PSA To Disability Advocates Everywhere
I recently read an article that pissed me off. That doesn’t take much these days, considering I’m a very opinionated and passionate woman who has recently discovered that people she once respected voted for Donald Trump. In case you were unclear of my opinions on Trump here they are: I have more positive feelings towards a container of cold soggy McDonald’s french fries than our naranja colored President elect. I am also quite certain those same papas fritas would do a better job running our country than our Hitler wannabe will.
However, this article I read wasn’t a pro-Trump article but rather an anti-Meryl Streep article. This year at the Globes Streep received a beautiful tribute and used her slot for an acceptance speech to draw attention to the incident when Trump mocked a reporter with a disability (Kovaleski) and brought me to tears as she urged her fellow colleagues and the American people to act with empathy. I received a headline in my inbox of an article published on Medium reading “I’m A Disabled Woman Who’s NOT Celebrating Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Speech” and I fumed as I read the whole thing.
The article was chalk full of unreasonable offenses drawn from the speech that Streep graciously wrote to bring attention to the fact that this was not an okay offense but the two most appalling to me were as follows:
“Kovaleski has now become a shallow symbol of disability, a poor guy being bullied, while the rest of his humanity is ignored.”
The author is upset because she feels that Meryl Streep made people with disabilities out to be at a disadvantage and seemed like they should be pitied. Streep’s exact words were that he mocked someone who he outranked in “privilege, power and the ability to fight back.” Newsflash: that is 100% accurate. Trump outranks 99% of America in privilege, power, and the ability to fight back. He somehow convinced half of America to vote for him as he spewed hatred around the country, even as much as I loathe the man even I have to admit that he outranks me on all three of those fronts.
The author of the article also said that it was obvious that Streep was referring to his disability as the reason that he is less privileged, powerful and able to fight back which is a far stretch of the imagination. But let’s say for a second she’s right - let’s say that Meryl Streep was envisioning Donald Trump and Kovaleski getting into a rumble Outsiders style and channel their inner Greaser/Soc. If that were the case, she would still be accurate. Trump would be at an advantage with his physical capabilities, power and ability to fight back because when you have a congenital joint condition like Kovaleski has, you simply aren’t as physically strong as people without a congenital joint condition.
I’m missing half of my arm, right? If Trump and I were to equally train, he’d still beat me in a bicep curling contest and that is a reality that I have to deal with, not play victim about. So what do I do in this instance? Admit defeat and then strangle him with my crippled arm when he inevitably starts talking about building a huuuuuuuge wall around Mexico.
2. “This superficial discussion is completely unproductive, and it isn’t leading to meaningful progress in the fight against the discrimination and human rights violations that the disability community experiences every single day.”
The author said that because Meryl Streep didn’t go deep into the complexities of disability in her six minute monologue, that her moment of advocacy was not enough. Let’s just take a minute right now and recognize that literally every other award recipient was rushed offstage by wrap up music and or QuestLove’s beats by their third sentence and held the audience captive for her entire speech. The author is upset that Streep, a non-disabled celebrity, is being praised for trying to be the voice of the people by touching on an incident that has zero impact on policy, and no real change is being made.
I get it, I want policy changed too. I would love to see more funding towards inclusion and support for people with disabilities being praised. We make up 20% of the American population, we’re the largest minority group, 40% of American families have a member with a disability and 80% of us are displeased with how under/poorly represented we are in mainstream media. But policy isn’t changing the way I’d like it to, ½ of our country thinks it’s okay to elect a president who mocks this people group and while there are incredible men and women who are working tirelessly to change that, it’s not succeeding at present moment. Want to know why Streep is being praised? Because at the moment, we currently have a whisper if any voice at all, and Meryl gave us a mic and a spotlight at the Super Bowl when she could have just thanked her mom. Streep doesn’t work for the UN, she’s an actress for goodness sakes. That was really fucking kind.
Additionally, in the articles entirety she did not provide any action points for how Streep should have affected policy in her 360 seconds of advocacy to millions of viewers. She just complained about it.
