The song “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant is one of my favorite songs. I regard it as a disability anthem. Here is the music video of the song in which the singer and many women and girls sing along to the music. The women and girls are a variety of ages, body types, and races. At least one of the people in the video has Down Syndrome. I love everything about this song. It is joyful, it centers the narrative on the disabled girl/woman’s experience, and it pokes back at the abled people–doctors and journalists– who are so fascinated by her.
Transcription with description follows.
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?
I would like you to take a moment to imagine the look on my face when I realised that the BBC interviewer in the following clip (transcript below) actually asked Jody McIntyre, a 20 year old man who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, whether or not the fact that Jody is a “revolutionary” is reason enough for the police to have assaulted him twice during the London riots last week. The following interview is full of similar gems, including a rather pointed “appear to show” what the actual footage shows.
I want to salute Joey for his calm yet firm responses throughout the interview.
BBC Jody McIntyre interview
[This is an interview conducted by
an unidentified male BBC reporterBen Brown with Jody McIntyre, a man with Cerebral Palsy who was pulled by police officers from his wheelchair during the recent protests against tuition fee increases in the UK. There is repeated footage of McIntyre being pulled from his chair, which was being pushed by his brother. The footage shows multiple London police officers pulling McIntyre from his chair and dragging him across the pavement and away from his brother and his chair while outraged bystanders shout in horror at what they’re seeing. The clip shown is a cleaned up and enhanced version of the clip that went up on YouTube – the original is full of a lot of cursing and screaming from bystanders which has been edited out by the BBC.]
Interviewer: Pictures of a disabled man being dragged from his wheelchair by police officers during the protests in London over the tuition fees have emerged online. Now these pictures appear to show Jody McIntyre, 20 year old fiscal activist and blogger who suffers from cerebral palsy being pulled out of his wheelchair and dragged across the road to the pavement. While the Metropolitan Police have released this statement on that incident, saying
In connection with the incident shown on YouTube of of a tuition fees protestor in a wheelchair the Metropolitan Police confirm that the man involved, Jody McIntyre, has not launched an official complaint. The issue has been referred by the Metropolitan Police to the Directorate of Professional Standards and the Met Police say they will contact Jody McIntyre directly.
That is the statement from the police that we’ve received, and we can speak to Jody McIntyre now whose in our Westminster Studio.
Interviewer: Good evening to you.
Jody (JM): Good Evening.
Interviewer: Could you just explain what happened to you?
JM: Well, during the demonstration I was attacked by and pulled out of my wheelchair by the police on two occasions. The footage you have just shown is of a second incident. One of the police men who had dragged me down the road in the first incident obviously recognized me, came running over, pushed me out of my wheelchair on to the road, and then dragged me across the road.
Interviewer: The police say you haven’t made any kind of complaint, so why not?
JM: I haven’t made a complaint yet but I’m in contact with a lawyer and I will be doing so.
Interviewer: It’s been a few days since this happened. Why haven’t you complained before?
JM: Because I wanted to consider my options before taking that step.
Interviewer: There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair. Is that true?
JM: I think justifying a police officer pulling a disabled person out of a wheelchair and dragging them across a concrete road is quite ridiculous and I’m surprised that you’ve just tried to do so.
Interview: So that’s not true, you were not wheeling yourself towards the police.
JM: Well I can’t physically use my wheelchair myself. My brother was pushing me. I think it’s quite obvious from the footage that I was 100% not a threat to anyone.
Interviewer: In the Observer newspaper you were described as a cyber radical and you were quoted as saying you want to build a revolutionary movement and that can only happen through direct action on the streets. Do you classify yourself as a revolutionary? [Anna: I think this is the article he’s referring to]
JM: I don’t classifying myself as anything but I think we all have a right to fight against what the government are trying to do. They’re trying to tier education system whereby only the rich will be able to afford it. That is something that I think we should all be fighting against.
Interviewer: Now the police have said that they have referred this incident to the Directorate of Professional Standards… what’s your reaction to that?
JM: I don’t have a reaction to that but I will be making a complaint in the near future. I would say that it’s very important not to see this as an isolated incident. This is the police’s role at demonstrations. To incite and provoke violence. They’ve done it in the past and they’re continuing to do it now. I am not the real victim here. The real victims are the students, like Alfie Meadows, who is in hospital within an inch of his life after a policeman struck him on the head with a truncheon and he needed emergency brain surgery. Now imagine if it was Prince Charles, or Camilla, or a police officer who had been within an inch of their life.
Interviewer: But I have to say, I was in Parliament Square covering that demonstration and I saw protesters throwing lumps of rock at the police, throwing missiles, various missiles, at the police. Were you throwing anything at all at the police that day?
JM: I wasn’t throwing anything at the police during that day or during any [unclear] But what is clear is that the media are trying to distract the public from the real issue, which is the cuts that the government are making.
Interviewer: Were you harmed in any way in that incident with the police?
JM: Not in that … incident, in the incident that’s being shown. There was also another incident around 45 minutes earlier when a police officer struck me with a baton and yes that did cause some injury.
Interviewer: And why then, do you think– Are you saying the police picked on your twice. Why do you think they did?
