Monday, March 31, 2008

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities gets close to needed ratifications

As of March 26, 17 countries have passed ratifications of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which means that only three more ratifications are needed for it to enter into force. The Optional Protocol has now received 11 ratifications. It will therefore enter into force at the same time as the Convention. Currently, there are 126 signatories to the Convention and 71 signatories to the Optional Protocol.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is an international treaty that identifies the rights of persons with disabilities, as well as the obligations on countries to the Convention to promote, protect and ensure those rights.

The UN says, "the Convention is necessary in order to have a clear reaffirmation that the rights of persons with disabilities are human rights and to strengthen respect for these rights. Although existing human rights conventions offer considerable potential to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities, it became clear that this potential was not being tapped. Indeed, persons with disabilities continued being denied their human rights and were kept on the margins of society in all parts of the world. This continued discrimination against persons with disabilities highlighted the need to adopt a legally binding instrument which set out the legal obligations on States to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities."

The Convention is unique because it is "the first human rights convention of the 21st century and the first legally binding instrument with comprehensive protection of the rights of persons with disabilities," according to the UN.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on December 13, 2006 and it was opened for signature on March 30, 2007. Countries that ratify the Convention are legally bound to respect the standards in the Convention. For other countries, the Convention represents an international standard that they should try to respect.

"Cold Case" features deaf actors, storyline

CBS' "Cold Case" delved into the world of hearing-deaf relationships and cochlear implants in its March 30 episode, "Andy in C Minor."

The plot revolved around a deaf student missing from a school for the deaf for two years. When his blood is found on a piano at the school, the "Cold Case" detectives look into his disappearance.

Unfortunately, a lot of the deaf actors haven't made it onto yet, so if anyone can tell me the name of the young man who played Andy, the missing deaf teen, I would appreciate it. The deaf actors I do know who made it onto the show as main characters were Shoshannah Stern (pictured above) as the jealous girlfriend of Andy's and Bob Hilterman as Andy's father. DeafCasting's blog says that Sheena Feeley and Lisa Hermatz were also on the show, but they don't have imdb entries that I can find. And several of the hearing actors learned to sign or already knew American Sign Language (ASL) for their roles.

The episode tried to provide lots of information about the deaf community and ASL to those who might know little about them. They had crotchety Detective Vera (played by Jeremy Ratchford) voice all the skepticism and ignorance about deaf people and sign language, but this character usually recognizes his ignorance and does something about it -- learning some ASL in this episode so he can interview suspects.

The plot revolved around conflicts within the deaf community about the cochlear implant, but in true "Cold Case" fashion, that isn't revealed until it's clear that the motive for the crime wasn't a hearing-deaf romantic liaison. During that part of the episode, much of the interviewing of suspects also discusses Deaf culture and deaf people who identify with it. (But I think they over-sensationalized the supposed conflicts about cochlear implants within the deaf community. I blogged about this last month, and explained that back in 2000 the National Association of the Deaf came out in favor of cochlear implants.)

The show did a good job of integrating sign language into the episode and shot many of the scenes wide enough so that most of the sign language was visible in the scenes. (That's a pet peeve of mine when shows feature a deaf actor signing and then crop their hands out of the shot. Not nice!)

I thought the show tried to get into some depth about some deaf community topics like cochlear implants, but the show went too far in ratcheting up the drama, although it did discuss some sides of the controversy as the plot moved forward. One quibble I had was when the "Cold Case" detectives used someone who might have been a suspect as an interpreter to interview another suspect, who ended up being the killer. Surely, the Philadelphia police (where "Cold Case" is supposedly set) can hire an interpreter, because using a suspect as a sign language interpreter seems like bad form.

In solving the disappearance and murder of Andy, a theme about music also emerged, and it was handled fairly well (none of that "deaf people can't enjoy music" stuff.) In fact, the episode began with the deaf kids partying and dancing at the school dorm after hours. But I think my favorite part (albeit a gruesome one) was the murder weapon used to kill Andy -- a metronome! That's got to be the most unique murder weapon ever.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Shout out to Peter Dinklage from Tina Fey: "Romance me"

Tina Fey complained in a recent interview for Reuters about all the writers on her show, "30 Rock," pitching unappealing romantic partnerships for her character, Liz Lemon, and she told them, "You know who would be good? Peter Dinklage. That guy's awesome!"

Good taste, Tina! And you'll get a humorous kick that I found your quote on a news site from Baku, Azerbaijan. Do they even show "30 Rock" in Azerbaijan? Hope so!

Kenyans with disabilities hope for place on coalition government's agenda

Although they failed to gain a seat in Kenya's Parliament, people with disabilities there hope that the coalition government will try to address the societal issues that affect them, according to Afriquenligne reported March 28.

"As Kenyans with disabilities, we have for far too long been forced to remain on the periphery of this country's policy and legislation making processes. Even where policy or legislation has recognised our needs, its implementation has been patchy and half-hearted," the community said in the statement, released under the aegis of a government agency – the Kenya National Commission of Human rights (KNCHR).

Kenyans with disabilities asked that the three main political parties "stay true to their election promises and act decisively to enable the rights and development needs of over three million disabled Kenyans."

Blind photographers find the view Down Under

The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia reported March 28 on a program called "Local Eyes - Our Community Through A Different Lens." The program is not just for blind people but for a variety of people to express how they feel about their community through photography.

"Forty-five children and adults from a range of disability, rehabilitation and social justice organisations were given digital cameras and taught how to use them," according to The Morning Herald. "They were then paired with a professional photographer who guided them through their artistic brief: a self-portrait, a day in your life, and people, places and moments that make your day."

When three blind people wanted to participate, the program accommodated them and that willingness appears to be what netted the good media attention. The story primarily profiles Sue McLeod, 40, who has been blind since the age of 3, and her positive experience learning photography from photojournalist Helen Cross.

McLeod (pictured above with Cross) says in the article that "she is hooked on photography and hopes to have her own camera some day, believes it has given her more than another skill set. 'To be honest with you, my attitude is stronger towards things, more confident,' she said. Once afraid to venture beyond the footpath bisecting her local park, Ms McLeod has recently returned from New Zealand, her first overseas trip."

Friday, March 28, 2008

Blindness comes to Wisteria Lane?

Yes, that's right "Desperate Housewives" is returning April 13 from the writers' strike with a newly disabled character, and according to the March 28 Entertainment Weekly, it's permanent.

Last we left the soapy ABC drama, a tornado had blown everything away, except the main characters, of course. (Only minor or recurring characters usually die in these TV events.) But those characters did not remain unscathed. Carlos Solis (played by Ricardo Chavira pictured above) was blinded from an injury during the tornado.

Here's what EW says, "Gabrielle will learn that ex-hubby Carlos (Ricardo Chavira) was permanently blinded in the tornado — but not before Carlos tricks her into remarrying him."

The article goes on to say that "Desperate Housewives" creator and exec producer Marc Cherry will end the show after three more seasons. So does that mean Carlos will be a blind character until 2011, or is this going to be TV blindness, which is suddenly cured by another bump on the head in a few weeks?

