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Tag Archives | Andrew Pulrang

Ableism, Other -Isms, And Why I Prefer “Seinfeld” to “Friends”

I don’t blog about disability in media very often, but Andrew Pulrang profiled “Seinfeld” on his Disability Thinking podcast recently, and it really made me think. (He’ll be posting a second podcast on “Seinfeld” in the near future; there really is a lot to talk about when it comes to this show. Keep watch disabilitythinking.blogspot.ca for details. Andrew’s first podcast and “Seinfeld” and disability is here.)

I love “Seinfeld”. I’ve seen every episode several times, and will still watch the reruns and find them funny. My family can have entire conversations in snippets of “Seinfeld” dialogue, which I realize isn’t necessarily something of which to be proud, but there it is.

I’ve managed to retain this level of fandom despite being achingly aware that over its run “Seinfeld” had moments of blatant racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, and probably just about every other “-ism” that you can think of, including just plain bad taste. Apparently I’m not the only one that noticed – Sola Agustsson recently wrote an article for Alternet.com about sexism and racism in “Seinfeld”, “10 ‘Seinfeld’ Episodes That Might Be Considered Sexist and Racist Today”.

But she also got taken down in comments on her article for not understanding the thing that lets me (mostly) gloss over the glaring prejudices of the four main “Seinfeld” characters: The whole point of the show was that Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are supposed to be terrible people. They’re shallow and self-absorbed, they use people with little guilt and almost zero empathy, and they rarely do anything unless there’s something in it for them.

They wanted to be nicer people – but only because of how their real orientation to the world made them look to others, and not out of any real concern for those around them. This is what made the show subversive, ironic, and frankly, hilarious, because the harder the four main characters tried to do “the right thing”, the more apparent it became that they were really just awful people who didn’t care at all.

Disabled People in “Seinfeld”

Take one of the episodes that Andrew rightfully says got the most attention and is about disability. Jerry, also a comedian in the show, promises a fan that he’ll go see his son, a “bubble boy” that has to live behind a plastic partition in his parents’ home because of his poor immune system.

(We learn later that everyone but his mother, including the people in his town, call him “The Bubble Boy”, which is a disability issue all by itself, but not one that we can blame on the four main characters. We don’t even learn his name until well after George and his fiancee Susan meet him. It’s an indictment of how society treats him. )

George and Susan arrive at the house first and find not a bubble “boy”, but a fully grown, very rude bubble “man” who eventually asks Susan to take off her top (the opposite of the “disabled people are sweet and polite” stereotype that we see so much in the media; Andrew discusses this in his podcast.)  Suppressing the urge to respond negatively to the Bubble Boy’s rudeness (which would be “politically incorrect”), George and Susan allow themselves to be talked into a game of Trivial Pursuit. When George and the “Bubble Boy” disagree over the pronunciation of an answer, George finally loses control, the “Bubble Boy” starts to strangle George and George loses control, stabbing at the plastic partition and deflating the “bubble”. His desire to be politically correct has been overcome by his temper, which often happens with George.

“Seinfeld” did a good job of highlighting society’s ableism as well as the main characters’. That’s difficult to do. It requires very good writing.

Now, I don’t know about the writing process for “Seinfeld”, but it seemed that each week the writers came up with a character (sometimes two), said “What if we took a person out there with this set of characteristics and put them in the group’s path”, and that was pretty much that character’s role. Mostly they were romantic interests, like Elaine’s elderly boyfriend, a stroke survivor who required a lot of care. One week it was the Bubble Boy. There were a few characters that had brief story arcs, like the man stalking Elaine and Jerry (who the writers imply has a mental health diagnosis, but never say what it is.)

Are Disabled People Props in Seinfeld?

Andrew also discusses in his podcast the idea that you could accuse the writers of making disabled characters props, in “Seinfeld”. However, with the exception of a small group of secondary characters that had a bit of backstory, everyone in “Seinfeld” besides the main four characters were props. They mostly got burned somehow by being involved with Seinfeld and his group, presumably never to appear again, and the underlying message at the end of each episode was, right up to the group’s one-year imprisonment at the series end for not helping someone who was being mugged, “Don’t treat people like this group does. They’re assholes.”

Unlike other sitcoms in the 90s and after.

