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Saturday, 11 February 2012

Back-logged: Canada's View on Disability

CANADA IS KNOWN for its amazing acceptance of everyone, from every walk of life. We are, by defualt, a very understanding and accommodating nation, and that notion is-- if nothing else-- part of our national image. And that’s swell, but I’d argue there’s trouble in paradise, specifically when it comes to the Canadian public’s views on disability. I’m not one two point fingers, but I think the confused impression the public has of people with disabilities is due to the contradicting mindsets of Canadian policy makers and those in the news media industry. In my fancy-shmancy my-parents-forced-me-to-get-a-degree lingo, I would say that:Canada’s legislation promotes acceptance and integration in the form of accessibility, but the ideologies inferred by media, specifically news broadcasts, send conflicting messages which favour ignorance. The mixed messages purported from the two influential sources create a back-log effect for the Canadian public’s views and understanding of disability.The cyclical relationship between the news, media and the general public is why we can’t progress, and become the all-accepting mosaic of a country we so long to be. In Laymen’s terms, the reason people speak to me like I’m hearing impaired (instead of in a wheelchair) is because they have received multiple contrasting signals from the government legislation and everyday news media, telling them what to do when it comes to disability. They’re probably really confused.

Gumdrops and Lollipops: Disability Policy in Canada

Canadian mandates on accessibility and equality sound so forward-thinking, they almost ring utopic. Around this time last year, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario released a new standard for accessibility around Ottawa stating that its goal was, “improving accessibility through identifying, removing and preventing barriers in key areas of customer service, employment, communications and information, and the built environment.”(see: www.ontla.on.ca/lao-organization/.../accessibility-2010-2011_en.pdf). The legislation touches on a number of things that effect many people with disabilities on a regular basis, such as improving building accessibility, adding accessible washrooms, and training those in customer service on what I call “disability etiquette”. It all sounds great, and in many ways it is. On the flip side of the coin however, is the glaring fact that people have to be “trained, retrained, or refreshed” on how to “communicate with people with disabilities” This strikes me as both horribly sad and hysterical, as it makes people with disabilities sound like a new species or something. Not to mention it makes all those in the service industry look like fools, for not having the sense to know how to interact with another human being. As ridiculous as it is though, I commend the legislative assembly for admitting that people do need to be trained on how to treat those with disabilities, since more often than not in my experience, prejudice gets in the way of common sense.

The Media, The Problem

While policy-makers are on the right track with implementing laws that enforce equality for people with disabilities, the news media is sending quite a different message. This is problematic, given that both policies and news media are major influences of public consciousness. I recently read that, “a “recent survey released by NADbank shows that [the] total weekly newspaper penetration levels [is] between 75% to 80% of the [Canadian] adult population.”This means that a huge chunk of citizens read the news on a regular basis. I’d venture to say that if you’re reading this, you likely fit somewhere in that 75-80%. Bottom line is, the news, in its many forms and outlets is wide-spread throughout Canada, and therefore influences, to varying extents, the people who consume it.

In the spirit of media influence, I think it was Spiderman’s Uncle Ben who said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Since news providers have roughly 80% of Canada’s grown-up population watching them, their content--everything from portrays of wars, to depictions of human interest stories involving low income citizens--matters. Unfortunately, news reporters work on a tight, day-to-day/ breaking news timeline which doesn’t allow for much elaboration or explanation of the topics and situations which they so readily convey. This means that we, the public, are left to fill in the blanks in telegram-type titles and 5-7 word bi-lines, which, leaves a lot of room for interpretive error. The curt, brief style of news media essentializes people and stories at best, and discriminates groups and issues at worst.
Though the aftertaste of being stripped to the bare minimum in news stories is likely felt by nearly everyone at some point, I would argue the news’ portrayal of people with disabilities is especially careless. This week, I read an article dealing with the government’s pulling of $300 000 from a program which provided care and recreation for adults with physical and mental disabilities (see: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/02/08/ottawa-cut-program-disabled-adults.html).
The article is most troublesome in its choice of wording when describing the people with disabilities, both on the broadcast, and in the written piece. In the broadcast, the anchorman calls the subjects “severely disabled adults,” failing to specify that all member of the discussed program are physically AND mentally disabled. We, as audiences, are left to infer the occurrence or a developmental delay, on top of a physical disability, simply from the word “severe”. This language is not only problematic in that it is vague, it is also inaccurate. I have a disability that is termed “severe” by professionals, although my cognitive abilities remain untouched. According to what the news would have us believe however, “severe” encompasses only people who face physical and mental disabilities. Rather than using common sense and placing the words, “mentally and physically” in front of “disabled” before the description of the upcoming newsstory, viewers are left with a vague and incorrect impression of disability, likely assuming that “severe” indicates both a developmental and physical disability.
Aside from this issue of incorrectly labeling the people with disabilities it is identifying, neither the article nor the accompanying broadcast mentions whether the program takes on members with strictly physical or strictly mental disabilities. Does each individual who has access to the program have physical and mental limitations, or do some only have one or the other? We are, once again, left to assume these important details, under the blanket the media so easily labels as “The disabled”.