Considering the way TV can heap a bunch of negative stereotypes on a disabled character and the sometimes campy nature of "Desperate Housewives," this could get scary, folks. Don't get me wrong, I like campy as much as the next person, but if the Carlos character starts doing stupid things that blind people don't do, it will just reinforce lots of incorrect information to millions of people.

Ricardo Chavira hails from my ancestral homeland of Texas, so here's my plea to him -- and to the "Desperate Housewives" writers -- to get the blind character right.

College students with disabilities tell their stories in online videos

The New England ADA Center has posted four videos online from college students with disabilities called "Succeeding in College and at Work: Students with Disabilities Tell Their Stories."

The Center says its "goal is to improve education and employment outcomes for college students with disabilities. One way we are accomplishing this goal is to ask students with disabilities to tell their stories about ‘what works’ for them."

The videos tell of the strategies students with disabilities use to stay in school, graduate and find work.

Cartoons that take a twisted look at life with a disability

That's how Sharon Wachsler describes her Sick Humor postcards. I've been on her emailing list for quite awhile so I thought I would tell you about her work. She says her "cartoons and writings make fun of chronic illness from a disability rights and disability studies perspective."

She transformed upset into art after she became disabled by chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) in 1995. She says, "as I was confronted with the daily frustrations, indignities, and peculiarities of life with chronic illness, I started drawing cartoons that depicted my experiences -- transforming my anger into comedy."

Wachsler said she chose the postcard format because "I've always loved postcards as a fun, funky way to decorate, proclaim my politics, or send a laugh to a friend. Postcards are an ideal way to make Sick Humor available to everyone; they are portable, easy to share, affordable, and the black & white images transfer beautifully. Plus, humor is often the best way to reach non-disabled people about the realities of life with disability."

Wachsler also writes humor articles about life with a disability, like this one from the disablity culture and literature journal Breath & Shadow.

Not Dead Yet debunks Kevorkian myths

Now that Jack Kevorkian is out on parole from his imprisonment for assisted suicide, The AP reports that he plans to run for Congress in Michigan as an independent. Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group founded in 1996 to oppose legalized euthanasia and Kevorkian, who had just assisted in the suicide of two women who had disabilities rather than terminal illnesses, has a blog that's critiquing Kevorkian's every move.

For example, apparently Kevorkian said a few months ago in Florida that everyone should refuse to vote. Now he's running for Congress?

More importantly, Not Dead Yet's blog is evaluating the media treatment of Kevorkian now that he is out of prison. And they are finally getting some media coverage themselves as a source in opposition to Kevorkian supporters. (This is extremely important because I have done research in this area and too often the news media forget or don't know to contact disability groups for comments on disability issues.) On March 25, The AP quoted Not Dead Yet in a story about Kevorkian's Congressional run.

Steve Drake of Not Dead Yet, who writes the blog, has been researching and writing about Kevorkian for years and did an excellent analysis article in 2001 for The Ragged Edge, when the media finally reported that the majority of the people Kevorkian assisted to suicide were not terminally ill. Of course, this was not news to Not Dead Yet, who had long been trying get these details into the news media.

Other disability groups should read the Not Dead Yet blog if they want to see media advocacy in action. Drake clearly explains how Not Dead Yet was able to get itself onto The AP's radar.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Petition for better accessibility of Yahoo!

Blind and visually impaired people are petitioning Yahoo! to add audio to its sign-up CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart), those squiggly words that you have to type in to buy some things online or to get a Yahoo! email account.

For people who use screen-reading software, CAPTCHA is actually an image and can't be read by that software. Web accessibility gurus W3C reported back in 2005 the accessibility problems with CAPTCHA: "This type of visual and textual verification comes at a huge price to users who are blind, visually impaired or dyslexic. Naturally, this image has no text equivalent accompanying it, as that would make it a giveaway to computerized systems. In many cases, these systems make it impossible for users with certain disabilities to create accounts, write comments, or make purchases on these sites, that is, CAPTCHAs fail to properly recognize users with disabilities as human."

Here's what the petition to Yahoo! says: "As a blind user, who accesses the Internet via screen reading programs, I found it difficult to create my Yahoo! account, and ended up asking a sighted person for help, simply because there is no real support against that security image that the individuals who would like an e-mail have to go through. The page says that, if you are visually impaired, you have to leave a phone number, and be contacted. But my petition is that this system changes, and an audio file representing the characters on the image be placed along with the image itself, giving more accessibility for everyone!"

Supporters can sign the petition here.

Thanks to Bill Creswell for your captioning work!

I complained a few days ago about "Good Morning America" not captioning its story about Marlee Matlin on "Dancing with the Stars" and kids from schools for the deaf in dance programs. ABC didn't come through, but I thought I would tell you about Bill Creswell's blog, which is "captioning the Internet one video at a time."

His blog has an open letter to the TV networks and movie studios challenging them to do what's right and caption their online videos. As he questions them: "How hard is it to make your video sites captioned? You have all the data already - scripts, teleprompters, cc from TV - It’s already there. CC in Flash is not hard, and there are several people producing video players with CC capability built in."

And Creswell reminds them of all the audiences they are losing by not captioning online videos:
- deaf and hard of hearing people
- people at work who can’t turn the sound up
- people without the ability to have sound on their computers
- people who just don’t clearly understand what’s being said.

Back in June 2007, TelevisionWeek wrote an excellent article about how the digital revolution has meant less accessible content for people who need captioning because the mandates that require captioning for broadcast aren't applied to the Internet. "The major broadcast networks have launched state-of-the-art online video players -- that do not include captions," the article said. "Apple has revolutionized TV viewing by making shows available for download on iTunes -- without captions. The television industry is spending billions to deliver spectacular high-definition signals -- but viewing captions on HD programming is a Byzantine process that has frustrated many viewers."

TelevisionWeek even followed up this important story with an editorial explaining, "more than 23 million viewers in the U.S. are being excluded from the future of television in which viewers can watch whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want. We urge the industry to do what's right and devote whatever resources are necessary to provide closed captioning for all the material they are distributing over developing digital media."

Back to Bill Creswell, who is truly doing his part for Equal Communication Access. He's doing what the TV networks won't take time to do, and here's the captioned version of the "Good Morning America" story from his blog.

Bill even takes requests, so if you see something online that you'd like captioned, contact him on his requests page.

Luggage tell stories of incarceration in mental institution

The New York Times reviewed March 25 The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Dr. Peter Stastny. The book tells the stories of some of the patients at New York's Willard State Hospital, which closed in 1995, through the many personal items found in luggage in the hospital's attic.

Some of the luggage and its contents were displayed in an exhibit at the New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library in midtown Manhattan. I saw the exhibit in January and found it to be powerful. Through the patients' personal items, one gets some insight into their lives before and during their time at Willard.

