But At What Cost? (repost)

This is an article I wrote last summer but felt it was worth a second look.

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One of my favourite parts of summer in London is the copious amount of summer festivals held in Victoria Park downtown. This past weekend was one of the biggest of them all, SunFest. Like most of London, I decided to take a stroll to the park to check out the festivities.

While the festival was loads of fun, something else caught my eye and has had me thinking for the past few days. Sitting along side the bandshell in Vic Park was a transport truck with an advertisement for President’s Choice Children’s Charity on the side, depicting a cartoonish person in a wheelchair with the phrase “Making difficult lives a little easier.” The attached photo was taken with my camera phone — apologies for low quality/fidelity.

My gut reaction was frustration, fuelled by yet another advertisement that turns its nose up to living with a disability, rather than appreciating the complexity and, at times, benefits of being disabled. To make matters worse, the childlike drawing of a wheelchair that accompanies the text leads to the whole “the disabled are naive children who need protecting” stereotype.

But it was while contemplating these complexities that I realized, much like living with a disability, this advertisement poses a deeper question than whether it is good or bad because, at its core, being disabled can be more challenging and through the support of charities, like President’s Choice Children’s Charity, some of these difficulties can be alleviated. So, according to this analysis, the advertisement is depicting at least some semblance of truth. But at what cost?

The unfortunate reality here is that this type of guilt-based advertising methodology does work quite well, financially speaking. Charities have relied on pity parades for ages to guilt prospective donors into “doing the right thing” and “helping those less fortunate.” While these advertisements do generate huge dollars from those who feel morally obligated to pay penance for their manufactured sins of normality through donation, I am left wondering “at what cost?” Yes, the money raised will help us unfortunates to overcome some of these limitations, but is it worth the damaging hegemony that the disabled are “less fortunate” than those without disabilities? Is it really worth having wheelchairs and accessible buildings if the disabled are perceived as being pathetic simpletons who are forever dependent on the all knowing, all caring able-bodied overseers?

Ultimately, the problem with this advertisement lies in its simplification of a complex reality. While it is true that living with a disability can at some times be quite trying, this advertisement inadvertently reinforces our gut instinct to centralize the root of this difficulty as being the “disability” and not the socially and physically constructed barriers that limit us. It is not difficult to live with a disability, it’s difficult being disabled in a world constructed for the able-bodied: there is a huge difference.

While I believe their hearts are in the right place, charities genuinely need to take the long view when producing these types of advertisements and ask themselves if it’s really worth producing these types of ads when, in the end, it is kind of like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Disability and Bullying

It would be nearly impossible to maintain a story about two high school students without broaching the topic of bullying, however a story coming out of the US over the past few days has inspired me to write a couple quick comments on the subject. In case you haven’t heard yet, several boys are in a lot of trouble after self-tattooing some naughty words on the butt of a boy with a developmental disability (via FoxNews). Insert astonished gasps, questions on where the parents were or how we let these boys down as a society, and calls for pitch forks and torches.

Going through the public education system with a visible disability was no walk in the park, but I think I had it easier than most. I was lucky enough to largely go unnoticed throughout my school years and most of the negative attention I did draw came more from my propensity to geekdom than my physical limitation. I think perhaps this was largely because bullies knew my disability didn’t really bother me and so they didn’t try and leverage it against me emotionally. Having said that, my parents were warned when I was first diagnosed that kids would pick on me for being different, especially during the puberty years when a bully’s insecurities with their own changing bodies would be worked out at the expense of those with even stranger bodies (like those with weight problems or in wheelchairs).

Ultimately, I think the younger years are perhaps some of the easiest to live with a disability while the teenage years are probably some of the worst. Kids are generally accepting and always inquisitive of difference, but teenagers are so insecure themselves that the first sign of deviance is seen as an opportunity to ridicule and subjugate, if only to solidify their own place in the world. I’ll be the first to admit that this perception is filled with generalizations that doesn’t describe the experience of all teenagers, but I think it does explain some of the difficulties teens with disabilities have integrating into the social structure of high school.

Far from saying this should discourage us from attempting integration, I think disability (or more specifically adapted ability) actually provides us with a place to broach the subject of body, identity and difference with teenagers. Rather than looking down at disability and chastising youth for talking to or about people with disabilities, we should encourage this interaction and change the discourse from the negativity of difference to the opportunity of adaptation. Rather than talking about all the things I can’t do, why don’t we look at the things I can and consider the things I could do with support? I’m certain most teenagers would find that with a bit of help (and some craftiness) they could be just as “able” in a wheelchair as they are without. By looking at these differences positively, perhaps it will give these youth an opportunity to look at their own strengths and limitations in a different and more empowered light.

So what should be done about the little tattoo artists in the States? Well, I’m not a judge, jury or executioner. In fact, I’m not sure I’m even qualified to practice law in the USA, but I’m sure a few good solutions could be cooked up if given the time to ponder. Sure we could tattoo things on their bums and see how they like it or maybe do some sort of “spend a day in a wheelchair” to try and teach them to empathize with the disabled, but would that really correct the problem? Yes what these boys have done is awful and they certain deserve to be punished, but perhaps the real lesson here is that we need to do a better job in our schools of educating about disability so that this doesn’t happen again to someone else. It’s like that old saying, the true mistake is a mistake you don’t learn from.