A paper I wrote last summer for of all things Intro to Art Therapy class. Don't ask... but it did in fact work for the assignment.
"It's always been my belief that media images of disability cause the disability community some of its most serious and persistent problems..." ~Prof Beth Haller, of media dis&dat
Images of disabled people being depicted in a negative light go back at least as far as the Old Testament, where having a disability meant that you had done something to anger G-d. Disability was equated with sin (Shapiro). In the New Testament you got another choice-you could be "cursed or possessed by evil" (Shapiro, 1994 p. 30). This view perpetuated to the time of Shakespeare, where he gave his Richard III a hunchback (even though the real Richard III did not have such a disability) in order to make him seem more evil. Today, films such as Peter Pan and Batman have villains with disabilities (Shapiro, 1994). While it is obvious that this view paints disability in a negative light, there are other less obvious ways that society views disability in a negative light. Those are the views of the Tiny Tim and supercrip.
The Tiny Tim
Joseph Anastasio came to talk about ARC of Baltimore to an audience of TUSCFR members in a classroom in Burdick Hall last November. I was late, and before I got there he had asked people to write down the thoughts that first came to mind when they heard the word disability. I arrived in time to hear the answers. He called on four people, but I only remember three of the answers. One person said the elderly, another said people who cannot work, the third said she didn't know why but she always pictured little helpless children; I think the last person might have said something about wheelchairs. These are all very bleak images of disability. Especially, I thought, since it was 2006. They painted a very meager, maybe worthless, existence. Although I had not heard of the term until just recently, it was very clear to me that night that to those in the room, to be someone with a disability meant to be a Tiny Tim. That is the term (named after the character in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol) disability advocates coined to articulate society's view that people with disabilities (PWDs) are "childlike, dependant, and in need of charity or pity" (Shapiro, 1994 p. 14).
Most people, I think, inherently feel sorry for PWDs. They feel like we must be suffering or that we are incapable of taking care of ourselves and making our own decisions (Johnson, 2003; Shapiro, 1994). Even if one of us is successful, like historian Paul Longmore who has a PhD and has written several books, but just happens to have gotten polio as a child and has to use a ventilator at night, we are still pitied. "[Once, a stranger] approached him [Paul Longmore] on the street and said, ‘If I were you, I'd kill myself'" (Shapiro, 1994 p 39).
The image of the Tiny Tim gained popularity in the 1940's and 50's when charities focused on finding cures for disabilities such as polio. They realized that pity opens wallets, so they began poster child campaigns. These campaigns played on society's fear that this thing, this disability, this horrible tragedy, could very easily invade their homes. Unless, of course, they sent in money to find a cure. The undertone of these campaigns was clear: G-d forbid you end up with a disability like the child on the poster. You're life will no longer be worth living; you'll be less then human (Shapiro, 1994).
Besides print, television has been another medium that has been used to insure that the Tiny Tim image of disability persists throughout society. When television first began to become big people took advantage of the new medium and the telethon was born. Started in the mid-1950's, disability organizations that believe that to have a disability means that something is wrong with you and that you desperately need a cure still use telethons today. The most famous telethon is the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Telethons accomplish exactly what their predecessors, the poster child campaigns, did. They play on society's fears and in doing so perpetuate the feeling that to be disabled is something tragic. That is because telethons like the MDA Labor Day telethon most often focus on the small percentage of children who die from muscular dystrophy, for example, and not the far greater number of children and adults who go to school and work, have friends, and lead everyday normal lives (Shapiro, 1994).
The supercrip is the other side of the Tiny Tim. It paints a picture that is just as damaging (Shapiro, 1994). The supercrip image of disability says that PWDs are "courageous or heroic super achievers" (Shapiro, 1994 p. 16). The fact that a PWD who achieves something that is expected of a normal person gets praised illustrates just how low societies expectations are (Haller, 2000; Shapiro, 1994). The supercrip proves the presumption that the Tiny Tims can and should overcome their disability, which makes us pity those who cannot even more (Shapiro, 1994).
There are many instances of supercrips being portrayed in the media. Perhaps the most famous supercrip in US history is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had polio and called himself a "cured cripple" even though he could not walk at all (Johnson, 2003 p. 117). Christopher Reeve is probably the most famous supercrip of our generation. Following a horseback riding accident in 1995 that left him a complete quadriplegic until his death in 2004 Reeve remained absolutely admit that he would one day regain his ability to walk. Reeve even allowed himself to be digitally remastered to-almost realistically-"walk" in a 2000 Super Bowl commercial aimed at getting people to donate to spinal cord research (Johnson, 2003).
‘We were not meant to be living in wheelchairs. We were meant to be walking upright with all our body systems fully functional, and I'd like to have that back ... I'm not that interested in lower sidewalks' he told a reporter. It was nice to have access, he said, but people with disabilities should regard those disabilities ‘as a temporary setback rather than a way of life' (Johnson, 2003 p. 128-29).
