The New Derrick Coleman Duracell Ad Gets It Right
Jan 17th, 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Every time that a new ad featuring a person with a disability comes out, I get ready to cringe. So when I learned that Duracell had released a video ad featuring Derrick Coleman, a fullback for the Seattle Seahawks and the first deaf offensive player in the NFL, I had to get myself in a good mood before I watched it. And certainly, if you look at how others are talking about the video, you’d be apprehensive, too. Hollywood Life ran the video under the headline Derrick Coleman: Watch The Deaf NFL Star’s Inspiring Commercial, and HuffPo crowed Deaf Seahawks Fullback Derrick Coleman Will Inspire You With This Commercial. The comments under the HuffPo article are painfully predictable, with people getting all inspired and teary.

So before I watched the video, I was bracing for inspiration porn. But that isn’t what I found. In fact, I thought that the commercial did an excellent job of showing that among the worst of the barriers that disabled people face are the ways in which we’re ignored, dismissed, and discounted. And, appropriately enough, it’s captioned. Take a look and see what you think:

From the beginning, the ad talks about the ways in which Coleman has been mistreated in his life. The ad doesn’t imply that being deaf is an impediment to being an athlete; in fact, it keeps the focus squarely on the people who discouraged Coleman on the basis of his deafness. “They told me it couldn’t be done. That I was a lost cause. I was picked on. And picked last.”

In fact, rather than saying, “I couldn’t hear” as the reason for his being ignored, the voiceover shifts the responsibility to the people who didn’t know how to communicate with him: “Coaches didn’t know how to talk to me.” To my mind, this is an absolutely stunning line. Whether anyone who put the ad together knows it or not, it comes straight out of the social model of disability. I was so amazed to see that line there that I played the ad several times, just to hear it.

And then, there is the double entendre of using “listen” to mean both “hear” and “take to heart”: “They gave up on me. Told me I should just quit. They didn’t call my name. Told me it was over. But I’ve been deaf since I was three, so I didn’t listen.”

There is great wordplay going on here. Not only does the double entendre work well, but being deaf metaphorically becomes an asset rather than a deficit. It’s his deafness that keeps him from listening to the voices of discouragement and believing in himself. In other words, in the logic of the video, he’s not in the NFL despite his deafness, but because of it. That twist on the mainstream narrative just floors me. And now that Coleman has been able to ignore the dismissals and the discouragement, he can hear the applause, the support, and the people on his side: “And now I’m here, with the loudest fans in the NFL cheering me on. And I can hear them all.” A deaf man saying that he can hear the crowd is a great way to confront the idea that being deaf is always about not hearing at all, and it makes Coleman a person with agency, not a passive victim of fate. He decides when he listens and when he doesn’t. No one else makes that decision for him.

The video ends with a tagline that could easily be read as inspiration porn: “Trust the power within.” Obviously, not all disabled people who believe in themselves experience inclusion, find employment, or get people to cheer for them. But I’m not reading the commercial as an “overcoming disability” story as much as a “don’t let the bastards grind you down” story. It’s not his disability that Coleman has overcome. It’s the microaggressions, the low expectations, and the prejudices of others that he’s pushed out of his head. To me, it’s not what he’s accomplished that is the main thing, but the fact that he stopped listening to the voices of dismissal and pursued something he loves to do.

Whether or not deflecting societal prejudice leads to any sort of tangible reward, simply deflecting it is crucial – and very difficult. No one should despair because of the attitudes of other people, and yet, so many of us do at one time or another. I like the idea of trusting the power within – not because it will help us to overcome all of the massive structural injustices we face, but because it engenders self-respect and self-love.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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

How Not to Have a Conversation about Disability
Jul 20th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: How Not to Have a Conversation about Disability

Top row: You’re not sufficiently disabled to speak to this issue.
Everything is about disability to you people.
Disability is NOT a civil rights issue.
You’re just bitter because you’re disabled.
The lift is broken. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.

Second row: Why are you so angry all the time?
Race, class, gender. Race, class, gender…
They prefer the term “people with disabilities,” you know.
Why are we talking about sick people now?

Third row: This amazing technology will make cripples members of society again!
I’d rather be dead.
Free space: WTF is ableism? Are you insane?
Aren’t we all a little bit disabled?
You don’t need accessible taxis. You might get hurt hailing a cab.

Fourth row: She drowned him because she loved him.
Handicapped people may enter through the back door.
We’re sorry we treated you so poorly. Would you like a gift card?
I was only in the handicapped parking space for a minute.
Can we stop talking about sick people now?

Last row: How can a person with [insert disability here] raise children?
I don’t see disability. I only see people.
Don’t waste a kidney on a kid who will never be normal.
He’s a truly inspirational burden on society.
You’re too disabled to speak to this issue.

The text below the graphic reads]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

How Not to Have a Conversation about Racism
Jul 20th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: How Not to Have a Conversation about Racism

Top row: You can never know what is really in another person’s mind.
You’re always playing the race card.
You’re just prejudiced against white people.
The black community needs to address [fill in the blank].
I never have any racist thoughts.

Second row: You’re being so divisive.
We’re all equal in America.
Why don’t you get this upset at black-on-black crime?
I don’t see color.
Slavery is over. Stop living in the past.

Third row: The system works.
Free space: What was he doing there?
I think that black people should fix racism by [fill in the blank].
Black people can be racist too, you know.

Fourth row: Everything is about race to you people.
I hope they don’t riot.
Could people stop talking about this now?
I don’t care if you’re black or white or green or purple…
The jury has SPOKEN.

