Today in Journalism: Oh, I’ll Redefine Something For You, All Right

The Wall Street Journal has apparently been so sad that it’s been missing out on all the potential in disability reporting that it decided to go right for a bingo, do not pass go, do not collect $200. And I would like us all to issue a round of applause to Ben Rooney, because he has either created the most masterfully brilliant piece of parody I have ever seen, or he really studied up on bingo cards to produce this gem of a piece, ‘The Woman Who Redefined Inspiration.’ You can guess right from the title that this article is going to be awesome, right?

It’s a profile of Caroline Casey, a disabled entrepreneur who, among many other things, went on a trip around the world with a disabled crew, and, people, this story has it all. Inspiration! Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do! My parents didn’t tell me I was blind so I had no idea! And, of course, this absolutely beautiful line:

What makes her extraordinary is that Caroline Casey is blind.

Ayup. She’s not extraordinary because she’s a woman who has completed highly competitive academic programmes notoriously difficult for women, what with the more or less constant sexism. She’s not extraordinary for organising an around the world trip, which is no mean feat. Nope. She’s certainly not extraordinary for being a savvy and adaptive entrepreneur who  has designed programming used internationally. She’s extraordinary because she is blind1.

The focus of this story is her disability, and the disabilities of the people on her team:

Yes. A blind woman raced five laps at nearly 200kph (125 mph). And it gets better. She was racing against another blind person. Oh and her co-driver had no legs.

We are reminded, again and again, that you can do anything if you try hard enough, and that disability is simply a personal barrier you can overcome. If you can’t become an international entrepreneur, you personally are clearly doing something wrong. This narrative comes up so much, the ‘I won’t let anyone tell me no’ narrative. It neatly erases real-world barriers presented by society that individuals cannot do a damn thing about. Barriers like this very article, which casts disability as a personal tragedy you can surmount with a bit of elbow grease.

Her accomplishments as a businesswoman and her commentary on disability are is stuck way down at the bottom because that bit’s boring:

“Working with business you have to understand how business works. Worthy is not a business plan. So if business transforms its views around disability, then it is done. Disability will be done.”

For her technology is one of the key drivers. “It is one of the most empowering things there is for the community. Take Twitter for example. Deaf people can take part in a conversation. eBay has made disabled entrepreneurs, there is voice activated software. We can now use technology to have a life. It is one of the critical drivers. Unfortunately Facebook is not fully accessible for people who are blind but it is better than nothing.”

Casey wants to reframe the way people think about and contextualise disability and she’s especially interested in promoting job opportunities, autonomy, and independence. She even corrected the reporter on his language usage! But, again, we’re reminded that she’s only worthy of coverage because she’s blind; talking about social attitudes to disability, discussing the lack of opportunities for people with disabilities, that’s not the hook or the main interest. The thing the WSJ is counting on to get readers interested is ‘wow, let’s all gawk at the blind person!’ Doing a straight profile of an entrepreneur creating opportunities for people with disabilities and mentioning that she’s blind is out of the question, of course.

Which is a pity, because the work Casey is doing is important, it’s awesome, and it should be more widely covered. She’s confronting social attitudes and providing meaningful alternatives to that those attitudes; for people who want to devalue disability, she’s saying ‘ok, well, you’re going to be left out of changes in the business industry, as more PWDs become businesspeople and start changing the status quo.’

…her task is no less challenging than the race. It is to change the way society behaves by changing the way it thinks.

Well, yes. And articles like this remind me of exactly how much work has to be done here.

  1. Does this mean I am half extraordinary?

5 Comments

  1. We are reminded, again and again, that you can do anything if you try hard enough, and that disability is simply a personal barrier you can overcome. If you can’t become an international entrepreneur, you personally are clearly doing something wrong. This narrative comes up so much, the ‘I won’t let anyone tell me no’ narrative. It neatly erases real-world barriers presented by society that individuals cannot do a damn thing about. Barriers like this very article, which casts disability as a personal tragedy you can surmount with a bit of elbow grease.

    This seems to be true with a lot of “self-made” people; they assume that all their success was down to hard work or their own superior talents, and they forget that they got help or just got lucky, whether they are disabled or not. Sometimes one hears of a well-known businessman (or woman, in the case I remember from quite recently) who leaves none, or almost none, of their money to their children because they have to make it for themselves just like Mum or Dad and can if they really want to, because Mum/Dad did, and if they don’t succeed it’s their own fault. The same is true of “self-made men” who prospered against the odds and became millionaires telling us all why they shouldn’t pay their taxes to support lesser mortals (disabled or otherwise). It’s the same arrogant mentality applied to people who have a lot more against them, like not being able to get into most of the buildings where the jobs are.

  2. *sughs loudly*

    I think the WSJ is so bootstrap-fixated that this is the only way they can possibly look at disability.

  3. My grandmother didn’t tell my uncle he was blind, and it ruined his life. But I guess it’s better to take the risk of stranding someone with no identity, no support, and no understanding of how to adapt things for themselves, because there’s a tiny chance that they might end up a supercrip.

  4. “Yes. A blind woman raced five laps at nearly 200kph (125 mph). And it gets better. She was racing against another blind person. Oh and her co-driver had no legs.”

    Wow. You can really hear the writer salivating over the prospect of writing about so many exotic, inspirational metaphors performing party tricks – sorry, I mean, real people doing cool stuff because they want to and they can.

  5. Firstly, thank you so much for your comments and thoughts re the article. Much of what you wrote really resonated for very different reasons -in some ways it is why we are doing what we are doing at Kanchi.

    I have personally always struggled with the word “inspiration” whether one has a disability or not as it is so subjective and strangely, though not meant, can be alienating or creates unnecessary distance.

    Ben’s article has created quite a stir – maybe at this moment in the crisis people want to read something positive – you never can tell as I guess we all take different things from what we read and see based on our own experiences.

    But reading your thoughts I was nodding my head vigorously. I don’t want to be thought of as “inspirational” for not seeing so well, but more I want people to recognise both in themselves and in others that all of us are simply far more capable than we realise.

    I really hope and think that is what Ben was trying to get across – that resilience and not giving up and believing and seeing “more” is an imperative to being an entrepreneur – and failure, like it or not is part of that.

    But on a broader note – you are so right that we have to move beyond the typical stereotypes and labels that dog disability – either the “sad, needy dependent” who incites sympathy or the “super hero, over achiever” who creates a sense of awe for just going about life.

    How can we get this right? Beyond the fabulous BBC’s Ouch, who is getting it right? What examples in print, websites, film, TV, literature and art are getting it right?

    But what scares me the most is that the “disability issue” still remains broadly absent on the global agenda. We absolutely have to reframe it and we have to “normalise it” as its absurd that there is still such a lack of understanding around disability and how it iterconnects to all other social issues – education, poverty, city design, health etc.

    And lastly thank you for recognising the work we do at Kanchi and for “getting it” – you have positively articulated the problem so well and after everyone in the team read your blog we just wanted to say a huge thank you!

    So any examples of how the media get it right – please please let us know – books, film, print and TV!!!