The NY Times liked the visual elements of the book, but not the writing: "The book’s photographs are transfixing: vibrant young adults newly admitted to the hospital in the grips of wild confusion turn into slack-jawed, dull-eyed (but sometimes quite rational) old men and women. The photographs, in fact, speak far louder and more clearly than the authors’ strident prose, for what could have been a uniquely affecting work proves to be almost unreadable."

The Lives They Left Behind exhibit is available online as well.

New report from National Council on Disability

The National Council on Disability released the report, Inclusive Livable Communities for People with Psychiatric Disabilities, on March 17.

The National Council on Disability (NCD) is an independent federal agency making recommendations to the President and Congress to enhance the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities and their families.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Good Morning America" features youth dancers from schools for the deaf

In more positive fallout from Marlee Matlin being on "Dancing with the Stars," deaf and hearing impaired children who are part of the performing arts programs at the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf appeared in a segment of ABC's "Good Morning America" March 24.

Children from the schools, which are operated by Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., talked about how Matlin's appearance on DWTS inspired them. "I was really surprised. 'Wow — a deaf person is dancing.' So, now I want to dance also," Zachary Jones, a dance student at Gallaudet's Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) performing arts program, in the "Good Morning America" story.

However, Gallaudet University's PR department did point out one glitch with the "Good Morning America" story -- the video of the story posted on ABC's web site is not captioned. Gallaudet has asked ABC to caption the story. No word yet when that will happen.

Let's get it together, ABC -- Marlee Matlin is bringing thousands (millions?) of viewers to your network with her appearance on DWTS, you should make captioning everything for her deaf fans a top priority!

"Body of War" documentary profiles disabled Iraq veteran

From former TV talk show host Phil Donahue and director Ellen Spiro, "Body of War" profiles Tomas Young, who suffered a spinal cord injury his first week serving in Iraq. The documentary's web site says, "Body of War is an intimate and transformational feature documentary about the true face of war today. Body of War is Tomas' coming home story as he evolves into a new person, coming to terms with his disability and finding his own unique and passionate voice against the war. Body of War is a naked and honest portrayal of what it's like inside the body, heart and soul of this extraordinary and heroic young man."

The film, which has original music by Eddie Vedder, has just made the rounds on the film festival circuit and is beginning to be released in theaters at selected venues around the country. On April 4, it will be at the E-Street Cinema in Washington, DC, and on April 9 at the IFC Center in NY City. You can view a trailer of the film and other clips on its web site.

PBS' "Bill Moyer's Journal" featured Donahue and Spiro on its March 21 show, where they described the three-year odyssey to make the film.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mixed bag in NY Times review of "The Poor Itch"

This picture was huge, five columns in width on a six-column page, but The New York Times review was not fully positive, calling the late John Belluso's "The Poor Itch" an "unachieved play." The review said, "Mr. Belluso had not resolved central questions of structure, plot and style when he died, and definitive choices have not been made for him. . . .'The Poor Itch' remains sketchy and unfulfilled, despite the fine work of Mr. Thornton and the rest of the cast."

Having seen the play March 14, I disagree that the play is "sketchy" because I think some of the power of the play comes from its unfinished feel, which enhances the audience's view into the tormented -- and unfinished -- inner life of the main character, Ian, a disabled Iraq war veteran.

The play is the last work of acclaimed disabled playwright, John Belluso, who died in 2006. In an innovative approach speaking to its unfinished nature, "The Poor Itch" featured some scenes performed twice with completely different approaches. Cast members read stage direction between some scenes and signaled when a scene was still unwritten.

The NY Times review did find a number of good aspects to the play and commented positively on this repeated scene technique in the play: "They have succeeded in infusing a cobbled-together text with authentic theatricality."

Taken as an unfinished work, I found "The Poor Itch" to be powerful and poignant. Due to the ongoing Iraq war, I suspect that Belluso might have sharpened the focus of the play even more on the disabled veteran character had he had the chance. Ian's drug-addled friends seemed a less important narrative than Ian's journey to come to terms with his disability and the horrors he saw in Iraq.

But the true sadness infused throughout the play while watching it comes from the reminder that American culture has lost a brilliant playwright like John Belluso.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Thanks for the word change at Logo online

Last week I posted a long entry about disabled characters on current entertainment TV and mentioned a show on the Logo Channel, "Rick & Steve: Happiest Gay Couple," which features the character Chuck, Steve's best friend, who is HIV positive and a wheelchair user. (He's pictured with all the show's characters above.) I complained about the description of Chuck on the Logo web site that said he is "confined to a wheelchair."

I received a nice email from Allan Brocka, creator of "Rick & Steve," thanking me for mentioning the show and saying he would have Logo change the description on the web site. I am happy to report that Logo made the change and it now reads "uses a wheelchair."

I know it seems like this description of Chuck isn't that important, but I have long argued that words have great power to define people and issues and should be used accurately. Thanks to Logo and Allan for agreeing with me and making the change so quickly.

Access stories make the news

From NY Times, March 18.

The Chicago Sun-Times wrote March 21 about the growing popularity of visitable homes in Chicago as more people age into mobility impairments. "Under the City of Chicago Building Code, all planned developments and government-funded projects must include a minimum of 10 percent of the units that fall under visitability guidelines," according to the Sun-Times.

"It's really important to rethink how we build housing in a way that is inclusive to everyone -- cross-generational. Visitable homes are for the elderly and disabled, but also they're about families. If Mom or Dad has a disability, they can't visit or live with the family if there isn't proper access," Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor's Office of People with Disabilities (MOPD), said in the article. "We're also talking about a housing stock that will be here for future generations. We want to allow people, if they choose, to age in place. If they break a hip, or can't get up or down stairs, well, a visitable home makes good sense."

In a related story, The Sun-Times wrote an article about young families selecting visitable homes because they better fit their lifestyle. "We basically bought a visitable home simply because we liked the floor plan," said Laura Grady, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom. "I have two children and I like the fact that I don't have to carry them up and down the stairs every time we come and go."

In San Francisco, a federal class-action lawsuit is underway to provide more access at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Ann Sieck, pictured above, has joined the lawsuit against the National Park Service and its Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which covers 75,000 acres of public land and 59 miles of Pacific shoreline. It includes landmarks like Alcatraz and Muir Woods.

"Federal law requires the Park Service to provide universal access to its land and attractions," The New York Times reported March 18. "Ms. Sieck and other people with disabilities say they cannot gain entry or use many of the Golden Gate area’s historic buildings, trails, museums, restrooms or water fountains."

“When I meet with a barrier — especially a man-made barrier like a wooden bridge with steps at the end — it gets me in the stomach,” said Sieck, 58, an avid hiker before her multiple sclerosis required wheelchair use. “It makes me angry, but it’s a feeling of impotent anger.”

Marlee Matlin appears on "Ellen"

Thanks to "The L Word" fan blog for this clip of Marlee Matlin and Fabian Sanchez on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show March 21.

