The woman in this photo is Karina Vargas. She is in a wheelchair because she was shot eight years ago at her high school, in a drive-by shooting.
Although she writes that “not one moment goes by where I don’t wish I could walk,” she has been able to use her misfortune as rallying cry to advocate gun control. And she was right there last weekend with the other marchers, to protest the shameful state of gun violence in our country.
The baseball season is fast approaching, and that includes Little League. These are indelible symbols of our American values, but they still must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In 1992, Little League, Inc. adopted a policy saying that coaches in wheelchairs were not allowed on the baseball field, but had to coach from the dugout. After one tries to visualize how that could possibly work, the logical next question to ask is why. That’s the question that was asked by the players and the parents, but no clear answer was given.
A coach who was a wheelchair user sued Little League Baseball, Inc. and he won. The Arizona federal district court first held that Little League met the definition of a “public accommodation” (see the “public accommodation” page on this website.) The court also clarified that the ADA does not require any organization to put people in danger, but that danger must be real:
“In determining whether an individual, such as plaintiff, poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, a public accommodation must make an individualized assessment, based on reasonable judgment that relies on current medical knowledge or on the best available objective evidence, to ascertain: (1) the nature, duration, and severity of the risk; (2) the probability that the potential injury will actually occur; and (3) whether reasonable modifications of policies, practices, or procedures will mitigate the risk.”
In other words, the court said, Little League Baseball, Inc. had a legal obligation to assess the realistic danger posed by this particular individual in this situation. And in this case, the coach had been coaching from the field for three years without posing any kind of safety hazard and was very popular among parents and players. “Moreover,” the court said, “plaintiff’s significant contributions of time, energy, enthusiasm, and personal example benefit the numerous children who participate in Little League activities as well as the community at large. Plaintiff’s work with young people teaches them the importance of focusing on the strengths of others and helping them rise to overcome their personal challenges.”
Baseball was the first sport that accepted an African-American player on a major league team. Baseball also has players from a wide variety of countries and cultures, exemplifying diversity and inclusion. It is very reassuring that the court extended that philosophy to include people with disabilities.
In the last week, I have read several articles (two of which are attached below) about both the Paralympics and the death of Steven Hawkings. Various viewpoints have been expressed, but the ones that got my attention were the ones who were critical about the emphasis by the press on disabilities.
The main objection seems to be about the press’s focus on Mr. Hawkings and the Paralympians “overcoming” their disabilities and being a source of “inspiration” for others. The critics refer to this as “ablest” discrimination, of putting people with disabilities in a separate human category and not thinking of them and their accomplishments in the same way as people without disabilities. In this way, the argument goes, they are trapping these people into a stereotype. And a natural consequence is that this “differentness” easily slips into a license to discriminate, consciously or unconsciously.
While this is a very understandable viewpoint, I wonder if we might be in danger of missing the bigger point here. I have definitely been a victim of disability discrimination, with people being both overly patronizing and overly judgmental. And while these attitudes have definitely had negative consequences, I don’t think it helps if I respond by trying to ignore my disability. It is part of who I am. And I have learned the hard way that if I try to minimize or ignore it, I run the risk of injuring myself, both physically and emotionally.
So when I read about people like Steven Hawkings, Helen Keller and Ed Roberts, I am inspired – not just by their accomplishments but by the way they have dealt with their disabilities. Dr Hawkings made no attempt to divorce himself from his disability when he suggested that we “look up at the stars and not down at our feet,” and that he had traveled the universe “from my wheelchair.”
Tonight is Oscar night, and much has been made about the fact that Hollywood is finally becoming more diversified. There is a lot of buzz over films like “Get Out” and “Black Panther,” as there should be.
But how is Hollywood treating peoplewith disabilities these days? One could easily point to heavily nominated films like “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri” as evidence that people with disabilities are finally coming into their own.
But are they really? I have attached two articles written by people with disabilities, who have a decisively personal take on these movies. The first, by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, discusses her reaction to the main character in “Shape of Water.” As a woman who uses a hearing aid and has vision difficulties, she could relate to much of what the heroine (who is mute) goes through. But it was gut-wrenching for her to hear the heroine say that she was “lesser” than other people, and she was glad that her love interest (a monster) did not realize this.
“At its core,” writes Sjunneson-Henry,”…the Shape of Water asks us to consider what a freak is. Is a monster a god? Is a disabled woman a freak? An outsider? Can she be loved or understood by her own kind, or are the monsters the only ones who can truly understand her?”
In “Three Billboards,” one of the main characters is a dwarf. To the movie’s credit, he is portrayed by Peter Dinkladge, an actor who is in fact a dwarf. But to Eva Squiers, a writer who herself has a form of dwarfism, there was still a whole lot wrong with the way the character was portrayed.
“Dinklage plays James, who introduces himself as the ‘town midget’and whose primary function in the film is as the butt of many jokes,” she writes. “In the cinema where I saw Three Billboards, the audience cackled whenever James spoke. This was painful enough as a response to the script’s cheap shots at short-person jokes – for example when James excuses himself to use the “little boys’ room” or is asked if he can juggle.
“But I was more baffled when the people around me laughed at distinctly unfunny scenes of James playing pool, holding a ladder or asking Mildred (Frances McDormand, whose performance has put her in the running for a best actress Oscar) out to dinner. The source of this hilarity seemed to reside in the mere fact that James existed and that he was short; how funny that he, with his non-conforming body, should have the audacity to present as a desiring subject! What a laugh! This clunky reliance on ableist tropes as a form of humour was disappointing coming from a film lauded for its “moments of sharp, cinder black comedy.”
There are a variety of opinions about both of these movies, and the two writers here do not necessarily have more of a “vote” than anyone else. But because their disabilities continue after the movie is over, they have a particulary knowledgeable perspective that should be heard.