Saturday, August 20, 2011

Comfort Zones

Earlier this week, I attended a community forum on images of women with disabilities in the media. Speaking about the lack of representation of women with disabilities in popular culture and media, one panelist said, 'People just need to get comfortable with disability.' She wasn't referring to people with disabilities embracing their own disability. She was speaking of the general population getting used to people with disabilities in the mainstream. According to the panelist, existing discomfort explains why disability, particularly women with disabilities, is poorly represented in media.

There are good examples that indicate the general population is indeed uncomfortable with disabilities. A few years ago, a woman named Cerrie Burnell began appearing as a presenter on Cbeebies, a television channel for children produced by the British Broadcasting Service. Burnell is a young woman with a disability. Her right arm did not develop typically. It extends just beyond the elbow. Soon after she began appearing on Cbeebies, the network began receiving complaints, primarily from parents of children who watch the show. According the complaints, a "one-armed" presenter was scaring the young viewers. Clearly, the parents were not comfortable with disability.

Also, the Muscular Dystrophy Association recently announced that Jerry Lewis would no longer be hosting the annual MDA Telethon. This announcement has generated a response from individual disability advocates, some of who are founders of a group called "Jerry's Orphans." Advocates founded Jerry's Orphans in response to a concern that MDA Telethons were just as good as perpetuating disability stigma as they were at raising money. Many in the disability community feel the telethons reinforce images of people with disabilities as objects of pity, who are helpless, and in need of charity. This stigma is no different from physical inaccessibility at creating barriers to inclusion and opportunity. In response to the recent announcement from the MDA, disability advocates have spoken out, saying that this is an opportunity for the telethon to change it's model from one rooted in pity and cures. In a column published in the Columbus Dispatch, disability advocate Deborah Kendrick wrote, "What plans MDA has for the tone of this year’s telethon remains to be seen. My guess is that without Jerry Lewis, they'll still raise money, and they'll probably do it with a bit more dignity." Kendrick is a kindred spirit of Jerry's Orphans, and made it clear in the column. The column generated some vicious, almost violent feedback from readers. In an online email exchange about the column and the feedback, Mike Ervin, a disability community member in Chicago and one of the original Jerry's Orphans, commented. Mike is a veteran of hundreds of protests, including blocking buses and barricading office building. But in the email conversation, Mike said protests against the MDA Telethons were the only time he ever felt scared at demonstrations. According to Mike, discomfort fed the fear. He wrote something to the affect of 'people at the telethons are not comfortable when we step out of the 'pity' model.'

The recent discussions on the idea of the general population becoming comfortable with disability made me start thinking of dwarfism. It made me think of the relationship between the image of people with dwarfism in the media as just regular people and the extent to which the every day person is comfortable with a dwarf as just an every day person in the community going about his or her business. As I have written several, in not many, times within this blog, I think progress is being made, partly because there many more images today in popular culture of people of short stature framed as just regular people. Granted, some people believe the motivation behind the wealth of images is rooted in exploitation, but nevertheless, the dwarfs who are appearing in the media are doing the things that a member of the general population would be doing, i.e. going to school, working, raising kids, etc... The more we are presented as members of the general population, the more "comfortable" non-dwarf members of the population will become.

That all being said, we are definitely not in the proper 'comfort zone' at this point. If a man driving his car through downtown Chicago were comfortable with dwarfs participating in the general population, he would not need to take a picture. I should have known what was up when the car stopped at the light two car lengths behind the crosswalk when there were no cars in front of his. I was to the car's left, waiting at the light on my bike to make a left hand turn. When the light turned, I started peddling across the intersection. The car passed on my right, and it was obvious what the man was doing with his quote unquote smart phone.

A step in the wrong direction, yes. But nothing compared to some recent positive news reports......

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