Are the Characters in “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother?” actually Likeable?

I enjoyed “Friends” in the 90s, and I found it amusing when I rewatched it on Netflix. However, I noticed the second time around that this group that was supposed to be so close also:

  • Spent a lot of time picking on each other. To the point where it often seemed mean.
  • Were very competitive, and sometimes threw each other under the bus.
  • Couldn’t be happy for each other if a positive change for one meant change for the group.
  • Watched the womanizer of the group treat his dates like crap and never called him on it.
  • Sometimes deliberately behaved in ways that negatively affected another friend’s career.

These people were assholes, but we were supposed to love them. And they set the mold for another “Friends”-types show that debuted in 2005, with a similarly dysfunctional peer group that we’re supposed to love.

“How I Met Your Mother” had the same pattern of young people living and dating in New York, hanging out in a bar instead of a coffee shop, but ramped up the sexism to the nth degree compared to “Friends” (and “Seinfeld”, for that matter).  Neil Patrick Harris as Barney Stinson makes “Friends'” Joey Tribiani look like a lightweight womanizer. Barney sometimes gets called on the womanizing, but more often than not friend Ted is his wingman. At one point, “HIMYM” manages to work approval of Barney’s womanizing and slut-shaming of one of the female members into the same show.

A peripheral character, a therapist that one of the main characters dates at one point, says about the 5 main characters: “‘You’re all the most codependent, incestuous, controlling group people I’ve ever met!” There was an almost identical scene in friends where a therapist that Phoebe is dating offers about the main characters: “Actually it’s, it’s quite, y’know, typical behaviour when you have this kind of dysfunctional group dynamic. Y’know, this kind of co-dependant, emotionally stunted, sitting in your stupid coffee house with your stupid big cups which, I’m sorry, might as well have nipples on them, and you’re like all ‘Oh, define me! Define me! Love me, I need love!.”

CBS was widely criticized for a racist episode of “How I Met Your Mother”, and on my rewatching of that series I saw some references that I was surprised got by the network (Mexican Wrestler Ted, for example).  There are no disabled characters in the show. At least in “Friends” Chandler dates a disabled woman for an episode. She dumps him, and (surprisingly) comes out looking like the decidedly shallower of the two.

The point is that at least “Seinfeld” was honest. It didn’t try to be anything but what it was – stories about terrible people that wanted to nice, but didn’t really want to give anything up to do it.  So they’d do the “politically correct” thing, inadvertently out themselves as being anti-social and barely able to cope with the friendship between the four of them, and we’d all tune in next week to see in what new way they could ruin someone’s life. The thing is, “Friends” and “HIMYM” (and there may be others that I just haven’t seen) weren’t any different – more peripheral characters with story arcs, maybe, but ultimately? Stories about terrible people…more actively masquerading as nice people.

However, they sure were branded to be people that you should trust and love and emulate.

That feels dishonest to me.

And I’m not going to feel guilty about watching “Seinfeld” until people start talking more realistically about that.

More reasons why you wouldn’t want to be friends with the “Friends”

Keep watch disabilitythinking.blogspot.ca for details on Andrew’s second podcast on “Seinfeld” and disability, and listen to the first one here.

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Person-First Language: A Closer Look

Disabled (handicapped) person on wheeled chair among people without disabilities.The other day, I read Emily Ladau’s piece on why she uses identity-first language instead of person-first language, and I really liked it. She provided a great analysis of how person-first language became the *only* correct terminology to use for a while, and clearly explained why it’s because very important for many disabled people to self-identify using identity-first and not person-first language.

Including me.

I used person-first language for over two decades, up to and after my stroke. I was trained to use it. I explained to others why it was the most respectful language to use. I wrote probably the first 1.5 years of posts in this blog using person-first language.

It took reading a post by autism advocate Lydia Brown and couple of hours reading some perspectives on people-first vs identity-first language to prompt me to rethink my stance. And now I do prefer to use identity-first language for myself and in my writing. I only use person-first language it when I’m talking to/about someone who has stated a preference for it.

But when I shared Emily’s article on the GirlWithTheCane Facebook page, I included a bit of commentary about a discussion I had with someone after I wrote my first blog post about person-first language vs identity-first:

“I’ve blogged about this subject too, and had someone point out to me though that, as much as person-first is falling out of favour today, we should acknowledge that it was revolutionary when people started using it.”

