Future Reflections Winter 1987, Vol. 6 No. 1

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GIVE THE HANDICAPPED A BREAK

by Robert Bernstein

(Editor's Note: This was printed in the April-June 1986 issue of the NFB Spokeman in California. Here is what the Spokesman editor said about the author and the article. "Robert Bernstein is a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice and a free-lance writer. He wrote this article especially for The Sacramento Bee.")

Eric Weihenmayer is a 16-year-old high school junior in Weston, Conn. He also is blind and wrestles for his high school team, which recently inspired ABC to do a 20/20 piece about him. Like most media treatment of the subject of disability, this one almost certainly set back the cause of handicapped persons.

I mean no disrespect to Eric. He obviously is a fine, intelligent and spirited young man. It is the ABC producers who, meaning it or not, have shown disrespect. Not just to Eric, but to millions of disabled persons who are tired of being treated as helpless and of being denied full admission into society.

The thrust of the 20/20 episode was wholly predictable. The typical media "disability story" remains that of a person (the younger the better) who, to the amazement of alL has "overcome" his or her handicap to do something that "normal" people do. The one-legged skier and armless automobile driver are staples of the genre.

What's wrong with that? Perhaps, you say, Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs, in their 20/20 paean to Eric, might have over played the tone of reverential, awe. But, a little excusable hype aside, where's the harm in finding inspiration in such a tale of grit?

Well, far starters, one man's inspiration is another's tragic sterotype. Note the premise from which such "inspirational" yams proceed: Accomplishment by a handicapped person, therefore, is something out of the ordinary, something to be lustily, sometimes tearfully, hailed. "You're either a piece of garbage or a hero," explains a one-legged friend of mine. "It's almost impossible for a disabled person to be accepted as average."

In Eric's case, for example, the viewer is supposed to be awe-struck by the fact that a blind boy can participate in organized wrestling. The supposition is poppycock.

I know a blind lawyer who litigates federal tax cases for a living. I know a blind woman who lives alone, edits a national newsletter and regularly Flips around the country to address professional meetings.

The examples could be multiplied by the thousands. What these persons have "overcome" is not so much their inability to see as the barriers erected by a society that would deem them useless. The lawyer in his spare time likes to water ski, and he goes on frequent cross-country hikes and tandem bicycle rides. Such pastimes would make marvelous grist for the media mill, but in fact are rather fringe aspects of his life.

The concept of "overcoming" a handicap serves, however unintended, a dark end. It keeps alive the convenient notion that it is the disabled person who alone must do the overcoming, and that society has no responsibility in this regard. The human body and soul are remarkably adaptive. There is no inherent reason why any but the most severely disabled person cannot be useful and productive. Millions today nevertheless are idle. They are victims not merely of their physical or mental impairments, but also of a society that has been traditionally structured to exclude them. Part of the problem is purely mechanical--a paucity of accessible buildings and public transportation. Another part is legal or quasi-legal, having to do with disincentives built into public entitlements and private insurance plans.

But a lot of it has to do with attitudes. Wrongheaded notions of what it means to be disabled are deeply embedded in the consciousness of handicapped and ablebodied persons alike. The "overcoming" stories feed these sterotypes, and mask the social responsibility. How does a paraplegic "overcome" a lack of accesible buildings and public transportation--without which he cannot make it to a job interview, much less a daily job? How can even an Eric Weihenmayer "overcome" discriininatory hiring practices by would-be employers? And, significantly, where is the media coverage of these important issues?

The bottom line for Eric, of course is that he has not overcome his handicap. He still is, and will remain, blind. It is unlikely he will earn a living by wrestling. So in a few years he will face the job market. The important consideration then will be the extent to which society will have lowered the present obstacles.

One of the barriers, certainly, is the media mind set that places accomplishments by handicapped persons in the man-bites-dog category.

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