Disabled People As A Test of Character: The Guinness Commercial
Sep 4th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Okay, so. Guinness has a rather, shall we say, problematic new ad that features a bunch of guys in wheelchairs playing basketball. And when I say problematic, I mean that it makes me want to mutter expletives under my breath. Watch, listen, and be appalled:

The ad begins with a basketball flying in slow motion above a basket. Repetitive piano music plays – the kind that creates the score for “inspirational” stories of all kinds. The next several seconds of the video show six guys in wheelchairs playing basketball. You see them rolling down the court. Some of them crash into each other, fall over, and get back up. One guy scores a basket and high-fives another guy. Another guy scores a basket. Then, one of the players stands up and say, “You guys are getting better at this! Yeah! Next week, buddy!” Then, all but one of them stand up out of their wheelchairs and head for the exit, with the person in a wheelchair going with them.

The voiceover says, “Dedication. Loyalty. Friendship. The choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.”

The ad ends with all of the guys having a Guinness in a bar. The Guiness ad reads “Guinness. Made of More.”

When I first saw this ad, I thought it was just going to be an inspiration-porn kind of thing, with a good serving of “Look at what tough men they are! And they love Guinness! Tough men love Guinness! Even if they’re in wheelchairs! Roar!” Bad enough, but not surprising.

But then one of the guys gets up out of his wheelchair. And I’m all WTF?

And then four more guys get up out of their wheelchairs. And I’m even more all WTF?

So let’s see what we’re supposed to make of this video:

1) Real friends buy expensive lightweight wheelchairs so that they can play basketball with their disabled friends. Is this even a possibility for most people? No. No, it’s not.

2) Real friends (or is it just real men?) can somehow learn how to use a manual wheelchair well enough to play basketball in it. Is this even a possibility for most people? No. No, it’s not.

3) The one disabled person must be called out as an object of charity with “Next week, buddy!” Under no circumstances is anyone to say, “Next week, everyone!” Because, apparently, the other five guys just showed up for the disabled guy’s sake, not because they all wanted to play basketball together. Awesome.

4) Disabled people must be called “buddy.” Apparently, this is affectionate. If you’re five.

5) Including a disabled person become an opportunity to show what fine, noble, humanitarian people we are.

What can I say? If “the choices we make reveal the true nature of our character,” and we choose to make a disabled person the occasion for humanitarian sentiments by calling him out as an object of charity with a diminutive generally reserved for children — well, that makes our choices very suspect indeed, doesn’t it?

Look. The strange and surreal nature of the whole commercial aside, its message is about inclusion, and that would be great, except that the message is being handled in all of the wrong ways. Not only is the charity model so very, very outdated, but the whole idea of putting people on a pedestal for being inclusive is tiresome.

Including people is the right thing to do. Period. It’s not a test of character. It’s not an opportunity for humanity and heroism. It’s just basic ethics. Very basic. Very ordinary. Very pedestrian. No big deal. No need to put it on a billboard. No need to construct a commercial around it.

Inclusion is just another word for basic human rights.

Violating basic human rights? That shows something about your character.

Supporting basic human rights? That’s just something you’re supposed to do.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Smoochie Paraplegic Cat: When Disability Tropes Take on a Life of Their Own
Sep 4th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

On Love Meow: A Blog for Ultimate Cat Lovers, there is an article with the following title:

Smoochie Paraplegic Cat Doesn’t Let Her Disability Define Her

I kid you not. That’s a real headline. And it’s not on a parody site. (I checked.) Love Meow is just a site with lots of cute pictures and videos of cats.

I love cats. I love pictures and videos of cats. I have even been known to share them on Facebook with appropriate expressions of squeeee! and OMG THIS IS SO CUTE. And Smoochie is freakin’ adorable. Oh dear God. That face! I love her wheels. I love that her owners cared enough to get her some wheels. And I love that she has a happy life.

Now that we’ve established that I’m not some cat-hating curmudgeon bent on ruining everyone’s fun little cat-fest, let’s get to the disability rhetoric, because it’s just out of control. Along with the title, the first paragraph is almost enough for a bingo card:

Smoochie the cat doesn’t let her disability stop her. Being paraplegic, she doesn’t want anyone to pity her. With love and a pair of wheels, Smoochie now lives a happy life that inspires many.

So let’s see: so far, we have the person-first (cat-first?) trope (“doesn’t let her disability define her”), the overcoming trope (“doesn’t let her disability stop her”), the pity trope (couched as a plea to not pity little Smoochie), and the inspiration trope (“lives a happy life that inspires many”).

Already, I’m confused. First of all, I didn’t realize that cats struggle with identity issues. I mean, do cats argue about whether disability “defines” them? I think not. I’m also not sure that cats know that disability is supposed to stop them, being as they’re not all caught up in the discourse that passes for reality amongst human beings. I’m also not sure that cats know what pity is.

Yes, yes, I know that people project things onto animals all the time. But this is really over the top. It’s like someone took all the disability tropes in the world and plastered them on cute little Smoochie. These tropes are repeated throughout the article:

Cats with disabilities are no different from cats without disabilities: “The pure joy she shows when they put her in the wheelchair is as if she never had the disability. She runs around and plays just like any other kitties.”