It was a typical talk show appearance except the show seemed a bit unclear about how to handle Matlin's personal interpreter, Jack Jason. Matlin signed without speaking while sitting down with Ellen and so the TV audience only heard a male voice. Then the camera pulled back to show Jason (in the dark!), which I found a bit insulting to him. It would have been a better set-up to just have Jason be part of the interview like he has been in other Matlin TV appearances I've seen. I realize now that Matlin is back in the national limelight, TV shows are trying to figure out sign language etiquette (at least I hope they are). I think it is best to just make it transparent for the audience -- many deaf people use interpreters all the time and the more this important communication relationship is shown on TV the better educated Americans will become about it.
(BTW, Marlee Matlin's MySpace page is now booming after her DWTS appearance.)

Obviously Ellen and Marlee talked about "Dancing with the Stars," but it was interesting that "The L Word" wasn't mentioned, as Ellen is the most famous out lesbian in America and "The L Word's" season finale (in which Matlin stars) is March 23. Matlin has always been a big supporter of gay rights. She appeared in a GLAAD "Be an Ally and a Friend" PSA recently. And Ellen is much more open this season in talking about gay rights, mentioning her partner, Portia de Rossi, etc. Either time was limited or Ellen's staff didn't do their homework about all that she and Marlee could have talked about.

I usually enjoy Ellen's show and think she has an even more engaging presentation this season now that she comfortably talks about her life and issues important to her. So here's a plea to have Marlee Matlin back on the show so they can talk some more (with Jack Jason there too!).

Finally, a bit about my one degree (two degrees?) of separation from Ellen. She went to high school in a small east Texas town, Atlanta, TX, which is my mother's hometown. They graduated from the same high school about 25 years apart and had the same home economics teacher. Go Atlanta Rabbits! :-)

Young woman with Asperger's journals about Disability & Difference

A young woman who calls herself chaotic idealism (great name, BTW) writes a live journal about her life as college student with Asperger's syndrome called Reports from a Resident Alien.

She wrote a wonderfully thoughtful analysis on "Disability & Difference" recently, explaining: "Just because you're not disabled yourself doesn't mean that you can deny that others might be, or insist that it's OK to be Aspie but not OK to be low-functioning autistic. Trying to shake the 'disability' label won't do you a bit of good, anyway; all it says is, 'I don't want to be seen as disabled' and in turn 'I think disability is bad.' It's neutral; all it means is unusually low abilities in some area or other, which says nothing about happiness or usefulness or all the other areas without a low skill level. I know that an Aspie who's never been held back by Asperger's (does that even exist?) might not know what it's like; but face it: If you fight to be seen as not disabled, rather than fighting for acceptance of every autistic person, you're leaving a lot of people--including a lot of Aspies, and most Aspie children--behind."

I totally agree. She says succinctly: "Better to convince people that being different--whether disabled or not--isn't bad, but something to celebrate. . . .Stop focusing on 'I'm not disabled'. Start focusing on, 'I'm different, and that's not a bad thing.'"

In the past, a few people have been upset when I referred to them as having a disability. I surely don't mean it as an insult. In fact, I know a whole community of people who have Disability Pride, so I sometimes forget that some people don't want to be associated with the term. So let me put it out there right now, that when writing my blog posts, I am just reflecting on what society and the media are saying about "disability," not trying to force a label on someone who doesn't want it.

Vermont women use film to educate about disability

The Brattleboro, Vermont, Reformer reported March 22 about the inaccessibility of that town and the Women's Film Festival that would feature films about the experiences of women with disabilities and a panel discussion from local women with disabilities about the issues facing them.

"It's about how can we educate and understand our friends and neighbors," Evan Mondon, 67, said in the Reformer. "I would like people to understand that, in the blink of an eye, they can become disabled too."

The three films presented were:
* "Inside Out," an eight-minute film about a women with Bells Palsy.
* "Multiple," about a European actor and director who hides her multiple sclerosis from work colleagues.
* "Body and Soul," the story of two women with disabilities who decided to leave an institution and live together 35 years ago. The women become leaders in advocating for disability rights, earning them the Illinois Governor's Human Rights Award.

Films are an excellent way to educate the general population about disability. Way to get the dialogue started, Brattleboro.

Friday, March 21, 2008

With 5-year Iraq War anniversary, media turn some attention to disabled vets

Melissa Stockwell, who served in Iraq,
and now plans to compete in the
Paralympics in Beijing.

On March 21, The Washington Post profiled Melissa Stockwell, who lost her leg while serving in the Army in Iraq, She's now in training for the swimming competition in the international Paralympics Games for athletes with disabilities, which will follow the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The Post story explains that new disabled veterans are returning the Paralympics to its roots: "Stockwell, 27, is one of more than a dozen disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- seven of whom now are living and training full time at USOC training facilities -- hoping to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic squad. Founded after World War II as part of a rehabilitation program for injured veterans, the Paralympics over time came to be populated predominantly by athletes who were born with disabilities or disabled much of their lives. But more than 31,000 service members have been injured in combat in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, invigorating what has proved to be an inextricable relationship."

Bob Woodruff of ABC News reported on why veterans with traumatic brain injuries and permanent impairments are only considered "partially disabled." For example, vet Michael Boothby received only a 70% disability rating, "even though many of his injuries are permanent. He has traumatic brain injury and has lost more than half of his vision in both eyes."

In the report, Woodruff revisits some of the vets he met in his 2007 documentary, "To Iraq and Back," which looked at issues such as about how brain injuries are overlooked at VA hospitals. Woodruff was brain injured himself while reporting in Iraq in 2006. His book with his wife, Lee, In An Instant: A family's journey of love and healing, just came out in paperback.

The Chicago Tribune published an op-ed from Nobel Prize-winning economist J. E. Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes, the co-authors of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict, that nailed down just how expensive the war has been in monetary and human costs. They also did significant research showing that some "cost-cutting" measures in the Iraq war have caused record number of injuries and disabilities.

"The government kept upfront costs down, not spending money on, for instance, vehicles that would have protected our troops against improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which have led to so many deaths and disabilities, even after they were urgently requested," Stiglitz and Bilmes write. "This war is distinctive in the huge number of injuries, some 15 times the number of fatalities—a tribute to modern medicine, but an unfunded liability in excess of $600 billion, costs that we will be paying for decades. (The administration has done all it can to hide these numbers; working through veterans groups, we had to use the Freedom of Information Act to get the full scope of the injuries.)" posted reflections from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Last weekend veterans gathered in Maryland and spoke publicly about their war experiences. Iraq Veterans against the War are posting videos of testimonials from last weekend's meeting.

And in a local story in The Aspen (Colo.) Times, a disabled Iraq veteran is allowed by the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority Board to stay in his apartment, even though he makes a higher salary than the rules allow. The Board voted that Casey Owens, 26, a former Marine and double amputee, deserved the exception because it was the management's company that let Owens have the apartment without checking his income eligibility. Owens, with the help of a veterans group, spent money to make the apartment accessible and a Housing Authority member praised that fact saying, “I love that we are getting an ADA unit because there are so few of them.”