Last row: Are you calling me a racist just because I’m white?
The killer was just scared.
You’re always crying racism.
I can’t be racist. I’m a liberal.
How can I be an ally when you’re so angry all the time?

The text below the graphic reads]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

How to Leave Disability Rights Out of Your Political Analysis
Jun 29th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: How to Leave Disability Rights Out of Your Political Analysis

Top row:To be fully inclusive, feminists need to start dealing with race, class, and LGBT rights.
They attacked the man in the wheelchair only because of his race.
You’d have to be crazy to think that disability had anything to do with it.
Oh, God. She’s talking about disability AGAIN.
Disability? You mean sick and handicapped people?

Second row: We all have to be strong and independent.
The fight for LGBT rights is the last remaining civil rights struggle.
When I think about my privilege as a white male, I feel paralyzed.
When you ask, “Does this class on critical theory include disability?” what do you mean, exactly?
It’s different. We’re allowed to devalue your body.

Third row: GOP voters are blind/deaf/mentally ill/retarded/brain-dead.
Disability is a medical issue.
Free Space: Disability. Eww.
No, our forum on Diversity and Culture is not accessible.
It’s not like Deaf culture is really a culture.

Fourth row: If there are any special needs people in this class on critical theory…
Intersectionality means looking at how race, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation work together.
Are you nuts? You want us to include disability in our diversity curriculum?
Etc. Etc. Etc.
We’ll get to disability when we’ve dismantled the patriarchy.

Last row: We’re not talking about disability right now.
Stop distracting us from the critical issues.
Disability rights?
Didn’t we settle that with the ADA?
I fail to see how glorifying pain and suffering helps anyone.

The text below the graphic reads]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Disability Rights are Civil Rights
Jun 21st, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Imagine that you were simply living your life and someone attempted to exclude you from a public park. Or took your child away from you. Or urged you to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Order. Or told you to use the back door to a theatre. Or told you that you couldn’t come into a restaurant.

Now imagine that someone said or did any one of those things only because of your race. Or only because of your sexual orientation. Or only because of your ethnic origin. Or only because of your gender identity. Or only because of your socio-economic class.

You’d consider it a civil rights violation, wouldn’t you? And you would be right.

These are exactly the things that disabled people experience, every day, only because they are disabled.

Think disability isn’t a civil rights issue? Think again.

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: Disability Rights are Civil Rights

Top row: There are only three steps to get into the prom/theatre/polling place.
We have no elevators. It’s an old building.
The wheelchair entrance is in the back.
Why don’t we just carry you up the stairs?
He tased the nonverbal man when he wouldn’t answer.

Second row: We’re taking your child away because you’re blind.
I can’t hire people with disabilities. They’ll need too much sick time.
Your service dog is not allowed in this restaurant.
Your child can’t play in the park. His flapping disturbs the other children.
Are you sure you want me to do that basic life-saving surgery I do all the time?

Third row: Deafblind people may not fly without a caregiver.
If you keep asking me to provide accommodations, you’ll have to find another doctor.
Welcome to the Free Space. One Flight Up.
Contact the Disability Support Office when your condition has improved.
You can’t fly first-class. It will upset the other passengers.

Fourth row: You’re going to sign a DNR before your operation, aren’t you?
You can use the freight elevator. Watch out for the trash.
You can’t enter the museum. Your wheelchair will dirty the floor.
The handicapped don’t come here anyway.
If your child has Asperger’s, Doctor Smith will add a $50 surcharge per visit.

Last row: If I make this special exception for you, I’ll have to do it for everyone.
Sorry for the lack of access, but you’re welcome to have a drink outside.
We’re only giving these lungs to a kid who will grow up to be a tax-paying citizen.
The elevator is out of service indefinitely.
I attacked him because he was acting retarded.

The text below the graphic reads]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Neurotypical Awareness: They Need Your Help
Apr 10th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Neurotypical Awareness: The Gifts That Awareness Brings
Apr 6th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Neurotypical Awareness: It’s Inexplicable
Apr 4th, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

What Autism Awareness Means at Autism Speaks
Apr 2nd, 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Autism awareness. Just when you think it couldn’t get any more annoying, it does. And it’s only April 2nd.

Apparently, the folks at Autism Speaks, in their infinite wisdom about all things autism, decided it would be an excellent idea to spend good money (you know, the kind that might actually go for supports and services and other boring and unimportant things) on a useless piece of technology. How useless?

Very useless. This technology allows people to imagine how parents might feel when their autistic kids don’t make eye contact with them.

Yes. It’s a simulation exercise to make people aware of the utter heartbreak of having a child who struggles with eye contact. Except, of course, in this video, the child isn’t struggling. The child simply does not make eye contact at all. Ever.

Take a look:

Source: Autism Speaks, Ad Council

What’s this video about? It’s about how other people feel about autistic people.

It’s not about how autistic people feel when others try to make eye contact. It’s not about why autistic people have difficulty with eye contact. It’s not about why autistic people often avoid eye contact. It’s not about why eye contact can be emotionally and neurologically overwhelming for autistic people.

No. It’s all about what a bummer it is for others that we have this disability at all — if lack of eye contact can even be called a disability. In some cultures, too much eye contact is considered rude. Are people in those cultures crying their eyes out over a lack of sustained eye contact? It’s doubtful.

But of course, Autism Speaks’ message isn’t about understanding. It’s about awareness. Of how other people feel about us.

And it’s utterly shameful.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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