Today you get a bonus round. Normally I plan these, at least to an extent, because I know I have more topics on hand than will fit in a month. But sometimes something happens that demands a post because it evokes strong emotions in me. This is one of those times.
Last night, my family and I were watching the local news when the sports report came on. Not being a sports fan, I was pretty tuned out until I heard about an athlete at a local high school getting a big surprise on Senior Night. I remember how good it felt to be a high school senior, so I paid more attention. That’s when I found out the story was about a guy named Matthew who has CP. Okay, now you’ve got my attention, I thought. What happened on Senior Night that was such a big surprise?
It turns out Matthew is a member of his school’s basketball team. I was hoping to hear he was a regular player, but that hope started dying when an able-bodied player was quoted, “He’s here supporting us at every game.” Okay–team members support each other because that’s part of participation, but I wondered if that meant Matthew didn’t really get to play. I was right: he is the equipment manager. That is, until Senior Night. That’s when a star player “gave up his starting position so Matthew could play in the game.” Viewers then saw footage of Matthew putting on his jersey, coming out with the team, and scoring two points, for which the entire stadium cheered like crazy.
Inspiring story, right? Great kids, right?
Right. And it made me sick.
If you’re familiar with this blog, you know one big reason why: inspiration discrimination. For a quick refresher course, this is what happens when a PWD is placed in an “inspirational” role because of his or her disability and given fifteen minutes of fame. The kicker is, if you take away the disability, there’s no story and no reason to pay attention to the PWD. For example: an able-bodied basketball player scores two points in the Senior Night game? Whatever. Probably more impressive if he’s a senior who’s also being wooed by a prestigious college, but not necessarily the biggest deal on the planet. Basketball player with cerebral palsy does the same thing? “Oooh! Aaaaah! How INSPIRING! Get the newspaper down here!” In other words, if the PWD is not doing something “inspirational,” something that pleases the TAB community, then he or she isn’t worth the time, the TV slot, the space in the newspaper.
But there are a couple other reasons I have a problem with this story that we haven’t discussed yet. One is that stories like this often seem like they’re aimed at the PWD, but they’re usually aimed at showing off the TAB community’s compassion and charity toward that person. Who got all the interview time in Matthew’s story? The star player who gave up his starting position–not Matthew. The focus was not Matthew or his abilities. The focus was, “Isn’t it great how Thomas–and by extension other kids without disabilities–give up what’s important to them so the disadvantaged kids can have a chance?” The underlying message remains the same: PWDs just aren’t worth the time. The best we can do is give them fifteen minutes of fame to prevent them from feeling unequal or left out.
This brings me to the other issue: why was Matthew only allowed to play in the basketball game on Senior Night? Here I should explain that Matthew is completely ambulatory and other than significantly different speech, his disability seemed mild. (I don’t know for sure, but I’m going off what information I have). Why had he never been invited to play before? If the other team members cared about him as much as they said they did in the interview, why didn’t they ask the coach to modify the games so Matthew could participate? Why was Matthew only made to feel special and worthwhile on a night that was already a special occasion? It seems the message there is: yes, PWDs matter, but we’ll wait to notice them until it’s convenient. If we give them a little attention here or there, they’ll be more likely to stay quietly and peacefully on the sidelines the rest of the time.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. People with disabilities are people first. Why aren’t we treating them like people? Why do they remain our special mascots, our “sometimes buddies,” our–yes–pets? Why?
This has happened to me, too. I wasn’t an athlete–ahem, equipment manager. I was a chorus girl. I loved chorus and I wanted nothing more than to have a real part in our school’s musicals. This never happened, because I had CP. I was consigned to the chorus line whose main function is to dance, even though my director’s justification was that because I could not dance, I should not play lead or supporting characters who had to do it. Yet, when I received walk-on roles, she made it a huge deal, even complimenting me at length once in front of the entire cast at a dress rehearsal.
I didn’t fight it then, for a number of reasons. I was raised that “you don’t make trouble in school/you don’t mouth off to teachers.” My parents were already suspicious of this teacher because she had a somewhat flaky personality and had tried to get me to do things that were physically unsafe. I was also afraid of getting kicked out of chorus; because of my CP and the electives offered at school, it was one of the few electives in which I could realistically participate.
I should have fought it. I should’ve looked at my director and said, “Hey, Ms. S, what gives? You gave a lead role to a white girl when the script clearly describes the character as of Spanish descent. You edit out profanity for yourself, and for actors who don’t want to use it. What is the big deal about modifying a play for a mild physical disability? I’m not asking you to exempt me from memorizing lines, singing, or doing anything else the cast can do. What is your problem?”
I should have, and didn’t.
To PWDs who may be going through this, or PWDs like Matthew who may not realize what’s going on: I get it. Positive attention is positive attention, and I’m not trying to discount how good you felt on Senior Night, or whenever. But the way you were treated–that’s the wrong way to handle a situation like yours. You deserve better than fifteen minutes of fame. You deserve to be equal and to get your share of the attention, your legitimate shot at being the star.
Fight for it.