Category Archives: representations
I don’t have a t.v. at home so I don’t actually watch a lot of advertisements, but when I do, there’s one thing I notice: Unlike the rest of my life, advertisements only include people with evident disabilities when they want to make some sort of point.
I’m really bothered by this. I know, I know, it’s advertising. We also don’t get excited about brighter brights in our laundry and aren’t followed around by wind machines when we get new shampoo. It’s certainly not supposed to represent “real life” in any way, because it’s all fantasy to sell you stuff. But part of what advertising sells us is ideas about people. And part of what I think it sells us is that disability is a punishment, a novelty, a metaphor, or a joke.
As we’ve said before, disability never just is.
I think this does immeasurable damage to both our perceptions of ourselves as disabled people, but also people’s perceptions of disability and what it looks like.
Today I’ve pulled up a bunch of US-based advertisements (oh, wait, I added the Quebec advertisement after writing this paragraph – Canada & the US!) that feature people with disabilities. I’m curious about what people’s thoughts are when they watch these. What take-away messages about disability do you get?
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): Disability as punishment.
The video is a bit grainy, probably meant to invoke “home movie”. It opens with tinkly piano music of sadness and woe. A male singer croons: Together…..
The video opens showing a young man sitting on a bench, reading a book. He’s labelled “Your Best Friend”.
The Singer croons: We’re meant to be….
The young man looks up! There’s a woman! She’s walking up to him, obviously excited to see him. She’s labelled “Your girlfriend.”
The camera pans back to show this scene as viewed through a hospital window. The couple – your best friend and your girlfriend – walk off together hand in hand.
The singer croons: Together! Forever!
The camera continues to pan back to show the back of someone sitting in an electric wheelchair, staring out the window. The hospital room is obviously very bleak. This person is labelled “You”.
The screen goes black, and then: “You have a lot to lose. MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”
That’s right, folks: Don’t drink and drive because if you do you’ll become a scary scary cripple and your girlfriend will leave you for your best friend and you will die alone and unloved!
[Of course it’s a terrible idea to drink and drive. But I’ve seen hundreds of anti-drunk driving ads, and they really can send the same message without implying ‘Don’t drink & drive because cripples don’t get no love’. It can be done!]
Berlitz: Bait & Switch
Camera is doing a gradual close-up on a man in a wheelchair. Behind him is a park. The music is the tinkly piano of sadness.
Man: Up until two weeks ago I always said “It will never happen to me.” But today, look at me. Listen to me. Now I speak English fluently.
The screen goes black, and then “Berlitz. In just two weeks.”
I really waffled back and forth on this ad. On the one hand: Hey! It’s a person in a wheelchair and they’re not presenting him as a sad story. On the other hand, the whole point is to “trick” you into thinking he is telling his sad story but it turns out Surprise! He’s not. I feel this falls into the trope of “Disability to titillate”. What do you think?
Michael J Fox on Stem Cell Research (US political ad)
[Michal J Fox has visible tremors from Parkinson’s Disease.] As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri, you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope. They say all politics is local but that’s not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me.
“I’m Claire McCaskill, and I approve this message.”
Pepsi Superbowl Ad: Deaf people tell jokes, who knew?
The entire advertisement is in ASL:
Woman: This commerical was created and performed by EnAble – a network in PepsiCo which supports inclusion, diversity, and the inclusion of persons with different abilities.
Two men are driving slowly down a residential street, looking around and obviously trying to find which house they’re going to.
Passenger: Hey! We’re going to be late. We’re going to miss the kick off.
Driver: Which house is Bob’s?
Passenger: I thought you knew.
Driver: I thought you knew?
Passenger: No I thought you knew!
Driver: I thought you knew!
Passenger: No! I thought you knew!
He shrugs and starts honking the horn.
HONK HONK HONK
Lights in all the houses start to come on. A dog starts barking. People look out their windows annoyed.
One house stays dark.
Driver: That’s it!
Passenger: Yeah, ya think?
