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Aug 112014
 

Update: George Takei has issued this classy, down-to-earth, articulate apology. I’m impressed by how he explains his actions without making excuses for himself (a delicate balancing act when you’re under word-fire from critics and fans), and by how responsive he is to learning and growing as a human being.

My favourite part:

The fact that I was surprised by the response the wheelchair meme received indicates that I do indeed lack knowledge, and some sensitivity, over what is clearly a hot button issue, and that I and others can take this as an opportunity not to dig in, but rather to open up to the stories and experiences of those in the disabled community.his “funny” play miracle, reimagining of Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan’s story. As I said then, I’ve never seen this play, so can’t comment on its humour or lack thereof, but I maintain it’s not Savage’s place to use the history of a minority group he doesn’t belong to as a springboard for his dramatic efforts. Even if the presentation is funny (it’s theatre after all, and some might argue that the rules are different) the written injunction to the audience not to tell deafblind people about the play, because it’s offensive, really can’t count as a joke. That’s like hurting someone then saying “I was just joking!” in response to their pain. Oh, and if you actually say something will be offensive to this, that, or the other group, isn’t that a blatant admission of wrong-doing?

Elsa at Feminist Sonar sheds some more light on the “humour” in this play, which apparently includes a “hilarious” torture scene. Read down through Elsa’s post to see where she talks about Miracle; first she explains how torture of disabled people isn’t just a figment of Dan Savage’s (or anyone else’s) imagination. If you want to learn more about that, this article” has more detail.

So, now that we’ve recapped a little history…

Last weekend, George Takei joined the ranks of disability ignorance smoothed over with so-called humour. Granted, he didn’t invent this humour himself, but the fact that he shared the meme, and particularly the way he responded to people’s concerns about it, shows how little he knows about disability, disabled people, disability rights, and how little he appears willing to learn.

Michelle at Mommy Misadventures explains what happened, and why it was so troubling, in this open letter.

To be clear, I’m not furious with Takei. (I was seeing stars about Miracle for a long time, and that truly is a miracle as I can see nothing, not even light.) I’m more frustrated by his carelessness here (and, admittedly, unimpressed by his blase attitude), and by a still prevailing attitude that equality and decency around disability is something separate from equality and decency around anything else. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that someone who advocates for fair treatment of other minorities will at least be responsive when people point out stupidity, cruelty, or inaccuracy of a joke about a minority, even if he personally finds the joke funny? Perhaps it’s too much to expect that he’d understand the danger of perpetuating stereotypes?

Maybe it’s because I don’t drink much alcohol, but I don’t actually find this meme particularly funny. Or, maybe I don’t find it funny because, to me, a disabled person shopping—for anything–is just a normal part of life. Not only does this meme make the assumption that anyone who stands up from a wheelchair really can’t be as disabled as all that, but it also, I think, makes it a big deal that a person in a wheelchair would be shopping for alcohol at all.

As others have pointed out, by itself, a person standing up from their wheelchair could mean all sorts of things. Maybe standing up was painful or fatiguing for the person in the picture, but worth it to her. Maybe she stood to reach her beverage of choice because she could, easily and without pain or discomfort, but walking is painful, or even dangerous, for her. Maybe she did so because she didn’t need help, or maybe she did it because she didn’t want to ask for help and invite people’s attention towards her. Maybe she thought about asking someone to get her chosen drink for her, but then worried that someone might decide to judge her choices or lecture her about drinking alcohol or about the way she spends her money.

Disabled people, we worry about things like that because they happen to us on a regular basis. All you need to do is read the #AbledPrivilegeIs hashtag on Twitter to see the small and big invasions that can happen, sometimes multiple times a day—invasions that are frequently invisible to people who don’t experience them or don’t know to look for them.

Disability is hardly serious all the time. Sometimes it’s downright silly—to those of us who live it. We who are hard of hearing mishear things, sometimes with embarrassing and humiliating results, but sometimes in hilarious ways that turn into ongoing inside jokes between the hard-of-hearing person and their loved ones. People who can’t see (particularly before the advent of talking bar code scanners) sometimes open the wrong can or package of food with amusing results—sweetened condensed milk instead of chicken noodle soup, anyone?*
There are even disabled comedians, being funny, and talking about disability as only disabled people really can.

So, yes, disability is silly, but someone in a wheelchair who is able to stand to select the drink she wants to enjoy later isn’t silly; that’s just her normal. Shopping is normal for everyone.

Now, picture of a child who crawled into a fruit bin? That could be funny.

I think people don’t want us to ruin their jokes by explaining why they’re not actually jokes at all,

Jokes in real life are about things that are real and that are so ridiculous we couldn’t make them up if we tried. This joke instead makes something ridiculous out of a real event that really doesn’t mean anything at all except maybe (and maybe not) for the person in the picture.

When people tell you there’s a problem, I think it’s smart to listen.

A little bit of acknowledgement would have been nice.
Discrimination gets perpetuated by people continuing to say that something isn’t a big deal, or, even worse, that whatever’s happening is the right way.

This isn’t about fans not liking the joke. It’s about people saying: “There’s something wrong here.

Sure, no one likes having their activities and choices scrutinized, but that’s nothing new for celebrities, particularly those, like takei, who cultivate their public presence. Part of cultivating a public presence is being able to acknowledge when you were wrong, or when you made a mistake. “I didn’t know” is the oldest excuse in the book, but if it’s then followed by “…but I will learn,” there may be hope for humanity yet.

What I’m finding really frustrating about this trend, first with savage, now with Takei, is that we have two public figures, who’ve both been vocal about nondiscrimination and anti-bullying, who seem to not be getting that their public behaviors around disability are reflecting ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn. People look to these folks to find out what’s okay or not, both because people look up to celebrities (and, to be real, expect more of them than of the average person) and because these particular celebrities have, in diferent ways, made themselves authorities in advocacy and equality.

As far as I’m concerned, Takei and Savage can do anything they like in their personal lives (though I’d prefer that they not hurt people or animals, or pollute waterways) but people look to them as models for how to treat people, how to treat minority people, like people. This life, both that of the public celebrity, and that of the vocal anti-discrimination advocate, is one that both men have chosen and that comes with a social responsibility.

Whether we’re talking about It gets better or It’s okay to say Takei!, both Savage and Takei have been vocal about anti-discrimination and the harmful effects of discrimination. Do disabled people just not count? Judging from what I’ve read, perhaps not.

Andrew Morrison Gurza has made it clear that there’s an absence of disability-awareness in the gay community. Come on, dudes! Backing away from a guy in a wheelchair? If there’s that much fear and distaste, it’s hardly surprising that the advocates among you are ignoring and belittling disability.

Discrimination doesn’t exist in a vacuum, yet that’s how anti-discrimination efforts seem to be working. Disabled people, and some able-bodied folks who work with or love us, advocate for disability rights. Gay people, and some straight allies, advocate for gay rights… Substitute your minority group of choice.

Why can’t we move to a philosophical space where we all want to learn about each other’s struggles, and where they intersect with our own and where they differ?

I maintain that we will never truly meet any equality goals until we do this.

* Most blind people have a system for organizing food that we can’t readily identify by touch or smell, but like any system, there is a failure rate.

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