Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We Have a Problem: SNL and David Paterson

(Updated to correct errors!

The disability community has an image problem.

The narratives BY people who have disabilities does not match the overriding cultural narrative ABOUT disability in society today.

For example:

In this article Michael J. Fox tells how he feels about his Parkinson’s disease.

In this article author, Gary Presley (who has also been featured on my blog—yes, I am bragging!) tells how he feels about his disability.

The blogosphere is full of such examples.

Now what is presented about disability?

In this article kids with disabilities are taught about disability using simulation exercises. This is a fairly common—and controversial—way of teaching about disability.

Want to know why the controversy? Read the reactions of the kids when the exercise is over. Are they positive or negative about disability when the program is over? Are they saying the things Michael and Gary are saying about their disability? Do they now feel that they have more in common with folks with disabilities? Or is it more like they now realize just how different ‘those people’ are??

The kids are saying “thank goodness this was only a game!!!” Does that sound like they got a positive picture of disability from the program?

(Do you want to know why they didn’t? The exercise gave them a vision of struggle without any context that showed that the value of doing it and no relationship to make it connective. People rarely need help figuring out what is different about other people. They need help finding or building COMMON ground! But I digress!)

As I say the disability community has a crisis of image in our society.

The world believes that people with disabilities have inherently less competence, that they are needier, contribute less and don’t matter as much as everyone else, and that their lives automatically have less happiness than other people’s. Though the research does not agree and individual stories vary widely, this message is sent in large and small ways, day in day out and is virtually unchallenged. It just grows and grows.

These poisonous perspectives on disability pervade every arena:

Medicine: Did you see this report from the March of Dimes last week? In light of this report, why is the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology spending any time or energy reducing Down syndrome? Lives of people with Down syndrome are improving. While other babies need their help.

Media: Read this article about a series from the New York Times. It is trying to showcase an important issue, but what does it say about disability? I think it engenders pity (a looking-down-on emotion) and I think disability is almost blamed for the circumstances in some of the articles. This is ridiculous, disability does not create lack of access. In fact, the opposite is true. Lack of access is what’s disabling.

Public Policy: It has required separate laws to include people with disabilities in schools (IDEA), public life in their communities and workplaces (ADA), and access to healthcare, assets and more. Society can be so unaware and/or unwelcoming of folks with disabilities that the government has to tell us to include our neighbors. No wonder the rate of unemployment for people with disabilities has been at or around 70% since the 1980s—and since healthcare is linked to employment (and the lack of prior diagnoses) healthcare coverage for adults with disabilities is nearly non-existent as well. All because of society's beliefs about disability.

And Entertainment: In August we had Tropic Thunder where Dreamworks Studio checked in with people of every minority group they lampooned to be sure they did not cross the line from entertaining to degrading—except people with disabilities. There was another movie this fall that gave a degrading view of blindness. What, do you suppose, is this industry's belief about disability?

Then this past weekend on Saturday Night Live Governor David Paterson was satirized. Now I love political humor—Letterman, Leno, Stewart, Colbert, and many more all entertain while they deflate political personalities that usually NEED deflating—it’s practically a public service. And everyone has traits to make fun of.

Unfortunately SNL decided not to lampoon David Paterson this weekend. They ridiculed blindness instead, equating it with bumbling lostness, vagueness and incompetence. There was no irony and no connection at all to the way Gov. Paterson actually is. Just stale stereotyping.

People with disabilities are not defined, nor are they confined by their diagnoses. Disability is the largest minority in our country and the last to be accepted and respected as such. People with disabilities deserve access, opportunity, choices and inclusion in their communities.

And. Respect.

Picture from here.


rickismom said...

Oh, this is SO correct! Wish I knew better what we can do to correct it!

Gary said...

Satire as it relates to people with disabilities is difficult, and I think it is because people fear disability. What we fear, we become angry with, derisive of -- SNL skit, the example. The bizarre thing is that "happiness" can be irrelevant to disability.

Gary www.garypresley.com