side are the strong voices of activists in the disability community. On the other is the well meaning but naïve/ ignorant able bodied population who see disability as something pitiable. As an able bodied person who has realized the very compelling and interesting arguments about society and life coming from the disability community, I am compelled to referee the exchanges between the two sides. Often times it seems that everyone is speaking so loudly and with such great conviction that the other doesn't even listen. Since I am not personally motivated by either side, I can weigh both sides of the arguments and hopefully facilitate an open and accepting space for both sides to express themselves and learn about each other. Please join the discussion!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

So Courageous! Disability in the Media: Act 3 The "UnCourageous"

I've posted before about the So Courageous Phenomenon (Act 1) and have given some media examples where it occurs (in Act 2). As an antidote, I wanted to show some instances of disability coverage by the media that I am more comfortable with because it is not rooted in pity.

This music video by the band Sigur Ros (one of my favorites) features people with Down Syndrome. I find it beautiful. Unlike the examples above, it does not present on these people in a manufactured positive light. It just features them and lets them be who they are… in angel costumes.

I think this story about a boy in a wheelchair getting attached accidentally to the front of a truck and being driven several miles unharmed, is powerful more for the Wow! factor, than for celebrating anything the boy accomplished. We’re all just glad he survived, and awestruck at what a ride that must have been.

I’ve blogged before about the Color Purple but I want to point it out in this context even though it isn't about disability. This story of entirely African American characters set in the post civil war south does not at all invoke overcoming the plight of slavery. Its power comes from presenting sincerely courageous characters who impress us due to the humanity of their lives, not the context of their situation. By refusing to enter that politically charged issue, the story is much stronger and relates to all people.

I heard a lot about Heather Mills being on dancing with the stars with her prosthetic leg. When I went to research it I was sure that the judging would be sappy and awful. Surprisingly, they did not really play up the SCP in this clip. They addressed her disability, but she didn’t get too much praise just because of it. She even got some honest criticism based on her disability. This may have been an isolated case however in the Heather Mills Dancing with the stars saga. The other shows after this one and the media coverage surrounding it seem more and more "Courageous".

As the least courageous (and hopefully not tasteless) bit I’ve found, here’s an interpretation of the previous video with what could have happened to Heather Mills…

Monday, October 29, 2007

So Courageous! Disability in the Media: Act 2 Exhibits

Here I present some instances where the So Courageous phenomenon (SCP) is exhibited in the media. These stories are packaged in such a way to deliver a hopeful message of success about people with disabilities. I summarize the basic storyline of all these pieces as “Despite the disadvantages they were born with, this inspiring person has achieved great success.” The stories are built on the underlying assumption of very low expectations for the disabled person (what I would call pity). This initial feeling then provides the basis for extolling their accomplishments, which if not for their disability, wouldn’t be so remarkable or newsworthy.

I should be clear that I find absolutely no fault with the people in these stories. The bone I'm picking is with the media coverage and the public reactions it elicits.

Josh Blue is a comedian who competed on Last Comic Standing who also has Cerebral Palsy. He is very funny and very cool. I just get a weird vibe from the crowd. Their standing ovations seem based on the So Courageous mentality, celebrating him on what he has achieved relative to his condition. Josh wisely plays this to his advantage, part of why he is so successful.

Coverage of Aimee Mullins
, an actress, model, and runner who has two prosthetic legs has definitely played up how amazing her achievements are… considering that she doesn’t have any legs. Are they wrong? No… but the tone is still rooted in low expectations and pity for not having legs. Read a deeper analysis here from The Gimp Parade.

But what about the children! They are used probably most often as courageous inspirations in news media. In this example one boy is the star on his football team even though one of his arms is underdeveloped. Not inspired yet? How about this one of a boy who has obtained a black belt in karate even though he has two prosthetic legs.

Well if you’re still not weeping for the hope-filed visions these stories have painted, time to bring out the big guns. Christopher Reeve is the king of SCP. Just read this inspirational biography of him. What’s more is that media didn’t have to create this story, Reeve did it himself and used his inspirational pull with people to fund-raise for a “cure”. Here’s a great South Park parody of him (highly offensive).

In that same south park episode, Timmy and Jimmy are presented in a decidedly "UnCourageous" way. Stay tuned for more on that...

Does this give you a sense for what I mean by the So Courageous Phenomenon?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

So Courageous! Disability in the Media: Act 1 Introduction

Wow, they beat the odds, they overcame adversity, they’re an inspiration to us all. They’re so courageous!

This is the usual positive way peoples with disabilities are portrayed in the media. The most prominent example is Christopher Reeve who the able bodied population admired because of his determined struggle to overcome his paralysis. But stories like his are commonly played in local news programs, magazines, or in TV shows.

