How Easy to Forget Even the Famous Disabled

I found an article the other day from Haaretz.com about an Israeli university and its ban on students with disabilities.

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=647205&contrassID=2&subContrassID=4&sbSubContrassID=0&listSrc=Y

Just as a snippet: “Alia Abu al-Khof wants to be a teacher. But when she applied to study toward her undergraduate degree at Tel Hai College, she found out that it does not accept people like her, a person with a mobility challenge. The reason: The institution is built on a steep slope and is not wheelchair-accessible. Following a report in Haaretz yesterday, the college retracted its sweeping refusal to accept students with disabilities and announced it would try to help al-Khof study there.”

What is fascinating is that Tel Hai College is located on the site where one of the most famous people in the history of Zionism fell. Joseph Trumpeldor was one of the first powerful Zionist activists and was responsible for bringing many settlers to Palestine. After his death Trumpeldor became the symbol of Jewish self-defence, and his memorial day on the 11th day of Adar is officially noted in Israel every year. But what seems to have been forgotten is that Joseph Trumpeldor was a person with a disability. He had lost his left arm years before at the seige of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japanese war.

The Tel Hai College takes pride in being a bastion of tolerance and pluralism, until it was required to be accessible to people with disabilities.

“Tel Hai College, located on the site where the most famous disabled person in the history of Zionism fell, and which commemorates Joseph Trumpeldor’s legacy, is the last place that should enshrine discrimination against the disabled.”

Progress is slow. But what really catches my eye is the very fact how history seems to eliminate people’s disabilities. Those are wiped from their biographies. This is especially prevalent when their contribution to history had nothing to do with the field of disability. If it was someone who excelled then the disability seems to “mysteriously” vanish. Just as a few examples: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was disabled from polio, Harriet Tubman and Julius Caesar both had epilepsy; Stephen J. Cannell the screenwriter and director is dyslexic, as is Cher; Mozart had Tourette Syndrome; Steve Allen and Alice Cooper both have asthma, the famous Spanish painter Goya was deaf, and John Cougar Mellencamp and Hank Williams Sr. had forms of spina bifida; and just to mention a couple of notaries for any ACB readers, let me add the painters Degas and Monet who were both visually impaired.

But those are people who’s disabilities I had to hunt out. In the classroom, their contribution to society was never questioned, but their contribution as a member of a minorty class is never identified. Just as historically the societal contributions of African-Americans has never been attributed with an acknowledgement. What does this mean? It means that without a knowledge of history, without a knowledge of what people with disabilities have contributed, we are trapped in the sterotypical shells created by society and they, like Tel Hai College justify their discimination without ever realizing that we were the rock upon which they were built.

People with Disabilities in Film

This article about the UK Disability Film Festival caught my eye. It looked really interesting. What I wondered was I wonder how many of the films actually make it into regular film festivals? How many disability-related films are accepted as part of the mainstream film and movie industry?  The only film that I recognized that did get some notice here in the U.S. was “Murderball.”

I also did a quick search to see if there were any Disability Film Festivals in the United States. I couldn’t find any. There has to be something doesn’t there?

Disability film festival line-up – 11/10/2005
From: BECTU, United Kingdom
Submitted by Leon Gilbert

More than 40 films on subjects relating to disability are due to be shown during a five-day festival in London.  The event, which begins on November 30 at the Southbank National Film Theatre, also includes masterclasses on lighting and producing low-budget films.  Many of the films to be shown at the 7th Disability Film Festival have been produced by film-makers and actors with disabilities from around the world.

The London Disability Arts Forum, which organises the festival every year, has created a programme based on short and feature length dramas, animations, documentaries, experimental films, question and answer sessions, presentations and workshops focusing on nurturing new talent and improving skills.

An increased international presence is promised this year, with films from Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Poland, Spain, the US and Bollywood. The festival will also be organising special events to coincide with World Aids Day on 1 December and International Day of Disabled People on 3 December.

Each film will be soft-titled, audio-described and British Sign Language interpreted, with a Palantype transcription simultaneously projected during more practical sessions.

For more information, visit:  http://www.disabilityfilm.org

BECTU (Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union) is the independent union for those working in broadcasting, film, theatre, entertainment, leisure, interactive media and allied areas who are primarily based in the United Kingdom.

http://www.bectu.org.uk/news/gen/ng0232.html

Docent Training at USHMM

Today I got the opportunity to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I had met with the staffer who helps to train docents for the Guided Highlights Tour. One of the things she encouranges is to have actual people with disabilities visit the trainees and do a “walk-through” of the tour to give the trainees the opportunity to see what it is like and (for the visually impaired visitor) learn what kinds of information they need to explain visually.

It is a fantastic 2-3 hour tour. Granted, I was only there to assist in the training so it was much shorter, about an hour or so. But the opportunity to actually work with guides and talk to them about what is good to explain and what they might not think of was just invaluable. A good example might be in their “meditation” area. Which is this area with seats. It has white abstract art on white walls. It was the trainer who pointed it out to the docents and even me that the white art would be something that they might have to explain. I had not even known it was there so I couldn’t have even pointed out to them and asked them to explain it! But you can bet those guides would make sure it was mentioned the next time.

On a purely personal level, the museum was fascinating. Not the depressing, sad tour I imagined. Sobering yes, meaningful yes, but not the dreariness that I expected. I encourage any blind or visually impaired person, or actually any person, visiting Washington DC to call the Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask for Guided Highlights Tour. They have really gone out of their way to make it as accessible as possible. No mean feat considering the amount of pictures, and videos and information that is “under glass.” But they gave good solid explanations and even had tactile items at various points in the tour. I am definitely going to visit again.

Perhaps I can explore some other sights in the DC area and compile a list of museums and art galleries that are accessible and/or visual impairment friendly.

New York Times Magazine Article

Wow. The New York Times Magazine had an article that was published on September 25th. The content of the article has gone through the blind and visually impaired community like wildfire.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/magazine/25food.html?oref=login
Is the URL and it is called Eat, Memory: Line of Sight

The article involves the owner/manager/head chef of a restaurant who had placed an add for a line cook and a blind man applied for the position. I have to admit that initially I thought the article only mildly offensive (not to mention I didn’t think much of the blind individual mentioned in the story). It was well written and told an anecdote in an “amusing” (not necessarily funny) manner with the writer using a lot of self-deprecating humor.

The narrator of the tale, although taken aback by having a blind applicant for the position of line cook seemed more than open-minded about giving the man a trial. Something most employers don’t even bother with. Having had that experience many times of “the position has just been filled” or “we don’t think you’d be a good match” or “your qualifications aren’t quite what we are looking for” I thought this was at least a positive image of a potential employers. And in fact Gabrielle Hamilton was quite good about pointing out her own stereotypical perspectives on ability and again, using the self-deprecating humor to put it in a positive light.

However, let me just say that prejudice and discrimination come in all forms and what is acceptable in some perspectives, when viewed through another lens, can suddenly be for what it is…offensive and in VERY poor taste.

Let me encourage you to read the entire article for yourself but please allow me to submit a few quotes:

“His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby.”

“At each station, he bent over and put his forehead against everything I showed him. It was fascinating at first – and later, heartbreaking – to note the angle at which he scrutinized each item in the refrigerator.”

“And instead of holding the pan of pork belly close under his nose and squinting down upon it – like a very old man might do trying to read his train ticket – he instead held each item up to his forehead, above his eyebrows, and stared up imploringly into it.”

“…painful to watch him bent in half, killing his back in order to have his untethered eyes close up to the cutting board.”

“But I understood 25 minutes into his trail that there was no system of compensation, that he had not become hypersensate and that he had not, emphatically, evolved into a superior cooking machine. Sadly, the guy was just plain blind.”

“Eventually we fell into a kind of spontaneous, unfunny Vaudeville routine in which I shadowed him, without his knowing, and seasoned the meat he missed, turned the fish he couldn’t, moved the plate under his approaching spatula to receive the pork, like an outfielder judging a fly ball in Candlestick Park.”

“The guy spent the rest of his trail with his back up against the wall in all the stations, eyes rolling around in his head, pretending to apprehend how each station worked. I spent the remainder of his trail wrestling meat and unattractive feelings triggered by this insane predicament in which we had found ourselves.”

Although believe it or not I can understand the humor in the piece, I find it inappropriate. Particularly for something such as the New York Times magazine. I see this being forwarded on the Internet and have heard the irate responses from the visually impaired community.  But I also have an ugly suspicion as to what the rest of the world will say:

“You blind people are being too sensitive.”

“It is just a story”

“It is supposed to be funny, that’s all”

“No one is getting hurt, and the guy was offered a chance”

But we aren’t being too sensitive. What really brought home to me the question of poor taste and the appropriateness of the piece was simply asking the question:

“What if he were black?”

What if this story was about a black person and the humor revolved around some personal or cultural attribute related to race? If that were the case, the Times Magazine would never have published such a piece. Gender,race, religion and in many cases, even sexual orientation have been removed as sources of such humor in mainstream media and yet, in this case, disability…it is considered acceptable. At the end of the day…I ask, what was the point of the article? Was it some great revelation about disability? About cooking? About stereotypes? About someone wholly incapable of doing the job blind or not? Other than what comes across as humor derived at the cost of an entire class of individuals there was no specific point that could find.

Little Black Sambo is dead, but Little Blind Guy obviously is still a source of amusement.