Corinne Duyvis writes an interesting piece on the ways in which the disabled are portrayed in literature and film. That a rather sizable portion of society could be thought of as disposable is perhaps understandable when depicting a dystopia. What’s less understandable (and less forgivable) is the way in which the actually disabled are actually treated the world over. The situation in China and India is appalling; that in the Middle East, bad but improving (although I must say that the days wherein journalist John Hockenberry could be wheeled through a crowd of Iranian protesters chanting “Death To America” while his smiling Iranian assistant admitted the protest was largely for show have long passed.)
In the West, the ways in which the disabled are treated are much more tolerable, but Duyvis is getting at the much-harder- to-examine issue of societal perception of the disabled–how they are treated socially and emotionally. I have, myself, been wrestling with the problem of those perceptions off and on since 1990 and the publication of Christopher Nolan’s autobiography, Under The Eye Of The Clock, a self-study of the author’s life with cerebral palsy whose lyrical Irish prose would make Joyce proud. It was Nolan who introduced me to the idea of the “notional No,” which is his way of expressing the absolute, categorical, I-don’t-even-want-to-discuss-it rejection of the disabled when they are encountered by the non-disabled. Over those years, I’ve been collecting books and materials for a history of the disabled, a study I have yet to write; a study which may or may not ever be written. But it is Nolan’s “notional No” which forms a psychological dividing line for me in thinking about the disabled, because the line actually exists in real life. For instance, as hard as it may be to contemplate the wounded veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam, it is still easier to think of them and welcome them back in society than it is to care for someone who was born with her disability–damaged from the get-go, so to speak. It’s easier because we can at least remember when the soldier could function as a non-disabled person. But for someone who was born with CP or spina bifida, or some other condition, it may be, in the eyes of some, tough shit.
Books do exist that deal here and there with the disabled. We’ve had good biographies of disabled people like Helen Keller and Franklin Roosevelt. (Joseph Lash wrote fine books on both.) A whole academic field, Disability Studies, has grown up since 1990, and the books and articles produced every year within that field examine the impact of the disabled in all the areas of society. There is, for instance, Robert Garland’s The Eye Of The Beholder, a fine study of the ways in which the disabled were treated in Greek and Roman society and literature; and Martin Norden’s The Cinema of Isolation, which examines how the disabled have been depicted in films from the days of the silents to Scent of a Woman, with Al Pacino.
Trouble is, the Disability Studies works are usually arguing a case, defending a small fort; they are not really meant for the larger audience of those people who are disabled or those families who care for the disabled. The necessary book for those people has yet to be written. Such a book needs to be done. It needs to capture something of the broader lives of the famous and the not-so-famous disabled. They live right in front of us and we don’t even know it. David Boies, for instance, the lawyer who argued so eloquently for President Bush in the “hanging chad” case that went to the Supreme Court in 2000, is so profoundly dyslexic that he must memorize every fact, every datum of information set before him. Whether one agreed with the arguments he made before the Court is beside the point; the example before us is that of a man of extraordinary ability and personal courage.
Such a book needs to be an angry book, or at least a testy one. I’m still pissed off at Hollywood for casting Tom Cruise in Born On The Fourth Of July. I don’t care how impassioned or realistic Cruise’s performance as Ron Kovic was. The fact was that Cruise could get up out of that chair with his strong, straight body and matinee-idol good looks after the film*, go on with his perfect life, and ENTIRELY MISS THE POINT OF MAKING THE MOVIE.
(I like Tom Cruise. He was excellent in A Few Good Men, warm and brave in The Last Samurai, and a very good sport in letting others–machine or not–kick the shit out of him in Edge of Tomorrow, but he had no business being in Born On The Fourth Of July.)
Authentic portrayals of the disabled are rare. There’s William Hansen, who portrayed Secretary of Defense Swenson in Fail-Safe (1964)–a cool customer under pressure; Raymond Burr’s Robert Ironside dealt occasionally with the daily pain-in-the-ass necessities of the disabled life; there’s the actually-disabled Jim Byrnes, whom Stephen Cannell employed as Lifeguard Dan Burrows on Wiseguy in 1988, a character who was even given a believable love life; there’s James Stacy, who injured himself in a deadly motorcycle accident, had trouble finding acting jobs, but was boldly written in as Chris Cagney’s boyfriend on Cagney and Lacey and gave us, along with Sharon Gless, one of the tenderest, most moving love scenes in the history of network television. (Stacy also turned out to be a first-class SOB later in life, something the disabled are perfectly capable of being.)
But for all of these occasional moments of foresight and fortitude on the part of Hollywood or historians, we still live, more or less, under the dictum of 90210‘s Darren Star, who categorically refused to cast a disabled person among all of his gallery of beautiful people because he just believed that the disabled were not who viewers wanted to see. Never mind that such people were out there in droves, already.
Until a full and fair knowledge of the lives of the disabled is presented to us, in the same ways that we have been presented the histories of so many other cultural groups, there’s going to remain something stunted about our social growth, something crippled about the spirit of inclusion and diversity we claim to have within ourselves. We focus occasionally on groups that seem to yelling for attention the loudest: in the 1990s, it was the deaf; today, it’s the autistic. Who knows what group it will be tomorrow? What’s needed, however, is not attention to “the flavor of the month”; these are, after all, real groups with real issues; but instead a general change of heart that comes about through some knowledge of the whole experience of disability, as difficult as that may be to come by. I still think that such a change can happen. I still think that the general unease society has with the disabled can be lessened. How or when that change will become more visible is beyond my ability to say.
*I channel here the words and spirit of Dr. Miguelito Loveless, comic archvillain and nemesis of James West, played by the dwarf actor Michael Dunn, who registered this complaint in an episode of The Wild, Wild West.