There is an attitude I have seen amongst many incredible disability advocates that I feel needs to be addressed: self-victimization. There are totally times when people cross lines and say the wrong thing, but from someone who works in the disability world overseas where there is an 80% death rate of children with disabilities, a 90% chance children with disabilities will never go to kindergarten and a 99.5% unemployment rate of people with disabilities it’s infuriating to see not just this author but countless disability advocates get their undies in a bundle over shit that really should not matter.
Here’s the deal: people without disabilities don’t know what it’s like to live with one. Sometimes small businesses don’t think to put a ramp in for a wheelchair to get up the sidewalk - not because they don’t care, but because they haven’t thought of it. Sometimes people say stupid shit about disability saying that they are inspired by us because we do normal tasks and it makes us want to gag - but from their side they are genuinely just trying to address the fact that they recognize we’re disabled and they think it’s totally cool. Sometimes you won’t be able to do something because of your disability, and someone else recognizing that isn’t them being unkind but real.
So unlike the rant article about Streep that offered exactly 0 measurables on how to improve the speech here are my best action items on how to process statements on disability or controversial topics in general and decide if it’s worth getting angry over:
Think about intent: what was the author/speaker/writer’s motivation? Was it to make the world a better place? Did it promote kindness? Did it bring awareness to an undercover issue? Were they doing their best? Or maybe, was it hateful? Did it make people feel unsafe? Was it racist/homophobic/dangerous?
Promote people doing it right: Okay, so clearly the author wasn’t pleased with Streep’s display of advocacy, but what did her rant provide? Nothing. Avoid being like your krotchity uncle at Christmas and instead of just complaining about things you don’t agree with, promote people, organizations and examples of more of what you’d like to see happening. I learned this the hard way. I used to not only lead but follow up time and time again with horrible statistics about the issues facing children with disabilities in Africa. You know what happened? Jack shit. But when I started focusing on telling the stories of organizations overseas that are doing incredible work, people paid attention. If you want people to pay attention, show them something inspiring they can get behind.
Do something about it yourself, and invite others in: a general life guideline I have is that I try not to complain about something more than once without doing something about it. I’m cold? I put on another layer, then grab a blanket, then turn up the heat. I’m hungry? I eat, I drink water, I eat, and I probably eat again. My clothes are too tight? I run, I cut out alcohol, I go to yoga, I make sure to only wear stretch pants. I dislike dictators? I vote for Hillary, I voice my opinions, I convince Fran to marry me so I can move to SA. I dislike the way children with disabilities are treated in other countries? I volunteer, I donate, I start an organization and I try to bring change here. That way, if others are frustrated about the same things I am, I’m not only trying to solve it in my own way, but I have easy things they can do to affect their lives and the issues at hand, too.
Recognize that being labeled as a person with a disability is not the end of the world: I see, read and hear about offense after offense of people not wanting to be called disabled but “differently-abled” “a person with a disability” “a person with different abilities” and on and on and on. Guys, I’m disabled. I’m handicapped. I’m missing two fingers and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. That’s okay. And if someone calls me any of the above or really anything along those lines I don’t get to be offended, providing they are being as respectful as they know how. Why? There is not a clearly outlined PC agreement that all people everywhere with a disability have signed stating “THIS is what we want to be referred to as” and there never will be. I know this because unless that term is either “Beyonce” or “angelic human” I will never sign it.
Look, I realize that this post may have lost me ½ of my fellow disability advocate following, but I really don’t care. I care about this community so much. I see so much value in people with special needs and I want to see this demographic grow into all that it’s capable of and I think picking fights over little things like this are just us shooting ourselves in the foot (that may or may not be a cripple joke, read through the key steps I just outlined and apply for practice please).
Furthermore, for all of you who aren’t disability advocates and just decided to read this article because the opening statement comparing Trump to soggy fries is hysterical, try to apply this to other controversial areas in life. Let’s not be annoying internet trolls complaining about the atrocities we are passionate about, but people of integrity and action who pursue good.