Bioethics Discussion Blog: Thinking and Writing About the Disabled: Courageous or Burdened?

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thinking and Writing About the Disabled: Courageous or Burdened?



Mary Johnson’s article in the Indiana University School of Journalism website titled “The ‘Super-Crip’ Stereotype—Press Victimization of Disabled People” raises an interesting ethical issue which may extend beyond the way the news media may describe the disabled but perhaps is only a reflection of the way the general public themselves may look at them. Do the reporters and the public think of the disabled more in terms of their wonderful and “courageous ” accomplishments rather than what burdens every disabled person, to one degree or another, is bearing every day? It did take a long, long while for for the burdens and prejudices suffered by the disabled to be recognized and finally signed into a law, the now almost 18 year old “Americans with Disability Act” in the United States, to attempt to help mitigate them.

The author concludes:

Disability rights is not a heartwarming feature story and disabled individuals should not be used for inspirational sagas. If they’re newsmakers, they should be covered like anyone else - the disability noted matter-of-factly only when its relevant to the story. If they’re not newsmakers, why are they being covered? Because their lives are unusual? If so, we should ask why, looking for the real story behind the "unusual." Typically, it’s lack of opportunity, barriers, or discrimination. Those are stories. And they should be investigated and reported as they are for any other minority.


In considering the significance of Mary Johnson’s view, one would wonder whether the disabled, themselves, want to be identified primarily by what they can do rather than what they can’t?

Read her article and then let’s hear from you what you think about the way the press and public may look at the disabled. ..Maurice.

Graphic: Photograph I took 5-29-2008 of Edouard Manet's painting "The Rue Mosnier with Flags" (1878) at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

ADDENDUM 6-1-2008: To read from a blog written by a disabled person go to "Bad Cripple"

9 Comments:

At Friday, May 30, 2008 12:17:00 AM, Anonymous Kacy said...

This a great topic you raise, its funny how people judge another person and fault - because of disabilities when this should not be the case.

 
At Friday, May 30, 2008 1:24:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Do you think that we judge others based in part on expectation of our own inadequacies if subjected to disability? Therefore any self-"lifting" by the disabled to levels we wouldn't expect that we could accomplish if we were similarly disabled leads reporters and others to pick out and stress the courage of certain of the disabled. My theory. ..Maurice

 
At Saturday, May 31, 2008 1:39:00 PM, Blogger william Peace said...

The printed press and visual media such as television and mainstream films do a uniformly bad job at covering disability related matters. Of course some exceptions exist but the dominant focus rarely changes--living life with a disability is inherently bad, even tragic. The focus is always on what a disabled individual cannot do. When a disabled person does succeed, i.e. live a "normal" life the individual in question is highly unusual, the Super Crip identified by Mary Johnson. The result is that I, as a disabled person, am constantly assaulted by strangers who seem to think the most mundane actions such as getting in and out of my car is a remarkable achievement. In praising disabled individuals for such an inane reason the real message sent is that disabled people are socially inferior. This display of dominance conveniently ignores the fact that main problem disabled people encounter is social bigotry, ignorance, and gross economic inequities. Sadly, this sort of story, that is the gritty reality of negative social interaction on a day to day basis for disabled people, does not appeal to readers and film goers. Thus we get films such as Million Dollar Baby that leads the viewer to think death is preferable to life with a spinal cord injury. It is no wonder that mainstream society is a hostile place for disabled people and that far too few are aware ground breaking legislation such as the Americans with Disability Act is a civil rights law.

 
At Saturday, May 31, 2008 2:41:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

William, what do you suggest that the media and the general public do to present the life of the disabled in a more appropriate, constructive and non-discriminatory perspective? Would Mary Johnson's approach with regard to the news reporters' investigation and writings be what you would accept? And what else? ..Maurice.

 
At Sunday, June 01, 2008 5:21:00 AM, Blogger william Peace said...

I wish I knew the answer to the question you pose. It seems to me a good place for the media to start to focus on would be disability rights as civil rights. For example, David Paterson is the new governor of New York and within days of his appointment he stated that his disability create more social and practical obstacles than the fact he was a black man. He also stated because of his blindness his family was forced to move so he could be attend a public school. Not a single news organization followed up on these comments. Instead national papers such as the New York Times devoted a great amount of space to how the "blind governor" navigated the hallways or memorized speeches. Never discussed was Governor Patterson's abilities or the way he adapted to succeed politically.