Sad losses from the world of film and sci fi

Two obituaries in The NY Times March 19 recounted the lives of filmmaker Anthony Minghella and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

Anthony Minghella, 54, died March 18 in London. He was the Academy Award-winning director of "The English Patient" (1996), which focused on a severely burned and disabled man who reviews his life and loves at the end of WWII. Minghella also directed the highly regarded "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Cold Mountain."

His debut film as a director and writer is one of my favorites, "Truly Madly Deeply" (1990). It deals with a woman (played by the fabulous Juliet Stevenson), who is so severely depressed after the death of her lover (played by the very talented Alan Rickman) that she sees him as a ghost. As she gradually re-engages with life, she meets a nice man whose job is working with developmentally disabled adults. It's truly madly poignant and really explores the depths that grief can take someone. But it is life affirming as well.

In addition to his own Oscar, he directed five actors in Academy Award-winning performances: Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Renée Zellweger, Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas. He will be missed.

Arthur C. Clarke, 90, wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey," both the screen adaptation and the novel. Clarke, who was post-polio and a wheelchair user in the last years of his life, wrote about 100 science fiction novels. The NY Times obit says "Clarke was an ardent promoter of the idea that humanity’s destiny lay beyond the confines of Earth. . . .His work was also prophetic: his detailed forecast of telecommunications satellites in 1945 came more than a decade before the first orbital rocket flight."

His writings influenced scientists, the public and film and television producers. The creator of the "Star Trek" TV series, Gene Roddenberry, reported that Clarke's work inspired him to push for the sci fi series, even though it was initially opposed by TV executives.

A British citizen who had lived in Sri Lanka since 1956, Clarke was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998.

The Largest Minority radio show discusses Paterson appointment

The Largest Minority radio show on WBAI in NY city on March 20 discussed the David Paterson appointment as governor of the state and its implications for the disability community.

The show airs on the third Thursday of each month at 11 a.m. on WBAI 99.5 FM. The show's focus "is the community of individuals with a disability and we number 56 Million nationwide; 600 million throughout the world. Our program seeks to inform and educate our community as well as our non-disabled friends, about the issues and happenings in the realm of disability rights and disability culture."

Praises for Marlee Matlin's dance performance

Several folks in the blogosphere had kudos for Marlee Matlin's March 18 performance on "Dancing with the Stars."

The Special Parent, for parents of children with special needs (i.e. disabilities), wrote that that Matlin's triumph will give her a response if her disabled daughter ever says, "I can’t do that.”

She explained further: "Competition ballroom dancing just isn’t one of the things you typically do if you are profoundly deaf and yet - why the heck not?? I doubt anybody said 'Oh honey, absolutely, you’ll be an Academy Award actress!' What I love about Marlee Matlin most is that Marlee does what Marlee wants - not necessarily what she 'should.'”

Tonya Plank at The Huffington Post said: "Marlee Matlin simply shone. I don't wish to focus on one's 'disability,' but it is near impossible to dance a rhythmic dance -- like Cha Cha -- without music. Imagine dancing in silence, no beat. And there was almost nothing wrong with her routine. She missed not a single beat. She was a bit pigeon-toed in cross-overs, like the men, but other than that, she was perfect."

And OnlineSnitch just had a nice "way to go" comment.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Marlee Matlin: "Read my hips!"

Marlee Matlin's debut on "Dancing with the Stars" March 18 was impressive. She gave it her all and wowed the judges, who subtly admitted their skepticism about whether a deaf person could dance. She and partner Fabian Sanchez scored a 22 out of a possible 30, finishing in third place and trouncing stars like tennis player Monica Seles and Tony winner Marissa Jaret Winokur.

I guess it's good that the judges were blown away, but they let some of their initial biases show by calling Matlin's performance "almost unbelievable" and "inspiring" (Carrie Ann Inaba) and "so unbelievable and life affirming" (Bruno Tonioli). But as their skepticism went away, they were full of compliments for Matlin.

"You are so fluid and you move with great ease," Judge Carrie Ann Inaba said.

"You may not hear, but the music is running through your blood," Judge Bruno Tonioli said. "You hardly missed a beat. I counted all the song."

Even Matlin's daughter seemed to say "oh my god" at the end of her mom's performance.

The best part of the show was the behind-the-scenes segment where the audience received good information from Matlin and Sanchez about how she approached learning the dances by watching Sanchez' body and face and feeling the rhythm.

She has said often that she joined the show because her four kids love it and she wanted to be "cool Mom."

"I have good rhythm. As a deaf person, I use my body to communicate every day so I think that's a plus," Matlin explained when she met Sanchez. She explained also that she wants to represent deaf people well.

"I'm here on 'Dancing with the Stars' to prove just because you're deaf doesn't mean you can't dance. . . .I hope," she says with a laugh.

Matlin has a natural comic side, which is a joy to watch. Her Oscar-winning role in "Children of a Lesser God" was so intense that many may not recognize that's she's quite funny. But it is definitely coming out in recent interviews and on DWTS. She even threw a bit of her comic side into her dance, which was wonderful.

At the end of the March 17 DWTS show, she put out a humorous challenge to her competitors: "Read my hips." And they better, because she has shown that she's got some serious moves as a dancer.

Forgotten group, American Indians with disabilities, receive some coverage

The Daily Times in Farmington, N.M., wrote an article? editorial? (I can't tell but it reads more like an editorial.) about a 2007 survey of American Indians living with disabilities in the Four Corners area by the Native American Disability Law Center. American Indians are more likely to have disabilities than the general population, according to the Census Bureau.

"The survey found that 41 percent of American Indians living with disabilities could not get the services they needed in schools," according to the article. "An additional 27 percent reported a child was disciplined unjustly in school for behavior related to a disability."

The Law Center says American Indians with disabilities are burdened by more layers of bureaucracy to get assistance than others with disabilities. They may live in one state, receive services from their tribal program in another, with that program receiving its funding from the federal government.

Why the media cover "firsts"

The Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM) magazine, HR Magazine, wrote an interesting article about the intersection of diversity and politics with the rise of David Paterson, who is legally blind and African American, to governor of NY.

Also covered was how advocates for different diversity groups have to play along with the rhetoric of "firsts" to get their message into the media.

Carl Augusto, president of the American Foundation for the Blind, has been all over the news in the past seven days talking about what it means to the blindness community to have a blind NY governor.

“Eventually there will be so many different types of people who will ascend the political or corporate ladder that people won’t even notice these kinds of firsts,” Augusto told SHRM Online.
"As for AFB’s choice to laud Paterson as a blind leader, Augusto says it provides his organization with an opportunity to shatter myths and stereotypes about blindness."

“The biggest problem with blindness is not the blindness itself or the functional limitations, it is societal reactions, the myths, the pity, the superman or beggar perception,” he said in the article, noting that he experiences such reactions himself “as a blind person who uses a cane.”

“Eventually the fact that [Paterson is] blind and black won’t make a difference,” Augusto says. “There are some people who will be motivated and inspired by his example.”