They go up to Bob’s house and push the doorbell. The lights flicker. Bob opens the door. Across the street he catches his neighbour’s eye.
Creating an inclsive environemnt for people with different abilities.
Quebec Society for Disabled Children: Give children wings!
[An animated young boy walks onto the screen, looking sad.] It’s not always fun being a child.
[He sits down into a drawing of a wheelchair.] Especially when you’re disabled.
[A butterfly flies around him, and he begins to look happier.] Disabled children are just like any other children.
[The butterfly lands on his finger. He looks overjoyed.] When you open your hearts, you give them wings.
[The butterfly carries him up into the sky.] Please, help them spread their wings. Thank you for helping the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.
What are these advertisements saying about people with disabilities? What examples of people with disabilities have you seen outside of drug commercials? And what impact do you think these sorts of advertisements have on our perceptions of ourselves, and each other?
Ages ago, I said I was going to write a series about disability in Greek myth. Of course, I had to do things like “study,” “sleep” and “move three times in six months” so that fell through. Oh, Hephaestus, I am sorry. However, I hope this post covering a fair portion of the myths featuring blindness will do you!
From blinding as a means of punishment or defeating enemies to associations with musical and prophetic gifts and indeed insanity, blindness performs a whole lot of functions in Greek myth. There’s so much to cover, so I’ll assume a certain familiarity with the myths themselves (just Google if you get confused, or ask me for a reference, I’ve got loads on hand). Let’s dip in, shall we?
There’s a recurring theme in Greek myth of gods and heroes blinding monsters. Zeus ends the Titanomachy (the Titan rebellion against the Olympians) by blinding the Titans with his flash of lightning. His enemy, Typhoeus, is a threat because of his hundreds of flame-spurting eyes. The power to force blindness is positioned as a defining power in conclusive defeat. By having both Apollo and Heracles then shoot out Ephialtes’ eyes, this frankly offputting kind of power reinforces the collective dominance of the Olympians.
Perseus continues the institution of blindness in order to subdue in stealing the Graeae’s eye and continue his quest. There’s also Argos: only in closing his eyes – being “blinded” – is he vulnerable to Hermes, who then decapitates him. But when Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops, he himself is punished. Who ought to be sighted and who blind, then, ought to be under divine control, according to these narratives.
Blindness as punishment
This is a frequent trope! Metope, for example, is punished by her father Echetus with blindness and must work to regain her sight. Where Argos had to be “blinded” in order to be decapitated, Alcmena’s mutilation of Eurystheus’ eyes is performed after his decapitation in order to humiliate him. (Yep, not exactly blindness-positive here, are we…) Then there’s blinding as revenge, as with Polymestor’s punishment for murder in Hecabe.
People are often blinded for offences against the gods, as with Erymanthos after he saw Aphrodite bathing. Stesichorus is supposed to have been blinded on insulting Helen, the daughter of Zeus who was caught up in the Trojan War. Unusually, when he retracts, Stesichorus regains his sight. Another case in which blindness is temporary is when Poseidon put a mist before Achilles’ eyes to stop him killing Aeneas. Orion is blinded as a punishment for rape, but he regains his sight upon seeing Helius, the sun: blinding punishments don’t seem to hold for gods as they do for humans without divine favour.
As much as it pains me to have to talk about metaphorical blindness, it’s important when it comes to Oedipus. Perhaps the most famous blind figure in Greek myth, the idea is that his lack of insight leads to his literal loss of sight. The parallel is particularly drawn in the passage in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus and the prophet Tiresias throw accusations of “blindness” at each other. Oedipus, still sighted at this stage in the Theban cycle, accuses Tiresias of having both blind eyes and mind, but it is the foresight of the blind prophet that predicts that the same will be said of Oedipus. This grates on me, but it’s still pretty great in that, where blindness has in many myths represented a lack of power – in punishment and defeat – here Tiresias’ associated prophetic sight trumps the visually sighted Oedipus.
