Thursday, December 23, 2010

Disability: Reality vs. the one-legged runner

Note: I promised to post the following article a couple of months ago, but medical issues, both mine and my husband’s, slowed things down for a while. We’re both doing better now, so now I’m back to the grind, and you’ll hear a lot more from me for a while.

In my previous articles on Disability in the Media, I discussed the ways in which artistic productions focus on disability. Now, let me reveal another side of it with a couple of examples that have been covered by virtually all the news outlets, one recent and another from 1980. First, the 30-year-old case:

As a person disabled by chronic illness, I must confess what I think about the fantastic image of the “one-legged runner.” Many people are familiar with media images of Terry Fox, the young man who lost his leg to cancer before he tried running all the way across Canada. He had a two-fold purpose for his marathon-a-day journey: focus more attention on the need for cancer research and raise money for that research.

While his efforts at bringing attention and cash to the cause were successful, few people are aware that Fox had to end his journey well before he reached the halfway point, and nine months later he died of his disease. At the time, I appreciated the need to focus more attention on the need to spend more money fighting disease, cancer and any other type of illness. But like many others with various types of disabilities, I wasn’t completely thrilled by the image of the “hero” amputee that most people saw in the media.

That’s why I was delighted to read Cheri Register’s reaction to the one-legged runner in her book, Living with Chronic Illness: Days of Patience and Passion (Bantam, 1992). Ms. Register and I share a history of dealing with the ups and downs of the unpredictable nature of different kinds of chronic illness. I knew exactly how she felt about the one-legged runner, especially when she revealed that she’d heard the same reaction from others who suffer from chronic illness.

People with different types of chronic illness rarely have the capacity to run around the block, much less cross-country. We don’t have much opportunity to gain media attention and focus people’s minds on donating to research for our particular medical conditions. Thus, reports of the one-legged runner made many sick people fantasize about sneaking onto the sidelines along the course he was running and, when he passes by, sticking out a crutch to trip the “heroic symbol” that gets all the media attention.

Granted, it’s not a very charitable reaction. But it does help us sick people relieve a lot of our frustrations at being shut out of the media loop when the cameras focus on all the unbelievable heroes with different types of disability.

As if the decades-old image of the one-legged runner weren’t bad enough, now we hear about the quadruple amputee who recently swam the English Channel. The angel on my right shoulder reminds me that I must congratulate Philippe Croizon, who completed the crossing in 13 ½ hours. On the other hand, that impish fellow on my other shoulder keeps whispering bad thoughts in my left ear: “Next time he tries something like that, maybe an anchor would slow him down just a wee bit.”

Okay, I’m really trying to be a good girl here. But the reality is, on the rare occasions that I try to explain something about the reasons for my disability, many people will counter with a claim that they know someone with [whatever detail I’ve just shared], and that person is doing just fine. I bite my tongue before I dare to ask if they know everything about that person’s life, such as the many hours, days, or longer, when that person hides the bad times because they only want to come out in public for the “up” times. I’m pretty sure the answer will almost always be “no.”

Then there are the many people who ignore everything I say about limitations I face daily. Instead, they insist I push myself beyond my capacity to do things for them. In recent years, my answer to such abusive demands is always “no.” Because of this, I end up being the one that’s called “selfish.” But I believe that focusing my limited energy in an attempt to help make this a better world, while they’re trying to manipulate me into satisfying some selfish demand of theirs, demonstrates the real difference between us.

Meanwhile, people who really need help don’t have the strength to do the spectacular things those unreal disabled “heroes” use to get all that media attention focused on their conditions. There are plenty of sick people who need help too. We need to find out how to get the media to pay attention to our situations.

The time has come for everyone to rethink their attitudes toward disability. The most important thing disabled people really want is help to break out of the disability “closet” and just be useful, productive, contributing members of society. That’s all I’m trying to do with this work.

Here’s my entire series on Disability in the Media:

Terry Fox (1958-1981), Canadian cancer fund-raiser,
during his 1980 “Marathon of Hope” fund-raising run across Canada.
July 12, 1980, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
courtesy Photographer Jeremy Gilbert)


  1. Bitter? Jealous? I just came across your article as a google alert for running across canada.
    Pain inevitable, suffering is optional. Everyone is capable of doing something great, to be an "unrealistic Hero". I don't know what your disability is, but i am sorry for what ever it is you have to deal with every day. I am sure it is horrible to wake up every day and face that reality. DO you think what Terry Fox did was easy? What sacrifices did he have to make for the good of others? If it wasn't for Terry fox, over 500 million dollars would not have been raised for Cancer research. Whether he had one leg or not, what he did was inspiring. You shouldn't allow others to measure you against others. Life is about being the best YOU you can be. If anyone tries to make you feel bad for NOT doing something....fuck em :)

  2. Thanks for your comment, "beats to beat cancer." What I'm talking about is the fact that like other minorities, there is a devastating conflict between sub-groups in the disabled community for the resources all of us need, for both research and care. It is much easier for people with certain conditions and talents to gain attention for their sub-group. We do all need more equal attention for these resources, and it's much harder for people in other splintered groups, especially "chronic illness," which is even more splintered because of the hundreds of different conditions that can cause our medical situations.

    And I regret that people confuse trying to stand up for the rights of all, hopefully with a touch of humor--in case you didn't see that, about the angel and devil on my shoulders--with bitterness! If you've read any of my previous entries on Disability in the Media (just check the menu below this article or in the right-hand column of this page), you'll see that people with all manner of disabilities are standing up for themselves, their own conditions, and the entire disabled community as a whole. That's not bitterness; that's a call for justice!