Speaking Out Retreat in Burlington, ON

Speaking Out Retreat in Burlington, ON

Today I delivered a motivational speech at the Speaking Out Retreat for Self Advocates in Burlington, ON geared towards adults with intellectual disabilities. This is the second Speaking Out retreat I have spoken at and it was a ton of fun. I met some awesome advocates and made some new friends. Thank you to everyone involved in organizing this event and a special thank you to Duane for inviting me.

The (prom) politics of pity

Boy driving electric wheelchair pulling cart with prom date on the back

Growing up with a disability, I have always had trouble navigating social situations. I learned at a young age that people would treat me differently simply because I was in a wheelchair. While some refused to engage with me because of their discomfort with disability, mostly I just found people to be overly optimistic and celebratory, where accomplishing simple day-to-day tasks would be met with cheers, awards and assurances of my bravery and courage. And while perhaps graduating elementary school was the pinnacle of human accomplishment, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one receiving this treatment, despite the fact that I was but one of thirty graduating students that year. These other students, “normies” as I call you people, would receive no special awards, would not have newspaper articles written about them, and would not be celebrated as heroes for accomplishing the same thing as me. These students were merely doing what was expected of them, something most of us will accomplish, and apparently there is nothing particularly impressive about that.

While this excessive praise certainly helped boost my ego, it also made it quite difficult when socializing because I was never sure if people were being genuine with me or not. Worse still I remember questioning in that moment if anything I had done was really that remarkable. I was left wondering whether I had ever really done anything significant in my life aside from simply being disabled. Suddenly everything I had done seemed meaningless and I could not tell whether people were really proud of the things I had done or if they simply pitied me—this is some pretty heavy stuff for a teenager to interrogate. As I got older I learned to stop worrying so much about what others thought of me and simply do things that make me proud.

Boy driving electric wheelchair pulling cart with prom date on the back
Just taking this girl to market, nothing to see here

Although acceptance of people with disabilities is certainly increasing, a recent article published on the front page of the London Free Press reminded me a bit of the good old days. On Wednesday, June 5th in a story entitled “A night fit for a king,” Londoners learned of a young man with a developmental disability who was crowned king of his prom for, what appears to be no other reason than having a disability, as the article does little to tell us anything about the individual in question aside from the fact that he’s disabled. This is not something unique to London, as a quick search of Google reveals hundreds of high schools across North America have been electing intellectually disabled students as prom king and queen over the past few years, events also covered as headline news in their respective local media (like here, here, here, and here for example). The real question for me, though, is whether or not this is really “news.” Do any of the other prom kings and queens get front-page coverage? I think you may see the problem here.

While I’m sure the students in London, along with the kids across North America, have the best of intentions with this gesture, simply trying to do something nice for someone they perceive as being hard done by, we cannot ignore the reality that these actions are often imbued with a sense of pity and paternalism all too often faced by the disabled in our day-to-day lives and this practice is made even more degrading by the fact that it is covered as headline news. Worst still, these articles almost never provide any context for why the individual was elected prom king or queen. The result is that these articles then seem to revolve around how “generous” it was of the attractive person to take the disabled kid to prom, as just friends of course, and how “great” it is that the student body subsequently voted them king and queen. Ultimately, the story is not even about a disabled student, but actually about how considerate the student body was for putting themselves aside and bestowing this honour on the poor and needy.

The intention here, admirably so, is to try and make life a little easier for the disabled. These students have grown up being told that life is tough for the disabled and that everyone has the responsibility to help those less fortunate. And while helping the less fortunate is indeed a noble and worthy cause, voting the disabled as prom king or queen is tokenism at its worst and does not make our lives fundamentally better or easier. If you legitimately want to make an individual with an intellectual disability’s life better, for the long-term, then offer them friendship, respect, and compassion. Not pity. Inviting these individuals to prom, and voting them king/queen, does not make up for years of insufficient academic and social supports. In fact, this media circus distracts from the real structural changes that need to be made and let us feel as though this one symbolic gesture absolves us of the responsibility of working toward genuine inclusion. Rather than encouraging our youth to just treating these individuals like royalty for one day a year, why not treat them like human beings every day of the year?

UPDATE: I was just informed the LFP actually published a near identical story, two years ago, about a different school in London (but the same program). You can see it at: http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2011/06/21/18316356.html

Rumble in the Jungle: Tropic Thunder vs Intellectual Disabilities (repost)

Movie poster for the movie Tropic Thunder

Last year, Internets were abuzz over the past few weeks over the launch of the new Ben Stiller movie “Tropic Thunder” and the American-led boycott by advocates for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The argument is that the movie presents a negative representation of individuals with intellectual disabilities through a borderline-obsessive use of the word “retard” and a “Simple Jack” storyline, which allegedly aims for cheap laughs at the expense of people with intellectual disabilities.

Being a disabled advocate who is currently studying representations of disabilities in the media, I had to check out this movie and see what all the buzz was about. Although not immediately sure how I felt about the movie, upon further reflection I’ve decided I quite enjoyed it and don’t agree that this movie slanders individuals with disabilities.

Now, before I go any further, I will admit that I have never been diagnosed with an intellectual disability and do not consider myself to be directly a part of that community, although I did coach a Special Olympics hockey team for several years.

Having said that, I feel it’s important to look a little closer at this movie and not immediately classify it as trash just because it uses the cursed “R” word excessively. A quick glance at the Simple Jack storyline reveals the storyline is not taking shots at people with intellectual disabilities or attempting to get laughs at their expense. At its core, Tropic Thunder follows in the vein of many recent comedies, and arguably any comedy worth watching, in that it’s attempting to push the audience to a place they may not be overly comfortable confronting and then poking fun at our prudish perceptions. The goal here is to imply that these social faux pas may actually be ridiculous and require re-evaluation. What has been lost on some viewing this movie is that it’s a satire and is not attempting to make truthful claims about people with disabilities.

What this movie IS attempting to satirize, however, is Hollywood itself. Rather than poking fun at people with disabilities, Tropic Thunder is quite obviously taking aim at the Academy’s obsession with mentally challenged characters and the near-absurd parade of questionable movies that have been given the title of “masterpiece” simply because an actor pretends to have Down syndrome or autism (read: I Am Sam, The Rainman, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Forrest Gump, etc). It can be argued that these types of movies can be quite positive, inspiring audiences to “be better people.” At best, these movies help to show people that individuals with disabilities can contribute to society in a meaningful way, putting a face to disorders that are oft monolithic and marginalized.

But at their worst, films like I Am Sam contribute to a prevalent paternal superiority felt by the nondisabled, promoting the notion that people with disabilities have it so tough compared to everyone else and “normal folk” all have a lot to learn from those living the “simpler life.”

Ultimately, these films normalize what I like to call the “disabled hero syndrome,” where any accomplishment, no matter how easily achieved, place disabled character upon a pedestal of triumph. For accomplishing the simplest of tasks, we are often showered in patronizing complements and congratulations, to the point that every time I manage to go to the washroom anywhere but all over myself I half expect I’ll make headline news, complete with ticker-tape parades, a big achievement medal for bravery, and accolades raining from the rafters. While the disabled life can be difficult and sometimes we do go to extraordinary lengths to accomplish things some may consider medial or inconsequential, I’ve always found it strange when people are astonished and inspired by me completing a task that the nondisabled are simply expected to manage.

It is this superiority complex that Tropic Thunder so aggressively satirizes, to much success. If you ask me, we should not be boycotting or chastising Ben Stiller, we should be thanking him!