Moving on to Oedipus at Colonus, following his self-inflicted blinding, Oedipus has clearly undergone an internal change, exchanging his sight for much insight into his destiny and that of his family. Psychoanalytic readings deem Oedipus’ self-blinding a symbolic castration, a punishment for his improper sexual behaviour (he marries a woman who turns out to be his mother). That interpretation certainly fits with the dynamic of blindness as punishment.
Greek myth features a singular association between blindness and prophecy. I find the stories of those who move between blindness and sightedness particularly intriguing. That’s the case with disease-blinded fisherman Phormion’s recovery of his sight after a prophetic dream. Rarely for Greek mythology, seer Ophioneus was born blind, and his temporary sightedness occurs after a sudden head pain. These myths, in their very inversion, point to a Greek tradition of linking prophetic insight with visual sight across many types of myths.
This is furthered with the instances of prophecy being granted as recompense for loss of sight. Euenios only receives prophecy as compensation because his inaction helped the cause of the gods. Conversely, a god is responsible for Tiresias’ blinding, because although his seeing Athena bathing was also a mistake, Zeus’ law mandates that he must be blinded. However, Athena’s gifts of prophecy and long life to Tiresias fill the compensation component we’ve come to expect. Fellow seer Phineus perpetuates the link between long life and blindness, choosing both over sight. Once more, visual sight is exchanged for something far more powerful.
There’s also a strong association between blindness and musical talent. The talented piper Daphnis’ blindness is another example of removal of sight at the hands of supernatural forces. Such treachery of the Muses is also demonstrated with Achaios, who is blinded by bee stings (bees are associated with the Muses). It reappears in Demodocus’ case also, with the giving of musical talent and the taking away of his sight marking another instance of sight being exchanged for a powerful talent.
In the Iliad, the Muses are said to have maimed and taken the voice of the bard Thamyris after he boasted he was more talented than they were. Intriguingly, there is a tradition that Thamyris was also blinded, but Homer’s text itself doesn’t make this explicit. The continuation of such a tradition even outside tangible support from the official text demonstrates, I think, the significance of the blind musician in Greek culture. Indeed, references to the figure of the blind singer seem to have been encouraged by the Homeridae, the descendants of the blind poet Homer.
These myths, however, have very different meanings and doubtless cultural significance. The blindings are a mix of punishments and arbitrary whims, tied to the musicians’ talent and not. There’s no cohesive mythical function of blindness going on here that I can figure out; blindness just seems to be inserted every which way.
Back to metaphors again, I’m afraid, with Atê, the spirit of delusion and “blind” folly. She is known also as Ruin as she leads all who follow her astray by causing them to become “blinded” to their mistakes and often insane. Another of Greek mythology’s numerous linkings of blindness and madness is in Ajax. Athena describes the madness she institutes in Ajax in very visual terms, saying she will make his eyes dark although he still is sighted. This rendering of blindness is in fact a means of saving Odysseus from Ajax, further showing that blindness in Greek myth can be as much about divine favour as it is about punishment.
Greek myth is characterised by myriad meanings and functions of blindness. Whether blindness is representing establishment or exercise of power dynamics, whether it appears as a metaphor, whether it is performing a variety of functions all at once or something else entirely, blindness is everywhere in Greek myth.
This piece contains lots of spoilers.
I wanted to love this book, I really did. I have enjoyed the couple of Julie Ellis novels I’ve read, but this one just tipped the charming/not happening scale a bit far. It has a really strong heroine in Vicky, who escapes the Russian pogroms to build a new life in America, trying to negotiate a difficult family situation and life as a prominent businesswoman. But there are lots of issues in this book that really grated, for example, every time a black servant is given an order, Ellis always points out how they were delighted to do it.
I’d just like to focus on the disability issues for now, though. There are many, not least with the disability-as-punishment trope cropping up at the end when the antagonist of the piece, Vicky’s son, has a stroke and is paralysed. He’s then housed in the cottage in which his mentally ill father shot himself. The very same cottage in which he kept Vicky while pretending she had a mental illness because he didn’t like the direction in which his mother was taking the company. Yep, it’s a bit of an intense novel.