Person-First Language Was a Game-Changer

There’s a historical context to person-first language that I think we sometimes forget.  It’s not as if, as disability activist and blogger Andrew Pulrang pointed out on the Facebook page, that person-first language is “some tool of oppression cooked up by non-disabled people.” It wasn’t so long ago that it would have seemed silly to call a disabled person a “person with a disability” because disabled people weren’t considered people.  For people to start saying, for example, “He is a person with Down Syndrome” instead of “He’s Down’s” would have been nothing short of a paradigm shift.

It’s worth noting that some groups (like the Deaf community) didn’t like person-first language from the outset and that, as Emily noted, other communities have become disillusioned with it, such as the autistic community. I understand that. As disabled people, we should always be open to moving away from what no longer works, because there are still so many barriers to true equality to be torn down, and some of it is really life and death.

But I think that we need to appreciate the historical context of the things from which we’re moving away, including person-first language.

How Much Does Person-First Language vs Identity First Language Matter in the Long Run?

We’ve rightfully discarded so much of what’s been historically considered “right” and “appropriate” for disabled people because it was neither. Institutional care for intellectually disabled people, for example, has historically been abusive and in violation of even basic human rights.

Person-first language was a response to a culture where disabled people weren’t seen (or treated) as human. It was intended to do good and actually did. It wasn’t a wrong that needed to be abandoned, and still hasn’t become one. While it’s being used less and less, many disabled people still prefer to self-identify using person-first language. Does it hurt disabled identity-first language defenders that that there are disabled people out there that use person-first language, and vice versa, as long as we respect each others’ preferences?   In my opinion, it doesn’t, and no one should be made to feel uncomfortable or wrong for wanting to use one over the other.

There are still such major battles to be fought, and so much debate about this. Has it become divisive when more division is the last thing we need?

Which is not to say that Emily didn’t write a great article.  I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long time, and her article just got me moving.

In Other News…

I’ve written a short Kindle book about the inpatient stroke rehabilitation experience, and plan to write some more about post-stroke life. Right now I’m trying to keep them very practical, but I want to explore some ideas about disability rights issues later in the series. Visit the website for updates: strokeguides.com.

 

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Hayley Bicker Spends “100 Hours in a Box” for Autism

hayley bickerDisability simulations leave me (and many other disabled people) cold. So I wasn’t really impressed by Haley Bicker’s “100 Hours in a Box” to raise autism awareness just on principle.

It’s not that, as Andrew Pulrang wrote recently, the people who use disability simulations to raise awareness aren’t (usually) well-intentioned. It’s that, as Emily Ladau wrote, they’re not really effective, they don’t have a whole lot of logic behind them, and they’re kind of insulting to disabled people anyway (read her wonderful essay here).

I’ve always seen participating in disability simulations as something akin to the mandatory 40 hours or volunteer service that the Ontario government makes students do while they’re in high school. It’s a well-intentioned policy, it’s certainly not a bad thing to make students do, and hopefully they get something out of it. But even if a student does all 40 hours in one year with an agency – by the end of 40 hours, they’re probably just only getting a sense of how things work and what they’d really like to do. It’s not a lot of time in which to get involved with anything in-depth. The same way, when someone sits, say, wheels themselves around in a wheelchair for a day, or has someone else wheel them around, how much can they really learn about the experience of having to use a wheelchair? To be honest, I don’t know whether you could fully appreciate what even the experience of living one-handed is like after just a day of it (unless you were willing to let me make you try a LOT of stuff).

But that’s not even why Hayley Bicker’s “100 hours in a box” rubbed me the wrong way.

Hayley Bicker Puts Herself in a Box

Hayley Bicker, upset by an incident in the shop in Britain in which she worked where no one offered to help a mother when her autistic child got upset to the point of physically acting out, decided to raise awareness about the sensory sensitivity and communication difficulties that can accompany autism. She did this by spending 100 hours in a large glass enclosure in the store, her objective being to show that the difficulties that she had hearing and communicating through the glass and the sense of isolation that these difficulties produced for her was what autistic children experienced every day.