"Augusto hopes Paterson’s powerful and visible role will cause employers to take a closer look at applicants who are blind or visually impaired rather than 'finding a way to reject them,'" according to SHRM online.

Major journalism "brands" not being displaced

The Project for Excellence in Journalism released its State of the News Media 2008 report this week, and some interesting findings indicate that citizen journalism (something I have suggested to disability groups) may not be catching on as quickly as expected.

Here's part of the intro to the report: "Critics have tended to see technology democratizing the media and traditional journalism in decline. Audiences, they say, are fragmenting across new information sources, breaking the grip of media elites. . . .The reality, increasingly, appears more complex. Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media. The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists."

Here's a list of major trends the report found:
  • News is shifting from being a product — today’s newspaper, Web site or newscast — to becoming a service — how can you help me, even empower me?
  • A news organization and a news Web site are no longer final destinations.
  • The prospects for user-created content, once thought possibly central to the next era of journalism, for now appear more limited, even among “citizen” sites and blogs.
  • Increasingly, the newsroom is perceived as the more innovative and experimental part of the news industry.
  • The agenda of the American news media continues to narrow, not broaden.
  • Madison Avenue, rather than pushing change, appears to be having trouble keeping up with it.

These findings have real implications for how disability groups get their message out via the news media. It seems groups will still have to work with major mainstream news media to get covered. On the one hand, this can be a good thing because this is where all the trained journalists, who know how to investigate a story, are. On the other hand, these journalists, like others in society, bring their biases about disability into their work. However, over the years, I've found that many journalists are usually pretty open to understanding the nuances of the disability story. It's their editors and news directors who usually don't "get it."

GimpGirl moves into Second Life

The GimpGirl Community has been around since 1998, "supporting the pride and self-esteem of our fellow women with disabilities," it says. Now it moves into the Second Life virtual community with an event March 30.

An online presentation on "Avatars, Identity, and the Expression of Disability" will be Sunday, March 30, noon to 1:30 p.m.

GimpGirl has been dormant for about a year, according to its web site, but now plans a flurry of activities. Its Second Life parcel will be "packed with events, support groups and classes, as well as a new forum for articles, discussion and information here on the GGC website. We also have newer communities on Facebook, MySpace and Flickr. We will continue to offer lists of resources, as well as our LiveJournal Community (gimpgirl)."

Make that lucky 13 characters with Jericho's return

Thanks to a reader's response I am adding No. 13 to my list of TV shows.

13. "Jericho" (CBS) -- Deaf actress Shoshannah Stern has played Bonnie Richmond on the sci-fi show for two years, and according to my informant is beloved character. Stern comes from a fourth generation deaf family and American Sign Language is her first language. I know her from her role on "Weeds" as Silas's girlfriend, but that was in 2006, so it wasn't in the 07-08 season for purposes of my list. I hear "Jericho" is an excellent show and am glad fans got it back on TV, but I just can't bring myself to watch people struggling with the possible end of the world. :-(

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Top entertainment TV shows featuring disability in the 07-08 season

I've been meaning to write about this for awhile but the writer's strike meant some shows didn't appear last fall. The media love lists so I thought I'd follow their trend with a list of ongoing characters with disabilities on TV. (I didn't include guest spots.) These are in no particular order, and please post comments with characters or shows I have missed. Thanks!

1. "Friday Night Lights" (NBC) -- As someone who grew up in Texas, I refused to watch this show for the first season because I didn't want to hear them butcher TX accents and I don't care much about football. But a fellow disabilities studies scholar talked glowingly about its disabled character, Jason Street, that I decided to give it a try. (Thanks Elaine!) Street is the star quarterback who becomes disabled due to a tackle in the pilot. But he remains an integral part of the story line throughout the first season and second. The show deals with his character's transition to accepting his new disabled identity, independent living, sexuality, friendships, etc. Full episodes of both seasons are available online. And if you really want to see a complex disabled character continue on network TV, write NBC and tell them to NOT to cancel "Friday Night Lights."

2. "House" (FOX) -- Everyone loves to hate Dr. Gregory House, who is just plain mean but is also a brilliant diagnostician. House, played by Hugh Laurie, uses a cane due to a disabled leg, which is disabled because he refused to allow it to be amputated, which was medically recommended. He's also in chronic pain from the leg so abuses prescription pain killers. He can be annoying, but from a disability standpoint, no one has time to pity him because they are too busy despising him. Too often characters with disabilities are syrupy sweet or totally evil, and Dr. House is neither of these. He's nasty and manipulative, but that's coupled with a single-minded focus to truly help seemingly un-help-able patients.

3. "Family Guy" (FOX) -- Joe Swanson, a macho wheelchair user, contrasts to the doughy family guy, Peter Griffin. He arrived in episode 5 of Season 1, when Peter asks him to play softball, not realizing he's paraplegic. Joe, of course, wins the game and becomes a hero, making Peter jealous. I have only watched a few episodes and seem to always miss the ones that feature Joe, but my informants tell me that "Ready Willing and Disabled" is a good one, in which Joe competes in a Paralympics-like sporting event. In another Joe-focused episode, "Believe It or Not, Joe's Walking on Air," he receives a leg transplant and becomes a jerk, so the gang decides to re-paralyze him. describes "Family Guy" this way: "Sick, twisted, politically incorrect and freakin' sweet. The animated series features the adventures of the Griffin family. Peter and Lois have three kids - the youngest is a brilliant, sadistic baby bent on killing his mother and world domination. Chris, like his father, is obese, has a low IQ and no common sense. Meg desperately tries to be part of the popular crowd, and is coldly rebuffed. Their talking dog Brian keeps baby Stewie in check while sipping martinis and sorting out his own life issues." Wikipedia has a good list of all the show's episodes, so you can find the ones with Joe.

4. "The L Word" (Showtime) -- Definitely not for children due to the nudity and graphic language, this show about chic West Hollywood lesbians added Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin to the cast in Season 4, for what was supposed to be a multi-episode guest spot, but show runners liked what was happening with her deaf lesbian artist character, Jodi Lerner, so they kept her around for season 5. The season finale for season 5 is March 23, and the storyline doesn't look good for the Jodi character staying around for season 6 (the show has just been renewed for one final season.) But Matlin's character brought important awareness to audiences by reminding them that some deaf or disabled people are members of the GBLT community just like some non-disabled people are. And of course, it's always wonderful to see sign language incorporated into a TV show.

5. "Monk" (USA) -- Adrian Monk, a former San Francisco police detective, now works freelance as a detective for the police department because of his severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). As played by Tony Shalhoub, Monk's phobias and tics are endearing and even empowering (if they help him catch the bad guy). I feel the OCD isn't played for laughs, but as just a part of Monk's persona that those who care about him accept.

