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.


Knots on a Counting Rope, or How Feminism Ruined My Childhood

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault Illustrated by Ted Rand

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope
by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault
Illustrated by Ted Rand

This week, a small piece of my childhood died.

My students love Reading Rainbow. I started using the old episodes when Idaho hooked every teacher up with a subscription to Discovery Education. Over 150 old episodes are available for streaming, and most of them are captioned for my deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I interpret them anyway, but the captions really help my students catch vocabulary words and sentence structure. When we read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, we watched the accompanying Reading Rainbow, which was fascinating: we got to watch some great domino-crash cause-and-effect footage. It tickles my nostalgia bone, too. I was thrilled to find the episode with the clip about making paper from recycled denim. With that many episodes, we find a lot of uses for integrating the videos into our units.

I am starting a unit on the Native American tribes of Idaho. I sought some videos and books to introduce the unit so we had some common literature experiences. Reading Rainbow offered an episode featuring Knots on a Counting Rope. I hadn’t read that book in years and only had vague (but positive) memories of the story. So I previewed the video and cracked open the book.

Intersectional Feminism ruined a piece of my childhood this week.

This book was a classic, a staple of every elementary classroom. It features Indians! And a blind kid! And he overcomes his blindness and becomes one with nature! How great is that!

I wish I could say I read this story to my kids and they loved it and the end. Or I guess I’m glad I can say I didn’t and they didn’t and NOT the end.

This book is an example of intersectional (or what I call “ampersandwiched”) literature: it portrays the intersection between two areas of marginalization. But this book is done poorly, as many attempts by authors who are not Native and who do not have disabilities are. It falls into a number of common traps.

  • The “Magical Native American” or “Mystic Shaman” trope is present in speaking to the wind and the horses speaking to the newborn, among others. Most of this book could fall under that stereotype. This cliché depends upon the idea that all Native Americans commune with nature and are imbued with special powers or insight because of that connection. The mystic shaman is considered by many to be a positive stereotype, but it is a stereotype nonetheless. Stereotypes limit the depths of characters and limit our understanding to a flat representation.
  • The “Magical Differently Abled Person” trope is present in the character of the grandson. In overcoming his fear of racing his horse while blind (by becoming one with nature, by the way), we are meant to feel inspired by him. I wrote a paper on this for my Feminist Theory class last semester: going about life with a disability does not automatically make someone “inspirational.” Far too many books that feature a character with a disability fall into this trap of objectifying that character and using the disability as a plot device. At the end, someone learns a lesson (often it’s us, the reader, or another able-bodied person in the story) and we all go away better people. I will be digging into this phenomenon more as I work though children’s and young adult literature over the upcoming months.

I am not saying anyone is a bad person for liking this book. I am sharing my journey in reassessing what I consider “classic” children’s books. I remember this book fondly; years ago my sister brought it home from school when my aunt was visiting, and I remember them snuggling in the recliner while my aunt read it to her. It hurts to reread something so well-loved and see how it could have contributed to my own stereotypes, and how I might still cling to pieces of those stereotypes as an adult.

For more on people with disabilities as “inspiration,” take ten minutes to watch this TED talk by Stella Young.