We can be HUGE!

It’s difficult to decide what is more frightening to people without disabilities about “the disabled”. Is it that if this minority, which can be said to comprise [20% of Americans], found it’s political voice, they could not only change the healthcare system, but the system of government? Or is it that seeing how disenfranchised people with disabilities are, and how easily anybody can join this minority, they too, can be left powerless. It’s not that people with disabilities don’t have political and social action groups like Act Up! and the Independent Living Institute that have furthered the disability rights movement.

The longest sit-in in U.S. history was in 1977 in San Francisco at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. 50 people with disabilities sat in those offices until promised provisions in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 were enacted. No one ever hears about this demonstration now. They should. The length of the demonstration itself was unprecedented- the coming together of the community; from the Black Panthers to local religious leaders to Senators was also a rarity. Had it been another minority group, there would have been a blockbuster movie made about it, or at least an HBO movie. I cannot find a wide-release documentary on the subject. Daniel Schorr, of National Public Radio, said, “If you don’t exist in the media, for all practical purposes, you don’t exist.”

Interesting though, the amount of press surrounding developmental disabilities and children with disabilities. For the most part, people with disabilities in television have one or two of the following characteristics- they are young adults, still needing to be cared for by their parents, and/or their disability is developmental (Down’s Syndrome). With the exception of deafness, a person cannot “catch” these disabilities; therefore they are “safe”. There isn’t a lot said about adults with disabilities, and so our television reflects this- all of the disabled folk are young or little people on reality shows. They are children, or they have learning disabilities/mental disabilities that make them child-like, at least to the casual observer, or they are of small stature, and therefore, non-threatening.

The other people with disabilities who are getting a lot of press are returning veterans. They should be getting press- after all, these men and women volunteered and were disabled in the line of duty, and their treatment (or lack thereof) is something we should be talking about.

But between the perceived non-threatening people with disabilities and the disabled veterans, there are a whole swath of disabled people that are being totally ignored by all segments of the media- news, entertainment, new media. Does everyone take disability rights for granted? Or do they think it won’t happen to me, so I don’t have to worry about shrinking government funding?

I don’t know what the answer is, obviously. I do think as medical technology continues to advance and we live longer, there will be an ever-growing disabled population. It is vital that somehow, we find our voice, because everyone at some point is touched by disability.





One thought on “We can be HUGE!

  1. Hi! This is a great post. I had never heard of the protest you mentioned–I’m only really aware of disability rights advocacy in the Canadian province where I grew up. I think it’s also very noteworthy that for all the 20th century social history we learn in school, curricula never include *anything* about disability rights activism. (Maybe because schools like to treat North American human rights issues as history topics, instead of acknowledging the ongoing struggles.)

    On the media, you’re right that a lot of the time we see young people with disabilities, but we do also see a lot of much older people. I can’t think of a single mature adult in media with a disability, however. This means you don’t see adults with disabilities successfully established in their careers, for instance. Just about every person with a disability portrayed in the media is defined by their disability, and disability is always defined by struggles and overcoming obstacles and being inspiring (largely for able-bodied people). You don’t see someone who just happens to be disabled. This isn’t a new complaint, nor is it restricted to people with disabilities; the same comment gets made about portrayals of gay characters in television and movies.

    The portrayals that exist obviously have a lot of problems besides. Take Glee, for instance–why in the hell is everyone always pushing Artie down the hallway? It’s portrayals like that that make strangers think it’s okay to run up behind a person in a wheelchair and go, “Oh hey let me help you!!” and start pushing without even asking. Sorry for the rant, that’s a personal pet peeve about the show. I love Glee so, so much, but their treatment of disability as an issue can drive me a little crazy sometimes.

    Anyways, I just wanted to say great post and add to the conversation, and make sure you know you’ve got readers. I hope you keep posting!

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