Judging from how often such stories air, I must conclude that people like seeing them. Certainly no one seems to be complaining. I can understand their appeal. They offer a compelling narrative that viewers want to hear because it affirms their own struggles and shows that even the most difficult goals can be achieved. The narrative is often presented as a story of challenge, struggle, and unlikely success.

I gather from my own experience and from that of other disability bloggers that the “So Courageous” spirit exemplified in these stories is also a little troublesome and not as innocent as media would have us believe. In this series I will present multiple examples of this phenomena in order to winnow out the issues that are present in what has become the definitive “positive” presentation of disabilities in our culture.

For a little background about my “So Courageous!” terminology, check out this South Park episode when you have 20 minutes to kill. In this episode, the children of South Park are spurned by their parents for their intolerance of their gay schoolteacher’s outrageous behavior. The parents give the teacher an award for being “so courageous” in the face of their children’s discrimination, only to realize later that his behavior was actually inappropriate. Note that this episode may be offensive to some viewers, although I just think it’s hilarious.

Stay tuned for Act 2 where I'll explore the issues surrounding this topic.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Testimonial of the Day

In this series I present descriptions of the lives of peoples with disabilities to celebrate their unique perspective on the world so that it can enrich the lives of all.

Below is an excerpt of a speech that Steven Kuusisto delivered in New York. Read the whole text here.

I became fascinated with this author after reading his book, Planet of the Blind. He writes beautifully about his experiences and this won’t be the last that I post on this blog.

“Not very long ago I heard a boy jumping on discarded bedsprings on a Chicago sidewalk.

He was making a stripped down music from solitude and trash. It was the song of a woodcutter’s axe in the empty woods. He saw me listening. He noticed my guide dog. He sensed an audience. He threw everything he had into making rare music with ruined steel coils and shoes. He was releasing invisible spirits into the morning air of Wabash Avenue. The music grew out of his blood. I’m guessing that if you’re a sighted person you’d have driven right on by. Or maybe you’d have crossed to the other side of the street if you had been walking there. But I heard the maddened dancing for five full minutes before moving on.


At first I thought the effect was obscene. He was simply calling out the furtive and metallic protests of forgotten trysts. I thought of a bordello in the wild west.

I laughed at the salty bravado of the performance. Then I saw flashes of light. The coils were rising and compressing in timed measures. My blind eyes could just make out the glint of his instruments. In turn I began to listen to what this dancer was really doing. The broken springs flashed like the undersides of leaves. I was like a sailor on a distant ship. I could see the maritime flash of his lantern. In turn I saw that his bed springs were tuned in harmony with the sky and the local trees. The dancer was saying all kinds of things. His feet were rattling and whistling. I’d never heard anything like this before.

The dancer was offering his ragged memories to the damp air of the street. I saw the sparks and heard the 16th notes; the 8th notes; the sparks of his dance dropped like stones from a bridge…


I was feeling lucky just then, alone with my guide dog, the two of us having been on an ordinary walk. A gold leaf was spinning down. A red maple leaf was floating on water. Flashes of sun ran across the June river. The dancer’s shoulders and hips dipped and high notes leapt all around him. He was dancing at the epicenter of the early light—that overcast sun that always hangs in the mornings above Lake Michigan.

Then he was in an island of trees. Low notes came suddenly, the notes were signifying a bent path.

The way forward was harder for some reason. The dance had taken a darker turn.

I could tell this was now a steep narrative. Somehow he’d figured out how to make the springs sound like a tuba. Then he made the metal groan like a cello. And then hammers were flying. Again there were sparks of light from the bed.

The high notes came like whale songs from some migratory coast. For a moment I thought about Marsilio Ficino, the Renaissance man of letters who remarked that "beauty is just shapes and sounds". Hearing the Chicago dancer move across the secret world of a homemade dance—a "found" dance—I thought that Ficino left out the weird and lovely human and animal volition that lives behind the shapes and sounds. I also realized again much as I did when I was a boy that when you stand still you can hear the unexpected music and sense the light that comes from living and walking in shadows.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

More than Different

In my post earlier about the mayor of San Diego supporting gay marriage, I made the connection between sexuality and disability, that these are two groups being treated unjustly because of their difference from the mainstream. The point of the post was to illustrate the power of an elected official seeing beyond the difference in his constituents and supporting equal justice for all.

After a discussion with a reader, I wanted to air the opinion, that disabilities are not just a difference.

Rather what makes disabilities unique is that it is a limiting difference: Some characteristic about a person that renders them outside the norm of generally accepted and expected (tongue-twister) ability.

I’d be curious to hear from readers with disabilities to see what they think about this distinction. My expectation is that most readers would be proud to be more than just different. Thoughts?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Defective - Animation

A different perspective on prostheses. Not a whole lot of thought behind this one but I thought it was funny.

Add to Technorati Favorites Who links to me?