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Why Disability Studies Matters

Why Disability Studies Matters
February 21, 2005

You know there is something wrong when 100 of the major film critics in the United States say that Clint Eastwood's film Million Dollar Baby is a great work and every disability scholar and activist rails against the movie. The film continues to garner praise and awards -- a Director's Guild Award for Eastwood, seven Academy Award nominations, as well as Best Actress and Director Golden Globes -- while in Chicago and Berkeley people using wheel chairs, service dogs, and red-tipped canes organized protests at which they held up signs that read "Disability Is Not a Death Sentence" and "Not Dead Yet."

For those who do not know yet,  (Warning: Plot spoiler just ahead) Eastwood's film tells the story of a poor but feisty young woman, Maggie(Hillary Swank), who wants Frankie (Clint Eastwood), to train her to be a boxer. Initially he refuses, but then when he gives in, she becomes an unbeatable opponent in the ring -- until she breaks her neck and becomes a quadriplegic. At that point, the film throws a left hook and switches from a Rocky-themed plot to a disability tragedy. When Maggie loses a leg to bedsores, she gives up her wish to live and begs to be euthanized by Frankie.  And after a little soul searching, he agrees.

Many people with disabilities, including the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, a national advocacy group with 13,000 members, see the film as one that uncritically advocates euthanasia for quadriplegics. There are no scenes in which anyone at the hospital tries to deal with Maggie's depression or offers her counseling or at the least an anti-depressant. And the feisty girl who would stop at nothing to fight in the ring, who tells her greedy, hick family to bugger off, strangely changes character and becomes someone who gives up her ghost rather quickly -- even refusing Frankie's offer of sending her to college (his one passing attempt to  alleviate her despair).

What many critics and much of the public doesn't know is that Eastwood isn't just any impartial artist in the area of disability. In fact, he has testified before the House Judiciary Committee against the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Eastwood is the owner of the Mission Ranch Inn in Carmel, Calif. A disabled patron had sued under the ADA claiming that the hotel restrooms were inaccessible and the only accessible guest room was more than double the price of other rooms in the hotel. Eastwood was required to compensate the victim for some of these violations, although the major claims in the case were dismissed. Angered by the suit, Eastwood went to Congress to lobby for a bill that would have substantially weakened the ADA by requiring a 90-day notification of violations.  At that time, Eastwood said, in a Dirty Harry mode, that the ADA amounted to "a form of extortion."

Here's where disability studies comes in. If this film were obviously anti-gay, or anti-women, or anti-abortion, the university community would know what to do. That community has been well taught in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation, and women's rights. Most academics would respect the rights of filmmakers to make any film they want, that is they would protect freedom of speech and creativity. But they would most certainly speak out against films, novels, plays or any artwork that demeaned people of color, gay people, or any oppressed group. Yet the average university student or faculty member still does not have even the most rudimentary understanding of disability as an identity category. In that sense, disability is where race or gender was in the 1950's or earlier.

In those days, a good liberal could be counted on to say the following: "I feel sorry for X group." "I have one friend who is X, and I can tell you those people are good, solid citizens." And in the privacy of his or her own home  might say, "Thank God I am not X" and of course "I wouldn't want my daughter to marry X." And then there was the awkwardness of meeting, talking, interacting.  That is the real "tell." As many white people were (and still are) uncomfortable conversing with people of color -- or do so with the constant thought in their mind that the person with whom they are speaking is a "black" or a "Hispanic" or an "Asian" being.

In that sense, most so-called "normal" people do not feel comfortable talking with a person using a wheelchair, a quadriplegic, a Deaf person, a blind person, a person with mental retardation or a person who has been treated for serious mental problems, someone who has cerebral palsy, who is spastic, and so on. That level of comfort one has with normals just isn't there. There will be the hesitancy about making eye contact, the desire to look with the simultaneous avoidance of looking. That behavior alone should tell anyone that the relations between people with disabilities and nondisabled is a problematic and fraught one. Indeed, for most people, it is a relationship based on ignorance and liberal notions of sympathy and pity. In other words, to put the matter bluntly, it is the relation between an oppressor group and an oppressed group.

Of course, most well meaning academics don't want to think of themselves as oppressors.  And in their hearts they feel they are not. Who could, after all, be an oppressor to a person using a wheel chair. Yet any wheel chair user will tell you of their routine, daily experiences. Any blind or deaf person has stories to recount.  Any person with cerebral palsy can regale you with hundreds of incidents in which non-disabled people insult by their awkwardness, hurt by their condescension or worse by their shunning of disabled people.

