Thursday, October 7, 2010

Disability in the media: Time to change attitudes

Despite being a double amputee, Robert David Hall juggles a successful
acting career, including a decade-long role as Dr. Al Robbins, coroner on
“CSI: Las Vegas,” and working as a disability activist, especially
as Chair of I AM PWD.
(Picture: Copyright Christopher Veolker, Wikimedia Commons)

So far in this series, I’ve focused on the situation that already is:

  • the various ways in which disability is portrayed in the media, both positive and negative;
  • how a few disabled roles require more from actors than people with certain disabilities can manage;
  • how disabled actors who could play disabled roles are often overlooked when casting those roles;
  • and contrary to the ways in which disability is often portrayed in the media, how many disabled people are abused in real life.

Of course, people who know what life is really like for the disabled also understand the reasons we need to change many of these conditions. But some people might wonder why we should even bother trying to change the ways in which disability is portrayed in the media.

The reason is simple: In order to effect social changes, we must focus on images of disability as portrayed in popular culture. This could be the only way to change the minds of many people who judge us by images they see on the big and little screens. As I AM PWD Chairman Robert David Hall explains:

“Society’s values and priorities are expressed and reflected in film, television, theatre, news and music. If you aren’t seen and heard, you are invisible. People with disabilities are largely invisible within the arts and media landscape. I AM PWD will change that.”

Thus, the job requires a comprehensive multi-pronged approach. Besides working in communities to improve the lives of people with various disabilities, everyone--from executives to producers to performers to consumers--must take action to change the face of entertainment and news. Employers within and outside of the media must hire more people with various types of disabilities. That means not only casting people with disabilities in various media productions, but hiring more disabled people for jobs in production offices.

We consumers can take action by demanding these changes too. We must support productions that include disabled performers, especially those that present honest portrayals of the reality that people with disabilities must deal with. In addition, we must refuse to support those productions that violate these principles. Write letters, send emails, and make phone calls to let media companies know you expect to see more disabled performers in their productions and disapprove of portrayals that go against these principles.

We must do the same with all the other types of companies too. People with disabilities have always experienced the highest percentage of unemployment in the country. We must learn more about which companies hire disabled workers and buy more of their products and services whenever possible.

And since disabled people experience a higher percentage of poverty than other minorities, we must support laws and policies that provide support and services to disabled people who need them. For instance, besides supporting federal laws that ensure most Americans will receive adequate health services, no matter their medical histories, we must lobby our representatives to improve what was only a first step toward providing everyone with all necessary medical care.

There are many other things we can all do to help make life better for people with various disabilities. Every so often, I’ll share information about the different ways we can all help in this endeavor, as well as many of the organizations that are leading the way in this campaign. Meanwhile, for more information on this issue, you can watch the video below (or go to YouTube to watch the video) from Robert David Hall and I AM PWD to learn more about the problems disabled performers face in an industry that has tried to keep us as invisible as they can.

Now that I’ve discussed various aspects of the images of disability in the media, my next article will be a bit more personal. I’m going to share another side of the media images of disability. I’ll reveal a somewhat naughty (no, not that kind of “naughty”) fantasy that many of us with certain types of disabilities have about the media invention of the disabled “hero.” Check back in a couple of days for that.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Disability: The media picture vs. reality

Even in the 21st century, prevailing prejudice against people with disabilities
would probably keep someone with a visible disability, like that of
Franklin Roosevelt, from being elected president of the United States.
(Photo of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Warm Springs, GA,
the only place where he could safely reveal his disability,
courtesy Wikimedia Commons: Images of American Political History.
Posting online by Dr. William J. Ball. All images
are believed to be in the public domain.)

So far in this series, I’ve discussed the public face of disability as presented by the entertainment industry. Now it’s time to get personal.

As I’ve intimated in previous articles in this series, I’ve dealt with various degrees of disability almost all my life, and so has my youngest sister. Over the years, our conditions have developed in different ways, to different degrees. Because we share some triggering factors but not others, we have some conditions in common and experience many symptoms separately. The way I explain it is: We have the same thing, only different.

When we compare notes on treatment we’ve received because of our conditions, we also find similarities and differences. The most important factor is that attitudes are pretty much the same. The negative ones are primarily based on ignorance and fear, the same emotions that spawn other types of prejudice. However, this type of prejudice is based on an extra element that’s harder to deal with:

Those who discriminate against others because of religion, skin color, nationality, gender, etc., don’t worry that they’ll become like the people they feel so strongly about. Their fear is based on ignorance about the others. But prejudice directed toward people because of illness and disability is based on a natural, and far too common fear that the same thing could happen to them.

Their discomfort is based on negative feelings about their own imperfection, weakness, and mortality. They know instinctively that in the blink of an eye, they could become just like us. This prejudice is actually an insidious form of self-loathing.

