This (Ableist) American Life

I fall asleep in cars.

So when one friend sent me the teaser link for last Saturday’s This American Life, and I was riding in a vehicle with another friend who listened to This American Life, there was really no excuse for me NOT hearing Episode 544: Batman.

Except that I fall asleep in cars.

The content seemed interesting enough: the piece was going to be about a man who is blind, and I work at a school for the deaf and blind. And I read and write and study topics related to disability and society.

And that’s where things started to get a little sticky. I normally enjoy listening to TAL. My friend Erik recently finished listening to the complete catalog in reverse, so I had heard a lot of older episodes. I was accustomed to Ira Glass’ delivery, to his format. I’d fallen asleep to a lot of episodes of TAL (you know, moving car + podcast… I never stood a chance. I’m like an infant).

This summer, as I was prepping my brain for graduate school and delving back into the blogging community, I started following a lot of writers in the disability advocacy community. These bloggers included parents of children and disability self-advocates, and it provided me a quick and dirty reintroduction to the abelism permeating society. I teach in a somewhat sheltered environment, compared to a regular public school; it was time for me to wake up.

There is one blogger and two pieces that are relevant to this post (fun fact: I can never spell relevant correctly the first time). David M. Perry wrote two pieces on problematic ableism in segments of This American Life. He wrote one on use of the r-word and the other on using Down syndrome as fodder for comedy. Not only did he write the pieces, he reached out to Ira Glass (no response) and Wyatt Cenac (response included in the links above). tl;drThis American Life’s recent track record is not good regarding disability. I went in cautious, and I listened alone. I tend to blow raspberries and/or yell at the radio.

This American Life Episode 544: Batman

The introduction was quite a hook, and a clever way to introduce us to the new contributors, who are kicking off their own show/podcast. We got to know them as mischievous journalists who break the rules of the office in the name of science. They interview a couple people who are well-regarded in their respective fields. It was a solid hook. But here’s where it really bothered me: on a show focused on a man with a disability, and how our expectations can impact people with disabilities, they produced a six-minute prologue about lab rats. This may seem like no big deal, but let me share some of my context: A number of years ago Marlee Matlin, one of the most famous Deaf people in popular culture, did a live interview with CNN. The interviewer said off-camera, three seconds before going live “My dog is deaf like you,” in some misguided attempt to forge a last-minute connection to the actress (Source, pg. 3). Echolalia has been described as “parrot-like” speech. The notes from some of the earliest attempts at educating deaf children are rife with animal metaphors. It felt like (to me, as a teacher of kids with disabilities), “Here is a catchy intro about rats. Rats give you a visceral reaction and hook you, right? Now let me tell you how that is like this guy who is blind.”

People with disabilities are objectified in an ableist society. They are the Other. While sharing the story of Daniel Kish–the Batman–the TAL contributors Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel share how Kish and another blind boy in his middle school were “lumped together” and referred to collectively. Lacking distinction or individuality, they were “the blind boys.” This was one example of objectification and dehumanization that Miller and Spiegel grasped right away. However, during the same segment (and by same segment, I mean just during Act 1), they speak about, act, or treat Kish as an object in the following ways:

  • They ask him to remove his prosthetic eyeballs so they can hold and touch them. At its core, it is two interviewers using a position of power to satisfy their curiosity. This was in no way integral to the piece and it is absolutely inappropriate. The only times I touch my students’ assistive devices (hearing aids, cochlear implants, leg braces) is when they ask for assistance or if something breaks. Or if it falls on the ground and is in immediate danger of breaking. You get the idea: assistive devices are an extension of the personal bubble and are personal space. If you wouldn’t ask a sighted person to take out their eyeballs during an interview about echolocation, you shouldn’t ask a blind person to take out his eyeballs during an interview about echolocation.
  • The piece uses eight clips of news reporters proclaiming Kish’s amazing ability to ride a bicycle as though to critique such coverage. Miller and Spiegel wind up repeating the same narrative.
  • They spent a significant amount of time gawking at his “amazing” abilities, even reporting that Kish and his friend Brian Bushway think that version of the narrative is incorrect, before copping to the fact that the “two of them made it clear that [Miller’s] amazement was kind of offensive.”

It seems more than a little fitting that in an episode about the power of expectations, I got exactly what I expected: a serving of Magical Differently Abled Person with a side-helping of Inspiration Porn.

But here’s the thing: the expectations we have for children and adults with disabilities is a conversation we should be having! This episode raises some excellent points among the bits I find troubling. Why are we so obsessed with the “social acceptability” factor of adaptive behaviors? Why don’t we let blind kids click, or autistic children flap, or even teachers with migraines wear hats and sunglasses to staff meetings*, if it means they can function comfortably and safely in their environments? Saying a child who is [blank] can’t [blank] because society will think he is weird is like telling women that wearing short skirts will cause them to be assaulted; it might just be the slut shaming of the disability world.

Coverage of people with disabilities falls into two extremes: dehumanization and superhumanization. A person with a disability in popular culture or in the media never gets to just be a person. He is expected to be awkward or maladjusted or to perform below average, in which case he is pitied and dehumanized. Oh those poor kids can’t hear. That poor blind child. It’s why people are surprised when my students are able to show empathy or write a story or solve math problems or pay for candy at the store. Don’t they go to the Deaf school? I didn’t know they could do that! Don’t they go to THAT school? But they have such good speech**!! 

But wait! He can ride a bike (without eyes)? She can fold laundry (using her feet)? That’s amazing! Everyday tasks are imbued with superhuman significance and the completion of those tasks is labeled “inspiring.” I wrote about the “Magical Differently Abled Person” trope on Wednesday, too. It’s everywhere. It’s such tantalizing clickbait. It’s how we remind ourselves that people with disabilities have value and it’s how we make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy for the day. But let me tell you something: My students have adapted, but they are not magical. Yes, they work hard in therapy. Yes, they sometimes say profound things that surprise me. They also fart. All the time. And two of my students are the most mucousy kids I have ever taught; one of them spent 15 minutes last week trying to “farmer blow” on a worksheet she did not want to complete. And I’ve been head-butted more times than I can count. We can make accessibility a priority and accommodations commonplace and still treat my students (and the adults they will become) like whole persons. Whole human persons. Anything more or less just reinforces the disability hierarchy all over again.

So yes, our expectations matter. But not in a way that can be tackled in a one-hour episode of This American Life. Or in a single blog post (I’ve deleted as many tangential paragraphs as I’ve saved for this post; I think that means I’ll be coming back to this topic a few times, especially as it relates to high expectations and school reform, and high behavioral expectations for students with disabilities).

*My boss has actually been really awesome about accommodating my migraines.

**One tangent I will allow about speech, and it comes full circle with the Marlee Matlin anecdote. A Deaf friend of mine has had so many people compliment her speech that now she barks by way of thanks. Would you compliment a 28-year-old hearing woman on the quality of her articulation during a regular conversation? I didn’t think so.

This American Life is produced by Chicago Public Media and Ira Glass
Episode 544: Batman audio and full transcript are available online.

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