The point to make is that when this kind of a relationship exists, it cannot be solved by individual resolve.  If you resolve to be "nice" to someone with a disability, you will still find yourself in an awkward situation. That is because, the situation is not a personal one; it is a political one. You can't solve the class issue by being nice to poor people; and you can't solve the race issue by being friendly to people of color. What has to happen is a more radical thing -- the general education of the entire public through structural change.

This is where disability studies is imperative. It is crucial that students in elementary and secondary school, as well as students in the university, grow up in close contact with people with all kinds of disabilities. It is crucial that disability studies be included in the curricula of schools so that when Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement are studied, when films on Stonewall are screened, Chicano authors are read -- that disability history and culture be included as well from the accomplishments of Vietnam Vets and Ron Kovic to the Berkeley movement led by disability activist Ed Roberts to the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University. The drafting of the ADA should be studied the way that the drafting of the Declaration of Independence is studied. Students should be able to read the work of Nancy Mairs or Andre Dubus, to know about the disabilities of artists and writers like James Joyce, Harriet Martineau, and William DeKooning, as well as the more obvious Beethoven or Ray Charles.

Disability studies has the potential to make people see that the world has been designed to exclude many people with disabilities from the wheel chair user to the person with cognitive or affective disorders.  People need to know the way that poverty is interwoven with disability so that even now more than 60 per cent of people with disabilities in the US are unemployed, and throughout the world two-thirds of the disabled live in poverty.  

The history of oppression of disabled people is unknown to most people, and so they see disability as an individual tragedy, worthy of being turned into a movie, and not as the political oppression and the struggle to fight that oppression, which makes for complex movies and even more difficult legal, social, and political battles.  It's a lot easier to make a movie in which we weep for the personal defeat of a person who loses a leg or two, or cry with joy for the triumph of an individual with disabilities, than it is to change the whole way we as a society envision, think about, and deal with people who are disabled.

That's why so many people are angry about the Eastwood film. And that's why well-meaning people like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd turn around and say: What's all the fuss? This is just one artist's view of a situation: "The purpose of art is not always to send messages. More often, it's just to tell a story, move people and provoke ideas. Eastwood's critics don't even understand what art is. Politics -- not art -- is about finding consensus with the majority of the audience. Art is not about avoiding controversy or ensuring that everyone leaves feeling morally uplifted." That's true, but Dowd also begs the question. The issue isn't that Eastwood is just speaking his mind.  It's that he's speaking the mind of a country that is largely ignorant of the issues and politics around disability.

It isn't surprising that the 19th century produced a raft of books in which blacks, Jews and Semitic people, southern Europeans, Asians, and others were seen as untrustworthy degenerates. Great and mediocre artists were just expressing their opinions, and the opinions of their audiences. When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Fagin was just a popular image of a Jew.  No one is saying that those books should be burned now -- but I think it is fair to say that most people, including Maureen Dowd, would condemn those inaccurate and self-serving representations of people who were seen as "others" to the Europeans and Americans who wrote and read those books.

In our own time, we always wonder how it was that authors like Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe, or even Sigmund Freud could get issues like race or gender so wrong. How was it that people in the past were so oblivious to the issues that now seem obvious to us? Will people look back to the beginning of the 21st century and wonder how writers like Frank Rich in The New York Times could have been so prejudiced against people with disabilities, even when they openly protested the biases and errors of this film, that he completely ruled out the possibility that Million Dollar Baby could even be problematic for people with disabilities? Will those people be astounded at the routine use of the pejorative sense of commonly used phrases like "turn a deaf ear" or "a blind eye" or references to "lame" notions or "crippled" economies? Of course, people in the past had no problem speaking of "jewing" someone down or using the "N-word" routinely to identify an African-American, so perhaps these usages are just lingua franca for us. 

Disability studies matters because it points out the obvious, the common, the things no one notices because most of those "no ones" see themselves a living in the mirage of being normal.

So that's where we are in regard to disability -- somewhere between the 19th century and the 1950's.  It is great that we have the Americans with Disabilities Act on the books, but that act is under attack, even by the same people who are making the movies that suggest the execution of bedridden people who are mentally sound. It is only when the average person says "disability studies" in the same way he or she says, and knows, African-American studies or feminist studies, only when there is a disability studies program in every university, along with courses in American Sign Language side by side with French and Spanish, only when every student knows the name of Gallaudet or Laurent Clerc or Ed Roberts the way they know the names of Susan B. Anthony  or Martin Luther King, only when film critics "get" the issues expressed by people with disabilities can we say that disability studies indeed finally mattered very much.

 

Bio

Lennard J. Davis, a professor of English and disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the author of Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body and editor of The Disability Studies Reader.

 

 

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