Reeve's view is harming people with disabilities because he is echoing society's view that a life with a disability is second class at best (Johnson, 2003). He was the "... most recognized person in a wheelchair ever," so people had every reason to believe that this view echoed that of the rest of the disability community (Johnson, 2003 p. 129). Besides, Reeve just made for a great feel good story about fighting against the odds.
While some supercrips bring that status into themselves, some have that status thrust upon them. One such example is Jim Abbott, a pitcher for four Major League Baseball teams during the 1990's. Jim Abbott does not have a right hand. While Abbott tried hard to not to make a big deal out of his disability, a USA Today Article from his rookie season sensationalized a very average game (Shapiro, 1994). Another sports star thrust into the limelight is pro golfer Casey Martin. Because of his diabetes, Martin cannot walk long distances and requested the use of a golf cart on PGA tours even though they had been previously prohibited (Haller, 2000; Johnson, 2003). The use of a golf cart is not like a performance enhancing drug-it does not alter the way one swings his club (Haller, 2000). When the PGA refused, Martin sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which mandates that employers provide reasonable accommodation to otherwise qualified employees. The ADA also provides protection against discrimination by places of public accommodation-of which golf courses are mentioned specifically (Johnson, 2003). But, instead of presenting a story about the effectiveness of an antidiscrimination law, news media portrayed Martin's story as one about the triumph of the human spirit (Haller, 2000)
The Disability Rights View
I have been both a Tiny Tim and a supercrip. It is something that is easy to bounce between. Once, while sitting at an airport gate with my fully reclining rented wheelchair waiting to board a plane to fly to Minnesota for surgery, some man who was waiting to board the same plane prayed to Jesus that he should heal my legs so that I could walk again. Many other times people have told me that I inspire them. While it is easy to say that I do not want to be a Tiny Tim, being portrayed as a supercrip is something that I grapple with. The two instances sticking out in my head can illustrate the dichotomy I feel.
I went to summer camp in the mountains of southern Pennsylvania for six summers. The camp wasn't what anyone would call handicapped accessible-on top of being in the mountains, it was also in the middle of the woods. But the camps second director, Faye, was one of my mom's closest friends. Faye has known me since I was born and took it upon herself to decide that it wasn't fair that I should have to miss out on such a great opportunity that was camp-being that my level of impairment is relatively mild. So Faye bought a golf cart for the camp and I had a counselor drive me between activities that were placed particularly far apart. I think it was my fourth summer at camp, when I was 12 years old, that I took it upon myself to place on my camper interest form that my goal for that summer was to actually walk up "Killer Hill," the incredibly steep hill that separated the tennis courts, swimming pool, and archery range from the rest of the camp, instead of using my golf cart. Just once, just to say I did it... I wasn't crazy enough to think I could do it every day. I wasn't at camp very long before one of my favorite counselors came up to me and told me he had read what I had put on my form and how much it inspired him. I don't remember how far it was into camp that summer that I finally decided to do it, but the next morning my cabin's CIT had made an award that she decided to present to me at breakfast in front of the entire camp after the morning announcements. It made me feel uncomfortable. I hadn't climbed that hill because I was looking for praise and admiration, but because everyone else did it, sometimes several times a day, and while it felt cool that everyone was insanely jealous of my golf cart, it felt even cooler that I walked up Killer Hill just like everybody else. Calling me an inspiration, giving me an award, and making a fuss, just separated me from everyone else again. It wasn't a big deal when anyone else made it to the top of that hill after all.
The second instance happened much more recently, last April to be exact. My mom emailed my doctor, who works at Mt. Washington in PG county, right after I started volunteering and told her about how some of the patients were reacting to me, how cool they thought it was that I'm a patient there too. Dr. Alter replied with "She is an inspiration ... to all of us. I am thrilled." I printed that out and hung it on my wall until I moved at the end of the semester. What's the difference? Why doesn't that make me feel uncomfortable? Well, because I never thought about it that way before, but isn't that really why I'm getting into this field in the first place? To show the kids I know exactly where they are coming from and let them know all the pain and torture is worth something in the end. Dr Alter put it best when writing to me the same day to help me with my resources paper: "I am so excited.. I am also sure you are living proof to patients that people with CP do really...honestly have a life." In this case telling me I've inspired people is telling me I'm accomplishing my goal instead of telling me I've failed at it. I'm achieving what disability rights activists have been fighting to achieve for decades. To have us be viewed as people who "... are simply trying to lead normal lives, not inspire anyone" (Shapiro, p. 16).
Johnson, M. (2003). Make them go away: Clint eastwood, christopher reeve & the case against disability rights. Louisville, KY: Advocado Press.
Haller, B. (2000, Jan/Feb). False Positive. Ragged Edge Online, Retrieved 7/5/07, from http://www.raggededgemagazine.com/0100/c0100media.htm