Today in Journalism: Woman Dances, World Reels In Shock
Last night, The Learning Channel in the United States aired a special on JoAnne Fluke, a dancer from Kansas. Since I’m writing about this on FWD/Forward, I think you can guess that JoAnne Fluke is a disabled woman. Fluke has caudal regression syndrome, a congenital condition of the lower spine. She was given a prognosis of less than three days at birth, and at 34, she’s winning wheelchair dance competitions. She’s a highly competitive dancer and she’s also interested in promoting wheelchair dance and raising awareness about the disabled dance community, two topics highly relevant to my interests.
She was profiled by a number of news outlets in the publicity ramp up to the TV special, and it’s really…interesting to see how journalists choose to depict her. The TLC special is called ‘Dancer With Tiny Legs,’ and thus it comes as no surprise to see titles like ‘The Tiny Dancer: Despite Small Webbed Legs, Woman Dances, Dreams.’ I see this kind of narrative a lot when it comes to talking about disabled dancers; there’s shock and surprise that, gee willickers, they can, like, dance and stuff! And set goals and work to achieve them! It’s so…wait for it, it’s in the first paragraph of the article…
…this amazing woman who suffers from a rare birth defect has gone against all odds and become a competitive ballroom dancer — and an inspiration to all those that she meets.
Inspiring! Of course, the illustration the article chooses to use is not an action shot of Fluke dancing. Instead, she’s posing on a floor with her dance partner, with the angle of the shot emphasising her partner’s long legs.
What’s fascinating about this particular profile is that it includes a sentence that’s actually quite neutral:
But while most people let their childhood dreams slip away…
I like that the article makes a point of simply saying ‘most people.’ Not ‘people with disabilities.’ ‘Most people.’ Because, the truth is, yeah, most people do let their childhood dreams slip away because they lose interest in them as they grow older, or for a variety of other reasons. Most articles about people with disabilities doing ‘inspiring’ things stress that their disabilities should have precluded their chances at ‘realising their dreams.’ This article points out that disability has nothing to do with whether you achieve your dreams or not.
Alas, it goes downhill from here. She has an ‘amazing story.’ ‘Despite’ her disabilities, she has ‘managed to create an able-bodied life for herself,’ because, as we all know, the nondisabled life is the thing that all of us aspire to, right? We all want to be normal. She puts on makeup! She drives her own truck! Wow, she really is just like a normal person! Who knew people with disabilities could drive, right? And put on makeup!
Fortunately, Ronnie Koenig at AOL Health stops writing at this point and lets Fluke answer some interview questions. The questions all read like a pretty common array of supercrip and good cripple stereotypes; how are you so strong? How come you never seem bitter about your disabilities?
Fluke’s responses are kind of a mixed bag, for me as a reader. I like that she points out that actually she’s not ‘super optimistic’ about her disabilities all the time; she talks about having a pressure sore, for example, and finding that frustrating. But she also reiterates a bit of some old narratives about disability. She talks about how she could have had it worse, and she gets her strength from G-d, etc.
But she also stresses that her disabilities have nothing to do with her being a dancer. It’s not despite or because of, as she puts it: ‘I’ve been a dancer since I was two years old. It has nothing to do with having disability or not having a disability.’ She also points out that achieving goals is about identifying those goals, getting to know yourself, and then working towards those goals, sound advice for anyone, of any ability status. And she points out that her goals don’t stop with dancing and promoting wheelchair dance, that she’s interested in becoming a Paralympic athlete.
However I feel about her responses, I do like that this profile gave her an opportunity to speak for herself, instead of filtering information about her through a lens. I got to learn about how she personally feels about her disabilities. So many profiles of people with disabilities I read feature interviews with family and friends, with everyone talking about the subject of the profile. In this piece, the usual narrative was reversed, and the subject talked about herself, which is the way it should be.
I’m not stoked about some of the language used about her in the intro, along with the rather patronising nickname that gets reiterated through the article, but I’m glad Koenig chose to profile her by allowing her to profile herself, for the most part. This is a step in the right direction, although I would have loved to see more neutral interview questions that didn’t set her up as a Supercrip from the very start.