6. "Breaking Bad" (AMC) -- Teenager RJ Mitte, who actually has cerebral palsy, plays Walter Jr., the son of a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to cook meth to raise money for his family. Walter Jr. uses two crutches and has a more severe form of CP than Mitte does. What I like about the character is the nonchalance with which his CP is treated. It's only occasionally acknowledged and when it is, it's appropriate and in context. But mostly he just a member of the family, and has great lines as an average sarcastic teenager character.

7. "Dirt" (FX) -- In this drama Courtney Cox plays a tabloid magazine editor, Lucy Spiller, and her best friend and best photographer is Don Konkey (played by Ian Hart) is schizophrenic. Last season, Konkey had full-blown symptoms; this season his symptoms appear to be controlled by anti-psychotic drugs. The interaction between Cox's Lucy Spiller character and Konkey comes off as both sweet and manipulative, if that is possible. Spiller truly seems to care for Konkey and considers him her best friend, but she has no problem asking him to take sleazy tabloid photos in situations in which someone with schizophrenia would be better served by not participating. Konkey would take a bullet for Spiller, so he never questions her, making him an easy target for her manipulation. The show's not that great, but I guess the one positive is that a character with schizophrenia appears to be integrated into society and happily holds a good job in which his talents are recognized. This is somewhat better than the usual stigmatizing presentations of people with major mental illnesses.

8. "Rick & Steve, Happiest Gay Couple" (Logo) -- Steve's best friend is Chuck, an HIV-positive, wheelchair user, whose partner is Evan, a 19-year-old club kid. They pal around with Rick and Steve in the gay community. I've only seen one episode of the show, so don't have too many comments, except Logo needs to fix its reference to Chuck being "confined to a wheelchair" on its web site.

9. 10. "South Park" (Comedy Central) -- The irreverent satire featuring four foul-mouthed elementary school boys also occasionally spotlights their schoolmate Timmy, a wheelchair user with garbled speech, who was voted "The Greatest Disabled TV Character" in a poll by BBC's Ouch! Jimmy, who uses crutches, is also another disabled character, who sometimes teams with Timmy. New Mobility did a great article about the popularity of Timmy and Jimmy in 2005. Ouch! says Timmy got the vote because of his badass activities on the show. "His capers have included becoming lead singer of Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld. They were hounded by a cartoon Phil Collins, who felt it wrong and shameful that a disabled person was fronting a rock band. Timmy also tried to join the notorious 'Krips' street mob, mistakenly thinking it was an empowering gang for cripples. And he was at the centre of a comical ethical debate over the question 'Do the handicapped go to heaven?'"

11. "Little People, Big World" (TLC) -- Technically, the Roloff family aren't "characters" because they are real people, but as reality TV is part of entertainment TV, I'm counting them. Matt and Amy Roloff are little people, and parents to four children, one of whom is a little person. The reality shows follows them in their daily lives on their farm, kids school, soccer games, vacations, etc. What I like about the show are the real moments of Matt acting overbearing, Amy getting frustrated or one of the kids screwing up. It's a great message -- their family's just like everyone else's.

12. "Lost" (ABC) -- OK, I am a Lost-ophile (I know, not a word) but I love the show. So for those of us who have been with Lost from the beginning, John Locke, played by Terry O'Quinn, is still technically disabled. It's just the magic power of the island has temporarily healed his paralysis. (Another character, Rose, no longer has terminal cancer because of the island.) His disability (or current lack thereof) always rests in the back of regular viewers minds because of his current obsession with staying on the island (so he can stay non-disabled). So because his "disability" may be part of the motivation for everything he does, he made this list.

So that's the list. Please let me know of others. I found it upsetting that I could only come up 12 from the dozens of networks, cable channels and premium channels out there, but I guess we're supposed to be glad it's not zero. :-(

Washington Post Express spotlights Gallaudet Dance Company

Gallaudet Dance Company

I hope that what I predicted yesterday is coming true -- that with Marlee Matlin's appearance on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" beginning March 17, the media will remember to cover the deaf community a bit more.

The Washington Post Express did a profile on March 18 of the Gallaudet University Dance Company in Washington, D.C.

The 11-member company performs American Sign Language (ASL) influenced dance. Company director Diane Hottendorf explains in The Express that ASL uses body movements and facial expression, which are incorporated into the dance. "Dance allows them to elevate that form to an artistic level — even if they're interpreting in utter silence," according to the article.

The last two words of the sentence are incorrect because most deaf people have a huge range of hearing abilities from profoundly deaf like Marlee Matlin to hard of hearing in which hearing aids can allow someone to hear most sounds. Matlin said in an interview that she has new high-powered digital hearing aids so she does hear many of the tones in a musical number.

The dancers with the most hearing loss focus on the choreography and the counts. The Gallaudet troupe hope Matlin's appearance will teach the world not to underestimate what deaf people can do.

Erin Ginn, 23, of the company says she "hopes Matlin's mambos can change that for other deaf dancers. 'Finally we see a deaf person in that setting. They'll see that one deaf person can do it. She'll be a role model,' she signs."

Monday, March 17, 2008

More visibility for deaf people will arise from Marlee Matlin being on "Dancing with the Stars"

At least that's what I foresee happening. ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" (DWTS) has amazing ratings, so Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin will be dancing before a massive audience. When DWTS ended its 2005 season, it drew the most viewers of any summer TV series since Fox's September 2002 "American Idol" finale. That's impressive. (Here's a behind the scenes interview with Matlin and her dance partner Fabian Sanchez.)

Also, other dancers who are deaf or disabled may get a halo effect from Matlin's appearance on the show. The Cleveland Plain Dealer localized a DWTS story by profiling competitive dancer Heather Wagley, 32, who is deaf. In the past eight years with her dance partner, Larry Nemeth, she has won first place in more than 50 ballroom dancing contests. They'll be trying to win again in the San Francisco Open DanceSport competition in two weeks.

"The actress will learn the dances through sight, feel and repetition, just like Wagley," P.J. Novarro, co-owner of a dance studio told The Plain Dealer. "He said the film star will have to practice at least 40 hours to learn a dance, and that's more or less true for the other participants, too. 'Everyone is born with rhythm,' he said. 'She may not hear the downbeat, but it's transferred to her by her teacher.'"

And I am waiting for DWTS to learn about all the great wheelchair dancing that happens around the country and incorporate that into the show. One of the most famous dance troupes that has dancers who use wheelchairs is Oakland, Calif.'s AXIS Dance Company. It creates and performs contemporary dance pieces from the collaboration of dancers with and without disabilities. Others include Full Radius Dance in Phoenix and Dancing Wheels in Ohio. And for wheelchair users who just want to learn ballroom dancing, the American DanceWheels Foundation makes that happen. (They have a video clip of their participants dancing in a report from from ABC Channel 6 in Philadelphia.)

Media coverage of blindness continues in wake of Paterson governorship

The Boston Herald talked to folks at the famous Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts (where Helen Keller was educated as a child). The Herald wrote a March 16 reaction story from the school's blind alums and educators about what attention David Paterson's governorship will draw to blindness issues and blind people.