The point is few Americans are aware the ADA is civil rights legislation, that the exclusion of disabled people has been accomplished socially. Thus the media needs to stop focusing on well worn media archetypes that cater to the lowest common denominator, i.e. triumph over a physical deficit. The media needs to focus squarely on one thing--that all people with and without a physical or cognitive deficit are equal. The fact is American culture does not value the lives of people such as myself that use a wheelchair. If my existence and the life of all those with a disability was valued we would have elevators, ramps, schools, government buildings, and a Supreme Court that would demand social equality and access for all. The media virtually never focuses on these inequities as they do not sell newspapers or get people to walk into a movie theatre. A fundamental and radical theoretical shift needs to take place within the media and society, one that demands equality in the transportation, housing, and employment. This is where the media must start its reporting--why almost 18 years after the ADA was passed are disabled people the most disenfranchised minority in the country? Why are almost 70% of all disabled people in this country unemployed? Why do the majority of disabled people live at or below the poverty line? Why is the most common job for a disabled person world wide begging? Why is the mass transit system in this country hostile to equal access? Why do so many young people with a high spinal cord injury end up in a nursing home and left to rot away? Why do schools segregate disabled children to resource rooms and refuse to put wheelchair lifts on buses? These are the issues that the media needs to pay attention to and have consistently refused to do so.

 
At Sunday, June 01, 2008 7:44:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

William, you clearly defined the important issues to the disabled and the necessity for the media and the public to recognize and respond. The governor of New York has his physical disability of blindness which he is managing. What is happening is the media and the public have their mental disability of blindness to the status, needs, values and goals of the disabled and it seems that they really are not managing their own disability well.

I think it is importnt that comments such as Mary's and yours get broadcast so that we can be reminded and become aware and "see the disabled" without our own mental blindness handicap. ..Maurice.

 
At Sunday, June 01, 2008 8:17:00 AM, Blogger william Peace said...

I wish my views as well as Mary Johnson's reached a wider audience. The mass media and general public simply does not want to hear about disability rights nor do those in positions of power want to listen to what scholars and activists have to say. Social change is taking place but at a glacial rate and I never cease to be amazed at the barriers I encounter. For instance I teach part time at a SUNY college and the building where I often lecture was just renovated. The renovated classrooms/lecture halls are now inaccessible to disabled students due to tiered seats. The new podium with internet access is also totally inaccessible. Thus I can no longer lecture in the same building as my colleagues in the social sciences. If this is happening at an institution of higher education I shudder to think of what is going on in secondary schools.

 
At Monday, June 02, 2008 10:19:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

An ethicist on a bioethics listserv wondered why people identify those persons with disabilites in the grammatical third person as "the disabled". Perhaps, to be more humane, realistic and constructive, it would be better to avoid the expression "the disabled" and in its place think and write "person with a disability" or "Jim Jones with a disability". It is true that simply "the disabled" sets the disabled person into an isolated category without reference to being a person but represents only a condition. And the more we think and write about the person with a disability in the terms of "the disabled" the more we will think only of the disability and less of an individual person with a multidimensional life which includes the burdens and consequences of the disability but also includes life issues and life pleasures that we all experience.

Perhaps changing the grammar should be one of the first things we should do to augment the Americans With Disabilities Act. By the way, did you notice the law is not titled The American Disabled Act? ..Maurice.

 
At Saturday, June 07, 2008 6:44:00 PM, Anonymous medrecgal said...

It's not the grammar that's the primary problem; it's the way Americans tend to perceive the "problem" of disability as originating with the individual rather than with society. I like the British model of disability, which says that the problem originates in the social structure's inability or unwillingness to accommodate a particular individual's needs rather than in the person. Disability is a social construct rather than a "defect" in an individual.

Our country tends to place so much value on youth and physical beauty that naturally those with disabilities will not fit in the prescribed "pretty picture"; those with disabilities are looked at as something to be mocked, pitied, or looked down upon.

As one such individual, I speak from experience. As for the ADA, the government basically gutted it a few years ago, and activists have been working fervently to try and restore its original intentions as a civil rights law for a group that desperately needs it.

Thanks for giving me more ideas for future blog posts, BTW!

 

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