But what I really want to talk about is the characterisation of Anita Roberts. Anita is married to Mark, a man Vicky falls in love with. So, naturally, she has to be a deceptive, evil shrew because that is the way “the other woman” gets sympathy in romance fiction. Except, she’s a wheelchair user, so it gets a lot more… interesting.
At first, Anita is set up as a martyr, the victim of a tragic accident who is doted on by her charming husband. They are a ‘special couple,’ Vicky is given to understand, and Anita is the darling of their social circle. As it turns out, she’s shrewd and conniving. She uses the excuse of the accident to deny her husband sex, even though the doctors said that they could have an ‘almost normal sex life’! It turns out that Anita never really wanted sex before the accident either, and now her horrible cruelty of not wanting sex has been unleashed! How terrible! It couldn’t possibly be the case that Anita doesn’t owe Marc sex, and she has become confident enough in herself to not engage with a sexual life she doesn’t really want. No, indeed. It is all about Marc’s pain and setting up his affair with Vicky. Anita’s not wanting sex gets to be the strange part, gets to be part of her evil scheme against poor Marc.
So, we’ve got the good crip who turns out to be hiding a deeply bitter and nasty nature. That’s old hat. But it was quite something to see that set up with a gendered aspect, too. Anita’s out to disparage Marc’s achievements and interests constantly, and she forces him to do ‘whatever she asks’ because otherwise he’s a terrible husband to his tragically beautiful and “damaged” wife. I suggest we identify a new trope, the Bad Shrewish Crip. The perfect mix of misogyny and ableism, out now at a bookstore near you.
But I really start to grit my teeth when we bring Anita’s Jewishness into it, because she perfectly fits the JAP stereotype. The Jewish American Princess is held to be a nagging, high maintenance woman with expensive taste and no sense of how irritating she is. And Anita is a JAP all over: she pokes fun at Vicky for having been a maid, loves designer clothing, and ends up forcing her husband to move to London as it is the only ‘civilised’ city on Earth. She’s simply set up as the most horrible conglomeration of disability, gender and racial/ethnic/cultural/religion stereotyping I have encountered in quite some time. The Bad Shrewish Jewish Crip, maybe?
So, in short: wanted to like it, feel kind of bad saying this because I like the author, but for goodness’ sake, this was one of the more frustrating reads of my year, and that is really saying something.
Don and I went to see a movie the other night, and gosh, we had fun! I mean, there’s nothing funner than going out for a nice evening with your husband and being confronted straight on with the knowledge that one of the scariest things some people can imagine is being forced to live with someone like you! Yay, fun times for everyone!
The particular film trailer that is paining me this month is for “The Roommate”. At first looks like some sort of “And then they went to university and had awesome adventures” sort of film, right up until that immortal line “She is taking her medications, right?”
There’s a whole genre of these particular films which take an idea that can be pretty scary – moving in with a stranger or virtual stranger – and kick it up a notch. If it’s a comedy, then obviously the problem will be someone who drinks all the milk or borrows all your clothes or is just really annoying, and that particular story will usually be about two white dudes, and in the end the hero will get the girl. When they want to really frighten people with some thriller-version, then it’ll be all about the scary white chick who moves into some other white woman’s life, kills some of her friends, seduces her boyfriend, and tries to steal everything away from her, while some family member eventually reveals that the crazy lady is on medication for some undefined mental health condition.
Gosh, I have no idea why stigma is still attached to mental health conditions!
I really hate that I can’t turn around twice without being reminded that people like me, just by virtue of existing in the world, are scary. There’s always someone reminding me of that, whether it’s a classmate telling me she’ll just say she’s crazy if she kills someone so she can get off without punishment (even though Canada’s jails are full of people with mental health conditions), the near constant repetition of the myth that crazy people are more likely to be violent (even though people with mental health conditions are actually far more likely to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators), or waiting for the next remake of Single White Female to be put into general release.