See the cat, not the disability: “Smoochie never lets her disability define her.”

Cats with disabilities, and their heroic rescuers, should have their own Inspiring After-School Special: “Her humans believed in her and gave her a second chance at life, and now she’s happy and healthy as the mascot at West Side Cats, inspiring many with her story.”

Supercrip cats know how to get it done: “Smoochie is paraplegic but she doesn’t let it stop her.”

Disabled cats are inspirational: “Smoochie is now the mascot at West Side Cats, inspiring many with her story.”

It’s fascinating the ways in which these tropes amble around the culture, attaching themselves to any creature that is disabled. If anyone doubts that disability is a social construct, I give you Exhibit A: The Case of Smoochie the Cat.

Read it and weep.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Updated Post: Just How Far We Are From Equality: The San Diego Museum of Man’s Access/ABILITY Exhibit
Jun 28th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I’ve updated this post after receiving an email and a comment from Grant Barrett, the Marketing Manager at the San Diego Museum of Man. Apparently, the disability exhibit is on the first floor and is fully accessible; moreover, the city of San Diego — not the museum — is responsible for the elevator repair. The second floor, which holds other exhibits, is not accessible at this time. Mr. Barrett writes:

Rachel, thanks so much for writing about the exhibit.

Unfortunately, you got an essential fact wrong: the access/ABILITY exhibit is totally accessible to people with disabilities. It’s on the first floor, and we have ramps and wide navigation paths everywhere we need them on that level.

We put the elevator notice on that page because we know that our disabled guests will want to see more than that one exhibit. The notice is also on the front page of the website and we announce it with signs at admissions.

The elevator repair, by the way, is beyond our control. The City of San Diego owns our buildings and maintains our elevators. We have no say as to when they will repair them or how long it will take. We’re hoping that the repairs will take much less time than predicted.

Thanks for being considerate of all of our visitors and keep up your good works.

In the light of Mr. Barrett’s email and comment, of course, I’ve corrected the post. My main points, however, still stand: any inaccessibility is a civil rights violation, and the presence of the exhibit itself reflects the basic segregation and inequality with which disabled people live.

I know that our society, by and large, does not yet see disability as a civil rights issue. I know that when people see stairs but no elevator, most of them don’t realize they’re looking at a civil rights violation. I know that most people don’t even blink when they see a sign that says that people with disabilities have to enter through the back door.

But every now and then, I’m surprised by how far behind the curve we are. Case in point: The San Diego Museum of Man has an exhibit called access/ABILITY in which you can allegedly “learn about how people with disabilities navigate the world!” (Exclamation point not mine.)

How does one become thus enlightened? Well, all you have to do is to “Learn phrases in American Sign Language, type your name in Braille, try a hand-pedaled bike and take part in a multi-sensory City Walk!” (Again, exclamation point not mine.) Because that’s what it takes to understand how disabled people live. Just go to a museum.

And of course, it is sure to “inspire.” It always, always has to “inspire.” Because really, that’s how disabled people navigate the world. Inspiringly.

And then — and hold on for this one — the exhibit is currently not accessible to people with disabilities.the entire second floor is inaccessible to people with disabilities. Yes: in a museum with an exhibit showing how disabled people “navigate the world,” disabled people cannot navigate up to the second floor to see any of the exhibits there. I’m not kidding. The website reads:

Our elevator will be out of service June 24 through August 2. If you require an elevator, you will be unable to visit the second floor exhibits. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Of course, these three sentences are not without irony. After all, they say more about how disabled people navigate the world than a museum exhibit ever could. Not only is the exhibit second floor inaccessible, but the lack of an elevator is described as an “inconvenience” rather than as a civil rights violation. For those just joining us, that’s like calling a sign that says, “No blacks or Jews allowed” an inconvenience rather than a civil rights violation.

The very existence of this kind of exhibit (are we still exotic animals to be exhibited?) speaks volumes about the inequality and social segregation of people with disabilities. Volumes. If we people with disabilities were actually integrated into society, people would have a pretty stellar notion of how we navigate the world. But when we’re set apart, we become curiosities.

As far as I’m concerned, this kind of exhibit is simply the 21st-century equivalent of a freak show. The fact that such things still exist is evidence of how very far we have to go.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Just Don’t Call Me Inspirational
Oct 18th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

For the first 50 years of my life, I was singularly uninspiring. As a child, I ate Lucky Charms for breakfast (the green, yellow, and pink marshmallows, of course, not the cereal or the milk), and while in school, I was the poster child for compliance, paying attention to my teachers and moving from grade to grade. I went on to college and, when I became an adult, I made a paycheck at jobs that had nothing extraordinary about them. My titles included cashier, short-order cook, dishwasher, babysitter, housecleaner, graduate student instructor, and senior technical writer. I got married, had a kid, got religion, bought a house, got divorced, got married again, raised chickens, took walks in the woods, laughed, cried, lost religion, and tried to get a decent amount of sleep.

And then I was diagnosed with Asperger’s and, oh my God in heaven, I became an inspiration — not just in the present tense, but retroactively. Everything that had once been ordinary became extraordinary. It was entirely against the laws of physics, and yet, it was palpably so.

