About a year ago, Christopher Reeve became paralyzed in an horse-riding accident. A respirator-using quadriplegic Reeve has suddenly become the most well-known, best-loved person with a disability in the world (as opposed to someone like Muhammad Ali, who is probably the most well-known, but not the best-loved - an important distinction). President Clinton invited Reeve to speak at the Democratic National Convention in late August.
This invitation led to a most interesting electronic mail conversation. It began with a challenge from historian Paul Longmore:
Christopher Reeve, who doesn't advocate for access, only for cure, but who does get to talk with the President, has now been invited to speak at the Democratic Convention next week. First the media and now Bill Clinton have anointed him the leader of people with disabilities. We should all protest this AB [able-bodied] arrogance and warn Bill Clinton that if he does not reverse this outrage, cancel Reeve's speech, and - in consultation with our real leadership - select a speaker with disability?rights credentials, he will provoke our opposition to his candidacy. We should demand that disabled Clinton administration appointees go to the President and get this offensive decision reversed.
The exchange that follows includes the most interesting, eloquent, and diverse responses (within the constraints of a very short article):
We have a huge job ahead of us to show the world that Reeve (cure) or Kevorkian (death) is not now, nor has ever been, the answer for people with disabilities.
What is Christopher Reeve up there for other than to solicit feelings of pity and pathos from an imagined AB audience that will contribute to the cause of a party system that even goes so far as to "claim" its disabled citizens...I've been trying to figure out why there have been (and will be) so many appeals on behalf of disabled people at these political conventions? The reason seems to be that the inclusion of disabled people solidifies our claims to a modern, civilized, and superior nation that can embrace those whom it could justifiably exterminate.
He's [Reeve] the good guy - the supercrip, the Superman, and those of us who can live with who we are with our disabilities, but who cannot live with, and in fact, protest and retaliate against the oppression we confront every second of our lives are the bad guys.
Mr. Reeve...is already a cultural icon, respected, beloved. He literally embodies even as he espouses a series of American myths: the victory of the human spirit over the worst of fates; the can?do triumphalism of American medicine, science and technology that can solve any problem; the preference for "non?political" technical fixes to solve complex social problems; the avoidance of social realities, specifically the redefinition of conditions of social injustice as problems of individual tragedy and coping; the refusal to see "disability" as an issue of institutionalized prejudice and discrimination; the flight into cure as a way to evade confronting societal and personal prejudice.
...Christopher Reeve launched the most subtle, pervasive, and invidious attack against disability rights and people with disabilities in recent memory...I was witnessing an evolution of the telethon into a more positive force once again in the hearts and minds of mainstream America. Christopher Reeve is much prettier to watch, and far slicker than Jerry Lewis has ever been. And Reeve does not talk about "his kids." Instead he has changed the focus to adults, like himself, who have become disabled and sick, and need to be fixed and cured.
Symbolically, Superman laid his hands on all Americans and testified for us to be healed. Tears flowed freely in the audience as both men and women nodded in assent to his premise: disability is a tragedy which we must overcome.
He is not speaking as an individual. No matter how much we might like his persona, empathize with his stages as a newly disabled person, or feel bad about attacking a new American icon, we must acknowledge that he has become in a very short time the symbol of disability for most Americans and is aggressively pursuing it by speaking at...
I am very impressed! I thought that Reeve would entirely neglect the ADA. I also wish he had shown more enthusiasm when he talked about fighting discrimination, but to have the concept mentioned, in prime time, by the Democrats, is a major victory for our community.
Following Reeve's speech on Mon. night, Marca Bristo boldly wheeled up to the microphone held by the anchorman of our local CBS news and did her best to counterbalance Reeve's message. After complimenting him on the disability rights prelude to his real speech, Marca sighed and said she certainly didn't long to leave her wheelchair, it was part of who she was, disability is a normal part of life, it takes time for people to learn this, and that what pwd's [people with disabilities] really need is to be accepted as PART of the "family." Marca made us proud! The anchor described her as a delegate that did not feel positively about Reeve's speech.
I've been thinking. I'm not upset with Chris Reeve. What I'm upset about is not his fault. Chris Reeve is a public figure. His natural place is in the media's eye. If he were not taking the stage and decided to remain at home in recluse, would we be attacking him for not leading an independent lifestyle and not becoming fully involved in the mainstream of society?
What bothers me more than his perspective and his actions, are the reactions of others to his mere presence. In most American's view, a disability is a fate worse than or equal to death. Our next move is critical. If we respond with hostility to Reeve, we're building a wall that could prevent him from becoming a powerful marketing vehicle for us when he finally does "get it." Let's establish a dialogue with him.
If he [Reeve] were a private "nobody," I'd agree: leave him alone. But he's not. Don't expect those teary?eyed pitying members of the public to stop crying. In twenty minutes, Reeve reinforced all the negative images they have associated with pwd's for decades by telling the world we are "suffering," "needy," "hurting," "being maintained," lacking "quality of life," and hoping for the day "we can leave these wheelchairs behind."
The public wants to believe disability is a personal tragedy that requires only individual fixing. Reeve agrees with them, letting them off the hook for changing their attitudes and public policies. Why work hard to make this world accessible and inclusive when we can just wait for people to be cured?
These are dangerous, very dangerous, times for people with extensive disabilities. Count the number of pwd's Kevorkian kills (and the incalculable numbers silently discarded in hospitals and nursing homes) while you're waiting for Reeve to "come around."
...Reeve's speech WAS at our expense. He damaged our progress toward getting America to understand and respect us - toward realizing social barriers are more oppressive to most pwd's than our corporal limits. He's already significantly affected Clinton's view of disability. Did you listen to Clinton's acceptance speech? Nary a word about ADA or IDEA, or job discrimination, or national personal assistance policies, school inclusion, etc. But he acknowledged Reeve's call for cure research and, later, contrasted us with those who are "healthy as a horse" - at least those of us "with disabilities that don't keep you down." Reeve has placed disability back (generations back) in the paternalistic medical model, and Clinton is now ignoring what really keeps us down.
I don't seek to build walls, but I AM able to define a bottom line when the well?being of my community is at stake. Bridges are great; good luck in building yours. But I keep thinking about that bridge to the 21st century that the president is building. So far he has welcomed the plucky and the potentially curable among us to the other side. But what has he promised our people who are stuck in poverty, isolation, and segregation?
The Writers: Paul K. Longmore is a historian at San Francisco State University. Steven E. Brown is co-founder of the Institute on Disability Culture in Las Cruces, NM. David T. Mitchell is Chair, English Graduate Studies, Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Anthony Tusler is an Administrator at Sonoma State University in California. Carol J. Gill is President of the Chicago Institute on Disability Research. Greg Smith is the founder of On A Roll, a syndicated, disability radio talk show. All are individuals with disabilities.