It’s much harder to get through such strong emotional barriers with reason and logic, especially since so many aspects of our society strengthen this fear. The worst culprit comes in the form of religious tradition. Almost all religions worldwide support the belief that there’s something inherently wrong with a person whose daily life is circumscribed by some form of disability.

That explains why, beginning in first grade in our parochial school, my sister’s medical condition made her the target of religious intolerance. One day this innocent child was ordered to hobble on her crutches to the front of the room and stand before the entire class while the nun explained that she’d been cursed with polio because she’d committed some terrible sin.

Imagine the shame my sister felt, being made an object of such cruel condemnation before her entire class when she couldn’t even understand why she’d been “chosen” to be ill in the first place. At that time, the Roman Catholic catechism taught that children aren’t responsible for their actions before the age of seven, considered the “age of reason.”

Since my sister was stricken at the age of six, the nun’s crime of psychological abuse was supported by nothing more than irrational religious intolerance. In fact, their anger toward my sister was so intense that more than one nun took out her frustrations on my little sister, even to the point of pushing her in line when she couldn’t move fast enough on crutches and braces to suit them.

By the time she was in high school, my sister was strong enough to walk without crutches or braces, but she still had issues with coordination. That’s why she was often picked on by the gym teacher, until one day when the teacher used her as an example for the entire class of how not to perform a particular exercise.

This event, along with many others, made my sister finally beg mother to help her get out of gym class. Unfortunately, the school counselor was the gym teacher’s girlfriend, so their complaints proved to be counterproductive. It finally took a doctor’s note to exempt my sister from gym class for the rest of the year. But the counselor wasn’t finished with her yet.

When the time came to help students plan their futures, the counselor thwarted my sister’s hopes for higher education by telling mother her youngest daughter “wasn’t college material.” That’s why this bright young woman gave up any dreams of more schooling and found work in the growing field of computer technology. Eventually she founded a successful company that provided computer accounting services to numerous professionals, including many doctors and lawyers in the Los Angeles area. So much for not being college material!

Like my little sister, the reality I witnessed around me was exactly the opposite of what was shown in the media. In movies and on TV, disabled people were often portrayed as having negative attitudes about their conditions, then some healthy person would come along to teach them how to either accept their conditions with grace or fight to become well again.

I realized early on that while my sister and I instinctively dealt with our conditions as intelligently as any child could, negative attitudes from many people around us often made our lives intolerable. We were often objects of antagonism and abuse because our disabilities upset so many people.

From a very young age, I was constantly chastised for having severe allergies. I was often criticized by adults for not being able to breathe through my nose because I couldn’t get it to stop running. For instance, several times my senior high school English teacher kept me after class to give me a lecture--making me late for my next class--because she was angry with me for constantly sneezing while she was trying to talk.

What I didn’t have the bad manners to tell her was that since she’d dictated the seating order, I was forced to sit in the path of every insidious allergen in the room. I’ve always been sensitive to cold, and my seat was right next to the window. As the weather turned colder, I was subjected to a steady stream of chilled air coming off the nearby glass. Below that was the heating unit, which blew warm moldy air directly at me. Topping it all off, with my desk sandwiched directly between the window-heater array and the teacher’s desk, I spent the first hour of every school day gagging on her godawful cheap perfume.

As if it weren’t enough that I was born allergic to so many things, in the mid-1950s I developed a particularly virulent case of female disease. Needless to say, I was often shamed and punished because of that. Worse, because my disease went untreated for decades because of negative attitudes of people who should have cared about me, I now suffer from a greater degree of disability than I would have if I’d received proper treatment decades ago.

For a variety of reasons, almost everyone from family to medical professionals generally denied my access to treatments that could have helped my condition. When I finally received treatments that slowed or stopped the progress of certain conditions, I was told that nothing could be done to reverse the extensive damage that now limits my capacity to fully enjoy each day.

The trouble is, in the minds of so many people, everything we disabled people do or say is always wrong. They believe that having a disability automatically makes us “bitter.” If we stand up for our rights, we’re labeled “militant.” Strangely, I’ve found that some of the strongest of these accusations often come from people who claim to be pro-civil rights. Still, they draw the line when it comes to standing up for human rights for people with disabilities.

Sadly, the abuse my sister and I have experienced is not uncommon. That’s why I hate to disappoint all the naysayers and abusers, but their anger and condemnation isn’t going to shut me up. I will continue to do everything in my power, within my physical limitations, to fight for the rights of people with disabilities everywhere. One of these days, they might find themselves in need of my help. Not to worry. I will be there for them, as much as I can be, given my limitations.

That’s why I try to avoid watching media portrayals of negative or stereotypical disabled characters. I also try to avoid those stories in which able-bodied actors are cast in the roles of disabled characters, except where a performer with that type of disability couldn’t handle the full range of the role’s demands.

In my next, and the last, article in this series, I’ll explain why the time has finally come to change these negative attitudes toward the disabled. One of the most important and effective places we can start to change those attitudes is with media images of disability.