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!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Eating my own words

I'm torn about how to deal with this story in the New York Times. It has 'So Courageous!' written all over it, but I can't help but love it.

"[Dustin] Carter, 18, is a 103-pounder whose legs end at his hips, whose right arm stops just after his elbow and whose left arm is even shorter." In this story we learn that he has won enough matches to go onto the Ohio Division II wrestling competition.

Dustin of course eschews being treated differently even though the article implicitly does so by calling him out for his accomplishment. Given my normal track record on these stories, I expected to snub this story but I just couldn't see it the same way. I think that the written article does fit the pattern that I've discussed before. However, I think I'm able to see past the so courageous, 'my hero', and 'miracle' stuff that the story conveys, to a simpler story, one where a young man achieved something that he cared deeply about. Forget about his special challenges. Let's praise him because he accomplished his dream. How could you not be moved by that...

"When time finally ran out during his consolation semifinals match against Dustin Davidson, the scoreboard showed a 3-1 victory for Carter. Knowing the victory had landed him in the state tournament, he scurried to the middle of the mat, lifted his head toward the ceiling and roared. Not once, but twice.

'I’ll never forget it,' Carter said. 'I’ve been waiting for this too long. It was my last chance. I’ve been struggling to sleep all weekend. I’ve been dreaming about my matches. It’s stayed in my head too long. That was everything coming out.'

His family, wearing buttons with pictures of Carter, surrounded him as he galloped to his father and leaped into his arms. They cried into each other’s shoulders. The friends and family who surrounded them shed tears, as well.

'I don’t think I’ve ever felt such elation in my life,' Lori Carter said, struggling to keep her voice steady. 'He’s worked so hard. After everything he’s been through, he deserves his dream.' "

That's the real story here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

So Courageous! Disability in the Media: Act 7, A Vision for the Future

For months now, I have railed against the media for what I see as the limited, ignorant, and harmful way peoples with disabilities are often portrayed in the media. I wanted now to offer a simple vision of how things could be.

Principle 1: The media offers great power to increase awareness; use it. Peoples with disabilities should be frequently presented in media stories. Media offers a valuable channel through which to make the general population familiar and comfortable with, the visual indicators of disability. This principle is already widely accepted, and peoples with disabilities are frequently presented in the media. This should continue.

Principle 2: Educate through example. If we want peoples with disabilities to be treated the same as everyone else, then we must present them in the media the same way as everyone else. Stories should be about something notable or interesting they accomplished to further (or detract from) their community or a particular idea, or any subject that portrays the person as more than just a disability.

I was very pleased to find an example of my vision already realized in the world, and I wrote a post about it a while ago. Kudos to Crains Chicago Business for hitting the nail on the head. This story is about a man opening a new bank that would be designed to serve disabled people or those who have trouble leaving their homes. It is presented as a new idea which might find a strong market. It is also mentioned that the entrepreneur has a disability.

This story is a great example because it treats the man with respect and dignity by calling attention to him for his good idea. It is also a good example because by no means does it skirt around the issue of the disability. By so doing, the story sets an example of treating members of the disabled community the same as everyone else. It also gives visibility to this community which subtly educates the able bodied population. The story shows by example that we are all more the same than we are different, that our differences do make us who we are, but that we are still fundamentally human beings and should never be reduced to anything less than that. Oh, that all media could be like that... maybe in the future...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

So Courageous! Disability in the Media: Act 6 On the Front Lines

Thanks to Ruth at Wheelie Catholic for this story about being interviewed as a disabled tennis player. She recounts her frustration with never being seen as more than a disabled person that played tennis. Reporters weren't interested in the rest of her life or who she was.

"There was no way, it seemed, to get across the real story which was that I played wheelchair tennis as a weekend warrior, competing at tournaments during the spring and summer for short two or three day trips, while working. The reporters didn't want to hear about my other life - the real job I had and all the other things I did with my life.

Such mundane facts seemed to put them on overload. One reporter put his pen behind his ear and just stopped writing. Another held up her hand and asked "Do you all play tennis or do you have a job? Which is it?" as if I couldn't do both. The resistance to any real facts or information was pretty strong.

Somehow no reporter ever managed to write a story about who I was over the decade I gave interviews. I guess that story just wasn't inspirational enough.

You see, I'm not really a wheelchair jock. I practically flunked gym in school. The only reason I have a wall of trophies for wheelchair tennis is because after my hands were paralyzed and I couldn't play classical guitar any more I got so mad I duct taped a racket on and started hitting tennis balls around one day. A coach saw me. He mistook my anger for athletic aspiration and set me up with lessons. And the next thing I knew I found myself competing in a tennis tournament.

That's the real story.

Oh, except for one thing. I managed to win a cross country skiing event too one year. How did that happen?

Don't even ask. But there is an article about it somewhere. And you can bet it was very inspirational."

Its great to have the subject's perspective on the So Courageous Phenomenon. Reporters don't really want to get to know them, they just have a story to tell and need information to support it. I'm sure most reporters do this with all their stories, not just with those concerning the disabled, but it's kind of scary to think that we can all be so quickly reduced to cleanly packaged inspiration and hocked on the media markets to attract viewers.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Today in Awesome: Ski Chair

Unsafe at any speed.

This ranks right up there with the crutch locked to the bike rack in my profile photo.

[Visual description: A white wire-framed chair with a handicapped symbol on it and fastened to yellow skis on the bottom]
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