"For those who cannot see, David A. Paterson’s ascension to the governorship in New York tomorrow is a chance to open the public’s eyes to what they themselves have known all along," The Herald wrote. “'It’s really providing a whole opportunity to educate the public about the capabilities of blind people,' said Kim Charlson, the Braille & Talking Book Library director at the Perkins School for the Blind. 'He’s in this position because he has huge abilities, not a disability.'”

The Associated Press also continued to cover the blindness topic with a story about employer bias toward blind people, which is part of the reason 70% of blind people are unemployed. But spokespeople for blindness organizations say that Paterson will be a highly visible example of what blind people can accomplish in the workplace.

"Blind people hold all sorts of jobs these days — judge, fitness trainer, TV show host, registered nurse, lawyer and so on," The AP wrote March 26."'Unfortunately we're still living in an age of misperceptions of what blind people can do,' said Carl Augusto, president of the American Foundation for the Blind. 'We're hoping that an employer considering hiring a blind person will say that if David Paterson can be governor and be legally blind, maybe this applicant who is blind can be a good computer programmer.'"

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which tracks workplace discrimination cases covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, says 455 such complaints were filed last year by visually impaired workers — the highest number since 1995," The AP reports."'If someone's blind, there's a huge stigma to overcome and all kinds of myths and fears in the employer community,' EEOC spokesman David Grinberg said."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Carlana Stone eliminated from "Oprah's Big Give"

The judges sent home Carlana Stone, the wheelchair user who was a contestant on the philanthropy reality show, at the end of the March 16 show.

I have mixed feelings about her being eliminated, because she was basically being penalized for trying to make her team work as a group. The eight remaining contestants split into teams of four to help two different disadvantaged elementary schools in Houston. Each team had a celebrity helper for the team.

Carlana's team tried to raise money for a playground for the impoverished school, which basically had only a section of blacktop for its playground. She clashed with team member Rachael early on, when Rachael and other contestant, Kim, did not wait for Carlana and contestant, Sheg, before meeting with the school officials. Rachael and Kim didn't even think about the few extra minutes it takes Carlana to get out of the car and reassemble her wheelchair.

Rachael charged ahead in most aspects of the fundraising task, and Carlana wanted the four to work as a team and communicate in decision-making, which never really happened. It was an uncomfortable dynamic, and Carlana basically gave up trying to push that idea. In good news, thanks to their celebrity helper, Andre Agassi, they raised $210,000 for the elementary school -- more than just playground equipment, but new computers and other resources for the school.

What irks me about any of these "helping" shows is that they are raising money for under-funded public schools, (or equipment for people with disabilities or better housing for the poorest Americans, etc.) all of which should be properly funded by the local, state and federal governments. It's sickening to see that poor children have few resources available in their school and not even a decent place to play. How can the cycle of poverty ever be broken if poor children never get any educational resources equal to other kids? Having grown up in Texas, I know this problem arises from the use of real estate taxes to fund schools, so basically kids in poor neighborhoods have underfunded schools and kids in wealthier neighborhoods have schools with greater resources. This exact problem causes funding disparities in many other states as well.

In terms of disability topics, the ABC show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (the lead-in show for "Oprah's Big Give") has built several accessible homes for people with disabilities over the past couple of years. That's wonderful, but I still contend that something is wrong with our society if the only way some people with disabilities can get the accessible home they need is to receive charity from a reality TV show. A friend of mine has a cousin with muscular dystrophy and the cousin's family couldn't afford the construction costs of adapting their home to make it wheelchair accessible. They went on a local home makeover reality show, but my friend told me the cousin is very shy and really did not want to appear on TV. But, of course, no show would agree to do the makeover without the adorable young wheelchair user appearing. So even though it was upsetting, the cousin had to spend time on camera. Is this what our reality-show-soaked society has come to -- putting a young person through an unpleasant experience just to get needed resources?

AP: War causing deafness

An AP story that moved on the wire March 7 reports that damage to hearing is the No. 1 disability caused among U.S. troops in the war on terror.

The information comes from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which says the numbers could grow even larger when the hearing damage becomes clearer as the veterans age. "Nearly 70,000 of the more than 1.3 million troops who have served in the two war zones are collecting disability for tinnitus, a potentially debilitating ringing in the ears, and more than 58,000 are on disability for hearing loss," the VA told The AP.

"One major explanation given is the insurgency's use of a fearsome weapon the Pentagon did not fully anticipate: powerful roadside bombs. Their blasts cause violent changes in air pressure that can rupture the eardrum and break bones inside the ear," according to The AP. "Also, much of the fighting consists of ambushes, bombings and firefights, which come suddenly and unexpectedly, giving soldiers no time to use their military-issued hearing protection."

Forbes: Blind people in the workplace

In media terms, a significant aspect of David Paterson, who legally blind, ascending to the NY governor's job is the flurry of news and feature stories about life with blindness in general. Forbes looked at the business angle of blind people in the workplace in a March 14 story, talking to some corporate executives who are blind.

But the story also lays out the specifics of the high unemployment rate for blind people. The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) reports a 70% unemployment rate among blind adults of employment age. However, AFB explains in the Forbes story what accounts for some of this. For example, many people become blind later in life and decide to quit working because they aren't too far from retirement. "It's hard to persuade people who are newly blinded in their 50s and 60s to get back into rehabilitation and training so they can go back to work," Carl Augusto, AFB president, says in the article.

However, for young blind people the future is rosier. "The younger generation of blind workers is different than their older counterparts, says Augusto. They are employed at the same rate as sighted people. Schools are preparing them better for careers, and they're taking advantage of technology."

But discrimination against blind people in hiring still exists and accounts for the high unemployment rate. "The single largest factor is discrimination and bias," says Steven Rothstein, president of Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. "There's a belief among employers that people who are blind can't do jobs."

The story also included the experiences of Barry Honig, who is blind and president of Honig International, a Manhattan-based executive search and management consulting firm, and Al Gayzagian, a blind Harvard graduate who struggled for three years to find a job, but found one as a typist and then rose to the level of senior financial officer at John Hancock.

The Forbes story, by Tara Weiss, does a good job of giving a nuanced report about the positive and negative aspects affecting blind people who try to obtain employment.

Oregonian investigates caregiver abuse of disabled adults

The March 16 story in The Oregonian follows up its 2007 investigation of caregiver abuse in Oregon's 1,100 group and foster homes that serve about 4,600 developmentally disabled adults. In that investigation they found "that between 2000 and 2006, more than 2,000 were victims of abuse by caregivers, ranging from neglect of medical needs to rape, beatings, thefts, verbal abuse or improper restraint."

The recent story focuses on Johnny Beckhardt, 28, who has been in a national ad campaign about his work at Goodwill Industries, and his father, Lyle "Butch" Beckhardt, who also appears in the TV ads. The kinds of things that have happened to Johnny are truly sickening and the point of the story is that Johnny has an involved and concerned parent who is in constant touch with him and still he was abused multiple times.

"Caregivers took financial advantage of him," according to The Oregonian. "A medical emergency nearly killed him. