Media and Disability

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.