I know. They’re just films, and they really are just taking the perfectly normal fear of moving in with someone you don’t know and exaggerating them for effect. But I also know that people are really afraid of those of us with mental health conditions, and that the stigma and myths about mental health conditions can make it really hard for people who are having problems to seek out help. I have also had many discussions with people who have been honest about their mental health conditions to roommates or university officials, and suffered the consequences.
I often see the housing concerns framed as a concern for other students – being around someone with a significant mental illness might traumatize them. And I agree that finding me dead in a bathroom would have traumatized someone. But my self-harm and my mania did not seem to me to be any more potentially traumatizing for other students than my dormmates who would go to the communal bathroom to throw up after every meal, those who were using hard drugs like cocaine, or even those who would binge drink until passing out naked on the stairway, none of whom ever suffered any potential housing consequences. To say nothing of my then-boyfriend, who was then causing me active and ongoing psychological trauma through his emotional abuse and who got to stay in the dorm with all our mutual friends after I was shipped across campus. That I was the only student looked at by the university and potentially subject to penalties – and identified as potentially problematic because I sought lifesaving and appropriate care – speaks volumes about how students with mental disabilities are seen by administrators.
I hate these movies because of the stereotypes they reinforce. I hate that these stereotypes are the main reason I don’t discuss my diagnosis. I hate that I can’t just go to the movies without being reminded that my existence is scary-thriller frightening to enough people to make these movies popular.
Mostly, I’d just like to go see a movie without the reminder. It makes my popcorn taste bad.
This weekend, s.e. and abby both read The Summoning, by Kelley Armstrong. Rather than fighting over which one got to review it, they decided to have a chat instead! Here’s the synopsis from the publisher, and be advised that mild spoilers lie beyond!
My name is Chloe Saunders and my life will never be the same again.
All I wanted was to make friends, meet boys, and keep on being ordinary. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It all started on the day that I saw my first ghost—and the ghost saw me.
Now there are ghosts everywhere and they won’t leave me alone. To top it all off, I somehow got myself locked up in Lyle House, a “special home” for troubled teens. Yet the home isn’t what it seems. Don’t tell anyone, but I think there might be more to my housemates than meets the eye. The question is, whose side are they on? It’s up to me to figure out the dangerous secrets behind Lyle House . . . before its skeletons come back to haunt me.
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.
- Does this mean I am half extraordinary? ↩
Almost, but not quite, a year ago today I put a call out on my personal journal looking for recommendations or lists of YA books that feature characters with disabilities.
From that call out, I got just under 200 books (many listed multiple times), as well as lists of book recs from other sources.
I’m still going through and sorting them, looking for reviews of the books, but I thought it might be interesting to discuss here any pros & cons of the books listed, and the books that are included in other lists.
Part of the reason I like books like this is that the response to pop culture criticism from a disability-rights standpoint often is met with “But, what sort of stories do you want us to tell?” or “Telling such stories is difficult!” I want to generate a list of fiction that shows that yes, people with disabilities have stories – and not all of them are magical cures or dreams of being non-disabled. (Certainly not all of the books below don’t fall into those various traps – in the document I’m finishing up right now, many are flagged up as problematic, so this is more a book list than a book recommendation list!)
So, share your thoughts! What books would you recommend? Do you see any books on this list that you want to gush about, or point out as a problem? Anything you’d love to discuss with other readers? Feel free to link reviews of the books (your own or someone else’s), especially if they specifically mention the disability-related aspect.
Please flag up any spoilers in your comments.
The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.
The Young Adult Library Association does lists of titles under certain topics every year.
Bodies: “They come in all shapes, sizes, and abilities…love it or hate it, you only have one body.”
K-State Library Subject Guide: Disability.
Below the cut is the list that was generated from the comments on the above-linked post, sorted by author.
Read more: Fiction Book List!