I had not realized how inspirational I was until, shortly after my diagnosis, I had occasion to go to a routine doctor’s appointment. My husband came with me. After some conversation, the nurse began preparing me for an ECG. For some reason that I still do not understand, the nurse (who had only just met me) began talking about her son Joey, who has autism, and how they never, EVER use the word autism in their family with reference to Joey. As she’s talking, she’s describing incidents in which Joey’s autism would be patently obvious to even the most casual observer, but she’s insisting that the word itself must never be spoken. Joey is just quirky, different, odd. Joey cannot be called autistic.

As I was lying there on the table, I took it into my head to say something. Maybe I just felt bugged by the fact that she thought autism was some sort of dirty word that had to be hidden in plain sight in her own house. Or maybe my super-sensitive auditory system was begging me to please, please, just say something, anything, to interrupt the torrent of words coming at me. Whatever the reason, I decided to share.

I said, “I’m autistic, you know.”

And the next words out of her mouth were, “You ARE? And you’re MARRIED? Do you have KIDS?”

I assured her that I did — a teenage daughter, three grown stepchildren, and a godson.

“Oh my God,” she said. “You’re so INSPIRATIONAL.”

Mind you, at this point, I’m lying on a table in a doctor’s office in a hospital gown. Where was the inspiration? I made a mental checklist of what had happened in the room. My husband and I had come in together. I had spoken of my kid, stepkids, and godson. The nurse had spoken about the test. I had asked why I needed to have an ECG, given that my blood pressure is low, that I have no heart disease, and that I have no family history of heart disease. I had learned that the doctor does baseline ECGs for all of his patients over the age of 35. I had assented to the test.

My being inspirational seemed to be about very basic things — about speaking, about asking questions, about being married, about having kids, and about being in the doctor’s office for an ECG. That’s all the nurse knew about me, and that was enough.

I soon learned that I was even more inspirational than I’d thought. Not only was my present life inspirational, but my whole life had been inspirational as well.

I was at a therapeutic horseback-riding lesson and my instructor, who had read my memoir, used the I-word to describe my story. Now before you begin thinking that I’ve had a very exciting life, parachuting with life-saving medicines into war-torn countries, and that it is all described in gripping detail in my autobiography, I must make full disclosure: My life has been pretty pedestrian. Really. My memoir is about struggling through 50 years of everyday life undiagnosed, and then learning to adapt to disability, and then finding some peace with who I am. Interesting to some, if my book sales are any indication, but not the stuff of drama.

I know that my instructor was trying to be kind. I know that she was telling me that she thinks highly of me. But as soon as I heard the word inspirational, my heart sank. Inspirational is such a distancing word. It’s a way of telling me that I am other, and that if I communicate, or get married, or have kids, or go to a doctor’s appointment, or search to be at peace with myself, just as most people on the planet do, the response will be different from what most people on the planet encounter. The response to my struggle to be fine with who I am will not be: You know, I’ve really struggled with finding peace with myself, too. The response will be: It’s so amazing that you’re disabled and you’ve found peace with yourself! The implication, always, is that the other person simply could not imagine finding peace inside disability. And of course, the hidden danger of inspiring people by not hating yourself is that your detractors will say that if you feel peaceful, you’re either deluded or not really disabled in the first place.

So here in mid-life, and entirely without my consent, I have become an inspiring crip. I am often very curious about the picture of disability that underlies the figure of this inspirational creature. I realize that most people, even parents raising disabled children, get their ideas about adult disability second-hand, largely from medical and media representation. Most people have very little everyday experience of adults with disabilities, and so they have these pictures in their minds of who we are and what our lives are like. And it’s these representations, and not our lives themselves, that create the very idea of inspiration. The nurse preparing me for the ECG thought I was inspiring not because speaking, and asking questions, and being in a doctor’s office, and having a husband and kids are inspiring in and of themselves, but because they are so out-of-kilter with what she believed life-long disability to be. In her mind, I should not have been doing any of those things, so the fact that I could do them was nothing short of amazing.

One of the oddities of being diagnosed in mid-life with a disability I’ve always had is that I get to watch people assign different meanings to exactly the same events pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis. My neurological condition has not changed. What has changed is that my hidden disability now has a label that I do not hide. That is all — and that is everything. In the past, I was just a kid getting out of bed and brushing my teeth in the morning. I was just a college student, studying for exams. I was just a grown-up, shlepping myself to work every morning, sharing my life with someone, and having a family. It was all quite ordinary. It was full of bills to be paid, oil to be changed, and groceries to be gotten. It still is. It’s no big deal. It’s all in what people like to call the ordinary course of things.

Unless you speak your disability. And then it’s all an inspiration.

That inspirational quality has nothing to do with me. It has to do with the distorted pictures that people carry about disability. So when people tell me that I’m inspiring, as much as my ego would like to latch on to the approbation and my heart is ready to accept anything so long as it’s given kindly, I simply cannot claim the title, because it’s not about me at all.

I’m just trudging through life like everyone else. So come and trudge along beside me. Just don’t call me inspirational.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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