Still Sputtering

This post was supposed to be about three “disability” movies I’d rented, which deal with things in a pretty positive way. As a sort of antidote to last week’s rant. Then I started watching them. And then I got mad.

I’ve had a hard time writing about them. I keep veering off in academic land, citing sources (this book, 40 years old, is hands-down the best on the topic I’ve ever read) and distancing myself with quotes and finding the good in the movies. Of which there is much – my favourite is Murderball (about the US Paralympic quad rugby team - the box scene alone is worth the rental), although Warm Springs and The Brooke Ellison Story were good, too.

The truth is… I’m beyond high dudgeon and well into incandescent with rage.

The New York Times (reg.req.) says of Murderball that “[t]he film consciously steers away from the tears and gooey inspirational uplift associated with disability movies”. I loved it. It is unflinching in showing the truth about souls and minds and bodies, it dares to show that sometimes, people with disabilities can be assholes and goes on to make the point that not even assholes are assholes all the time. It show that these guys are just like any other jocks and shines the light on them so clearly that the wheelchair become irrelevant, just another part of what they are.

Here come the problems. At the end of Warm Springs, FDR learns how to mask his disability so he could have a political future. At first, I told myself that of course, in the 1930’s things were different. Then I thought, were they? Is it just more subtle now? Have we come so very far? The tagline for Brooke Ellison says: “she rose above disability with determination” (because disability has to be “risen above”, doesn’t it?). Reviewer quotes for Murderball’s DVD case say: “a new definition of courage” and “[a]n inspirational crowd pleaser” (do you really think they’re inspirational because they’re Olympic athletes?).

In all three movies, people have goals and live life on their own terms, just like everyone else. In all three movies, the people essentially say about their disability – and pardon the language here, but it’s really the only way to say it: “fuck that, I’ve got shit to do”. Then they go about living their life and pursuing their goals. Just like you. And with all three movies, they face the world’s refusal to let them do just that, instead saddling them (us) with pity and patronizing labels. What has to be overcome and “risen above” is not the disability – because a disability cannot be “overcome”, although it can be lived with – but the preconceptions of ablebodied society, which tells them (us) in a thousand little ways that the disability will always matter most.

In an interview in Entertainment Weekly (subscription req.), Karen Valby manages to capture who Mark Zupan (the forward on the US quad rugby team) is: ferociously determined to be himself, just the way he is, and to enjoy/live his life. And then she ends the article by asking what Zupan would do if he could have the use of his legs back for an hour. Not even Olympic athletes escape the condescension.

And all I can think is a sputtering “how dare they?”. How dare they pity me?? How dare they underestimate us? How dare they impose their narrow little view of how disability ought to mean you should sit at home – oops, sorry: in an institution - bitterly weaving baskets and slowly fading into a pathetic shadow of anything resembling a human being. Certainly not Out There, going to school, working, dancing, having sex, relationships and children, getting drunk, participating in the world, having goals (beyond getting up in the morning) and working to achieve them. Living life, insisting that we are just like everyone else, with hopes, dreams, bad days (and good), bad attitudes, and every other characteristic you can imagine.

How dare they!?

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