JM: I have no idea. I mean, to make one suggestion, I think in the second incident at least, I think there’s a clear element of trying to provoke protesters into violence. Personally, I see myself as equal to anyone else, but I do understand that I could be perceived as more vulnerable, so I think there was an element of trying to provoke violence from others.
Interviewer: Did you shout anything provocative or throw anything that would have induced the police to do that to you?
JM: Do you really think a person with Cerebral Palsy in a wheelchair can pose a threat to a police officer who is armed with weapons?
Interviewer: But you do say that you’re a revolutionary.
JM: That’s a word, it’s not a physical action that I’ve taken against the police officers, a word that you’re quoting from a website. I’m asking you: do you think I could have in any way posed a physical threat from the seat of my wheelchair to an army of police officers armed with weapons? This whole line of argument is absolutely ludicrous because you’re blaming the victims of violence for that violence. In fact, it reminds me a lot of the way the BBC report on the Palestinian conflict–
Interviewer: When are you going to make your compalint to the police?
JM: I will be making my complaint very shortly, in the near future.
Interviewer: Okay, Jody McIntyre, thanks very much for your time, thanks for talking to us this evening.
JM: Thank you.
Further Reading: Jody McIntyre’s blog, Life on Wheels
[ETA: Thanks to various people for letting me know the interviewer is Ben Brown.]
Here is something you may not know about me: I enjoy hang gliding and paragliding. There are few things in this world I love quite as much as jumping off a mountain. It’s an experience that’s kind of hard to explain to people who haven’t done it, most of whom look at me highly askance when I say that I enjoy a sport many people think of as highly dangerous and also highly unsuitable for fat people. Au contraire to both beliefs, incidentally.
Here’s the thing. It’s awesome. There’s the ‘oh shit’ moment when you start taking off and realise there’s no going back and ack you really are jumping off a mountain and the ground looks very far away oh no what have I done and then you are soaring above the world. Sometimes birds cruise by and check you out. The view is incredible. It’s quiet and you can feel the wind on your face. It’s, well, the closest we can really ever get to flying, without a set of wings. It’s so glorious it almost hurts sometimes.
One of the attitudes I encounter a lot when I talk about people with disabilities and sports is the idea that we can’t do sports because of our impairments, or just puzzlement over ‘how it all works,’ despite the ample evidence for disabled athletics all around us. For those of us who are athletes or who are interested in sports, trust me, we figure out a way to make it work.
With hang gliding and paragliding, there are some definite accessibility issues; for example, sometimes you need to hike out to good spots, but there’s absolutely no reason full time wheelchair users can’t hurl themselves off mountains too, should they feel so inclined, and as is often the case with sports, people are often really interested in working together to make something happen for someone who shares their love of an activity. There are a lot of different options for people with physical disabilities interested in gliding, including both solo and tandem rigging with baskets or sports chairs designed (or hacked) for gliding.
So, when I was talking to a tandem partner the other day and he expressed skepticism about wheelchair users and paragliding…I went on a YouTube hunt to disprove him, and here’s what I found.
Be advised that these videos have a lot of background wind noise so you may want to mute them.
A video showing a wheelchair user’s paragliding start. The rigging is checked and someone runs behind the sports chair pushing it until the canopy swoops up and she takes off. The video concludes with a shot of the glider hovering over a wooded landscape, rapidly disappearing from view.
Another wheelchair paragliding start, also with an assistant to push the chair. The glider takes off halfway through, and the video zooms in to track the flier across the landscape.
A takeoff and landing, including some time spent in the air. Voices in Polish can be heard in the background.
A paraglider who chooses to transfer to a basket for flying. Assistants help get the flier in the air and he skims over water on what looks like a great day for flying before being joined by other gliders. Piping music with a strong beat comes on as he soars. This is an excerpt from the film Shared Flight.
I try to contain my gliding evangelism in the interesting of not boring/annoying people, but I will say that chances are high that if you’re interested in flying, someone would probably love to take you up!
From the video description: Rachel is a volunteer at Science World in Vancouver. She has applied for a power wheelchair from the Equipment and Assistive Technology Initiative (EATI) to be more independent and effective at her job.
The video shows Rachel, a young white woman in a manual chair, at Science World. She’s shown going around the exhibits, helping out children who are seeing things, confirming the various exhibits are in working order, and checking out the computers around the center.
Caption: Rachel Elizabeth Roberts, Science World Volunteer
Rachel: I was in high school and I was placed here to do a work experience program, and I liked it so much that I decided to come back.
I help out with some stuff in the galleries.
I just do two galleries, “Search” and ‘Treasure”, and just talk to customers. You get to meet a lot of interesting people.
And I also make sure to check things are working properly.
It is difficult. I find I get tired from my upper arms, my arms, but it’s okay, I feel like the power chair will help me get to where I need to be faster, so I don’t waste any time. I just go straight to work.
I think it will help immensely because I get to do other things. There’s a whole world of possibilities that I haven’t even tried that I’m willing to try. Work in OMNI, maybe help the staff with stuff like scheduling and I’ll be more independent and just … just do more things, like… like… go for a walk on the sea wall, or with one of my workers, or just, you know, experience new things.
I’m really excited. I can’t wait to see what the summer has in store now that I have wheels.
Caption: B.C. Personal Supports Network Equipment & Assistive Technology Initiative (EATI)
A film by Angelina L Cantada