First, let’s give credit where it’s due – Hayley Bicker saw something that upset her and went to great lengths to do raise awareness about it. She got a charity involved and raised some money that went toward buying support equipment for families with autistic children in her community. There’s no doubt that her heart was in the right place, and kudos to her for acting when most people would not have.

However.

Hayley Bicker and Why “100 Hours in a Box” Is Problematic

I’m not sure how Hayley Bicker’s disability simulation raises awareness of issues associated with autism when she was the one in the box. She already knew about the issues. I’m not suggesting that other people should have been in the box, because I think that the logic behind the whole thing was a little flawed to begin with, but the odd execution of this particular disability simulation arguably made it even less effective than standard disability simulations, to my mind.

I thought about this later, however. My initial reaction after hearing Hayley Bicker say, “This is what autistic children experience” in a television interview was that she’d missed a couple of more important ideas

  • You can’t (and shouldn’t) say what autistic people experience if you’re not autistic. I guarantee that if I said to someone who’s always had the use of both hands, “Make a list of what’s difficult for me to do on a daily basis,” her or she would miss things. Why wouldn’t that be the case? I’d not expect that person to be able to speak with authority on my disability, any more than I should be able to speak with authority on the experience of what someone with, say schizophrenia experiences on a daily basis. The difference between me and Hayley Bicker is that I would not presume that I could, even though I’ve learned about schizophrenia in school and know people who have it. Bottom line, if you don’t have a given disability, you don’t know what people who have it experience, and people like me get irritated when you presume that you do know what we experience.  Who knows, maybe you educated guesses based on reading or on observation or on experience with someone in your life who has that disability come very close to describing what they actually do experience, but you don’t know. I’m not as militant as I sound on this – even if Hayley Bicker had said, “I consulted with some autistic people before designing this” or “Some autistic friends have told me that this is what they experienced as children,” I’d be prepared to give her a lot more leeway.
  • Not every autistic person experiences everything the same way From what I understand of autism (acknowledging that I’m still very much learning about it), it manifests differently from person to person. Some people may struggle very much with say, sensory issues, some not so much. Even if the experience of being in a glass box perfectly described what communication felt like for one autistic person, it may not describe it well at all for another one. If we’re going to spread awareness, let’s do it accurately.

The glass box itself is also problematic. While I understand the point that Hayley Bicker was trying to make, it’s my understanding that autistic people are trying to get away from imagery that portrays them as shut in their own little world and unable to communicate with the rest of us. Who wants to be associated with the image of being boxed away while the world goes on around you? We’ve already got groups like Autism Speaks speaking of autistic children as “gravely ill” and equating them with children who have gone missing. Awareness initiatives need to emphasize as much as possible that autistic people (and disabled people in general) are contributing members of our families and communities, and that communication barriers are largely society’s constructions that society must remove. Enough boxes, separation and isolation.

If Not Disability Simulations, Then What?

Andrew Pulrang asked what the alternatives are to disability simulations. I think that one alternative is making sure that disabled people have the means, vocabulary, and opportunities that they need to talk to others about what being disabled is like and what it means to them, if they so desire. I’ve worked with disabled people that others have assumed aren’t able to describe what their disability experience feels like, and heard them do with a great of insight. But I didn’t hear this from them right away. They first needed to know that it was safe to express those thoughts to me.

I also think that we need to make sure that non-disabled need to know that it’s okay to ask, “Is it okay if I ask you some questions about your disability?” if they want to. Not that disabled people should feel obligated to say “Yes”, or that they have to answer every question that’s asked. But I think that non-disabled people want to ask questions, that they’re genuinely curious, and are often unsure about which questions are okay and which aren’t, or if questions are even appropriate. Personally, even though I’ve heard some questions from non-disabled people that definitely are too personal given the relationship between the two people, I would much rather that people ask and, if necessary, have to pleasantly say, “I’m going to pass on that, if you don’t mind, because it’s a little too personal, but is there anything else that you want to know?”

This way of learning about peoples’ disability experience through talking with each other may take some training and practice for both disabled and non-disabled people, but I like it much better than the idea of learning about disabilities through disabilities through disability simulations.

If you have ideas for alternatives for disability simulations, Andrew Pulrang is collecting them over on his blog.

What do you think? Am I being too hard Hayley Bicker?

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