My ire was roused recently when reading about Dan Savage’s artistic venture, Miracle, a retelling of Helen Keller’s story. So that I don’t have to recap, I’ll let you read about it for yourself.
Yes, I know. I’m a little late (at least a year) to the game hearing about this, and later still talking about it. I needed time to gather my thoughts and calm my pounding heart of anger and disbelief. I needed time to think about whether I wanted to speak out against the work of someone who is such a publicly lauded member of the sex ed community.
I’ve taken that time, and I have no choice, per my sense of integrity, but to say what I think and how I feel. And, after all, Miracle was hardly educational.
Oh, and I’m still angry.
Furthermore, the broader issue here is timeless and one that isn’t discussed nearly often enough–how we talk about disability, and who gets to do that talking.
It’s pretty clear to me, with the recent, highly publicized debacle of the sign-language-interpreter-who-wasn’t and the ignorant, ableist theories, beliefs, and attitudes that have been voiced in response, that inclusion and acceptance of people with disabilities–in all spheres–still needs to be talked about. (There are also some pretty hefty concerns with how mental illness is being discussed around all of this, further complicating the disability discussion. While we only have part of the story, I suspect, from what we have heard, that this man should never have been put in the position he was in, for his sake as much as for anyone else’s. The South African government’s responsibility to ensure that it was hiring a qualified interpreter–preferably more than one–for deaf people’s access to information cannot, to my mind, be disputed. Yet, that’s what some people seem to want to do.)
All this to say that we’re not anywhere close to being done with the need for speaking up, clearly and often loudly, for how people with disabilities are perceived, included, and represented publicly, whether that’s in the arts or at an internationally important event. It also means we have to speak clearly, and often loudly, about the words and actions around this inclusion and representation.
presumably, Miracle is supposed to be humourous. A discussion of the ethics and respect lacking in the mockery (no matter how artful, and no matter how humourous”) of a population one is not a member of would fill pages. Minority humour is live and well, and must, by virtue of respect, and of an inner knowledge of the workings of that minority group, be left to members of that group. Attempts at humour by people not belonging to that minority group smack of power, of appropriation, and of mockery. I think we call making fun of people for their differences bullying.
From an artistic, as well as human equality perspective, any humour not informed by the group the humour is about is bound to fall flat. Humour, as with everything else in life worth knowing about, requires thoughtfulness.
Since I haven’t seen this play, I’m not in a place to evaluate its humour objectively. I don’t like what I’ve heard, though, and think that it likely appropriates something the playwright has no knowledge of and views it through the lens of something he does know. Viewing someone else’s experience through our own lenses usually yields a mirky, and incorrect, image.
Helen Keller’s story is powerful. Through finding a way to transmit language to a child who could neither see nor hear, Anne Sullivan helped that child transform her life, and paved the way for other people to take hold of their lives in similar ways. That’s powerful, but not superhuman. Ms. Sullivan solved a problem for Ms. Keller—how to communicate—and assisted her with interacting with the rest of the world who didn’t communicate in the same way. The rest was up to Ms. Keller. Indeed, the story of what Ms. Keler did as an adult is at least as interesting as her childhood.
Most retellings of “Helen Keller’s story” leave her later years out. Also left out are the problems both Helen and Anne faced throughout their lives, not only individually, but in their interactions with each other. Very often, their story is told as “the Helen Keller story” not “the story of Helen Keller’s life.” See the difference? One is her story, the story other people put onto her; the other is the real story, nothing left out to make it more palatable or sensational.
While Keller and Sullivan’s story is often overdramatized and simultaneously oversimplified, it’s a pretty amazing story in itself. It’s not a story that anyone has the right to appropriate. Sadly, too many people have done so far too many times, though never, to my knowledge, in quite the way Miracle does.
What really rouses my ire about Savage’s play—and what I’ll talk about here–was the sign that was apparently posted above the stage. Ironically, if I had been to see the play, I’d not have known about this sign unless someone had told me about it, since I can’t see.
It said this:
This play will be deeply offensive to the deaf/blind community, so please don’t tell them. Keep your hands shut!
Really? Seriously? Someone thought it was okay to say this in public? A whole bunch of someones agreed with this decision? No one, from the actors, to the stage hands, to the theatre manager, realized that this crosses the limits of human dignity? In any other context but an artistic one, this sign would be seen as discriminatory.
I’m ordinarily quite gentle, too gentle, often too willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Too many times I’ve been told to not object to someone’s disrespect of me as a disabled person as “They meant well.” Or “They don’t know any better.”
I’m not feeling particularly gentle this time.
Dan Savage is not, so far as intellect goes, a stupid man. So, he did know better, and, I’ve know doubt he did mean it—I imagine it’s “just a joke.”)
“Just a joke” is a worn out cop-out for saying something that shouldn’t be said.
“Just a joke” is a rickety bridge between the speaker of the “joke” and what they’re actually saying—a way for them to release responsibility for the true meaning of their words.
Suggesting that information be withheld from anyone is not a joke.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m blind and have a bilateral hearing impairment, though I do not use sign and can usually hear what is said to me. I have friends who are deaf-blind and use sign, a computer, or a mobile device when out and about to communicate. So, this is personal for me, but I’d like to think that those for whom this is les personal could still know in their minds and feel in their guts that even the suggestion to withhold information is just not okay—and certainly isn’t funny.
I’d like to take away Savage’s (and anyone who agrees with him) mobile phone, his car keys, and his computer, and see how he feels about suggesting that communication should just be kept from anyone intentionally. I wonder if he’d think it was funny then?
Savage has likely never, as an adult, been denied information because someone else didn’t think he needed to know it. He’s likely, at least not in the computer-age, never had to solely rely on another human being for information.
To suggest that someone keep any knowledge from someone else who otherwise wouldn’t know or be able to access it is disgusting in the extreme. Think, for a moment, what it would be like if someone filtered what you knew through a screen of what they thought you needed to know. This information could include anything from the specials posted on the chalkboard in your favourite restaurant, to the fact that the people behind you are talking about you because they know you can’t hear them, to the plans everyone is making for going out, plans they’re conveniently leaving you out of. This can also include things like the entirety of what your doctor, lawyer, or financial advisor just told you. Get the picture?
Well, people do that to children all the time, you say. Yes, but disabled adults aren’t children! I’m also not a fan of keeping information from children anyway, though do recognize that information sometimes needs to be doled out differently based on cognitive and emotional development. Even then, I’m a fan of sharing and adapting the information in a cognitively-appropriate way, and not of willfully keeping information secret.
No, this isn’t like talking to children. We were all children once. We all had the experience of growing up, of having adults filter what we knew in one way or another.
No, what Dan Savage is talking about here is keeping information from adults because they might be offended by it. And…if they’re offended by it, that might mean that people will say he shouldn’t have written the play in the first place.
Oh, pardon me…I forgot. The whole thing is just a joke, including that sign.
Ha! Ha! I mustn’t take things too seriously…
Except for that part where it makes a joke of something that really happens to people, the withholding of information—something that denies their humanity, limits their options, and, depending on the information in question, puts them in danger.
I still find it ironic that I wouldn’t have known about that sign if I’d gone to see the play—unles, of course, someone had told me about it. I would have been ignorant, not of the play’s offensiveness, but of the excuses around that offensiveness.
I’m not the only one expressing these concerns. Given Savage’s work around the needs of young people, I think this young disabled lesbian’s words are particularly important. What she has to say about this play and its broader implications for Savage’s work and her own place in the world is worth a read, or two, or three.