I find it quite annoying that we have policy makers peeing their pants with excitement when it comes to implementing barrier free environments for people with disabilities, while simultaneously some politically incorrect, lazy news transcriber can’t take the time to at least attempt depicting people with disabilities properly. Instead public is left to make their own impressions and, in my opinion, its likely that lack of knowledge, will lead to most people filling in the blanks with some sort of stereotype. This process flies in the face of disability awareness, and hence we have the vicious circle, the is policy, media, public.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Sit Down, Artie.

ON DAYS WHEN I am extremely bored and the usual fixes like reading post secret, stalking facebook, or watching horrible clips of covers to songs I don't even know aren't doing it, I sit down and watch Glee. Go ahead, judge away, it's probably better than some of the crapshoot music videos you pretend not to watch anyway. Also, what I am about to say really has nothing to do with whether or not Glee is a good show. It's not. Pretty undoubtedly, the plot is non existent, the actors are way too into their cheesy characters and the accapella-subbing for real instruments got old half way through the first season. It sucks, hands down.
Despite the show's poor quality, it has a fairly loyal viewership, and an even more loyal cast. Apparently Leah Michelle (Rachel Berry) got two tattoos in honor of the show and what it stands for. Which, brings me to my real topic: What the fuck does Glee represent?
When the show first came out, the majority was excited because it combined musical numbers (everyone's secret favourite thing) with diversity and acceptance, while challenging ideas of political correctness and categorization. The main characters included: Two white people, two Jews, two Asians one black person, one wheelie, and one homosexual. That's right, I said main. All of these characters were supposed to dance and jive until we forgot their differences, or at least until we no longer cared. It was a quirky fun show with just enough of the tragic element to add depth.
As the season unfolded, each character developed and, in their own ways, embraced their so-called differences. They even did a whole episode on difference, where The Female Jew (Rachel Berry) comes to love her big nose, on the grounds that it is resembling of Barbra Streisand's, and, well, she's famous. In other episodes, we see Tina and Mike referring to themselves as 'Asian' and 'Other Asian' to make light of their race. The character Kurt is openly gay and, after quite a struggle, becomes accepted by those whom he encounters on a daily basis.This is all warm-fuzzies, flowers, rainbows and honeybees, until it's Artie's turn to be empowered by his circumstance.
Artie is a rather two dimensional character: nerdy, with annoyingly straight teeth and glasses squarer than my nun aunt. If it wasn't for his paraplegia, caused (yes, you guessed it!) by an accident at age 7, he would not even be worth air time. But, for the sake of diversity, Artie is paralyzed, serving the wheelie quota for the shows' modern, liberal look at 'all walks of life'. This seems totally okay for a while, as Artie floats through each epi doing a series of hand-motions and cat-walks where appropriate, but trouble soon rolls in, as Artie starts to truly realize, at the age of 17, that his disability is part of him.
The problem here is not that Artie must come to terms with being in a wheelchair, but more with the fact that such acceptance isn't happening. This is particularly obvious in the latest episode, where he claims, he "doesn't want to hear that it gets better. He wants to hurt them...he wants them to feel his pain, because lately, that's all he has to give." That's not even the kicker. As if it's not enough that Artie is having a seemingly unprovoked emotional breakdown, the show deals with it by having him break out of his chair and do a whole dance and vocal duet to an MJ track. As is keeping in line with the shows sweep-it-under-the rug approach to Artie's disability, his breakdown/daydream is never brought up or mentioned again, and viewers are left to think that it is 'normal' to wish Artie could walk, because his dance moves are sooo much better when he can add footwork.
In my opinion, this sends a mix message of acceptance of limits and denial of circumstance. Wile Kurt is off applying to Performing Arts school and being the best version of his gay-self he can be, and Tina and Mike are proud of the "honor" associated with their Asain roots, Artie can't decide whether he is frustrated with or advocating for disability. Subliminally, these conflicting messages might lead watchers to think all wheelies are uncomfortable with their disabilities, that they daydream of getting up just to pull off the moonwalk, which is something that I would readily dispute.
If Glee isn't going off the air anytime soon, I at least hope that Artie will do the rest of his musical numbers as a true wheelie. The writers would never ask their black character to paint her face white for a scene, or tell Kurt to explore the possibility of dating Britney. So why doesn't Artie just stay sitting?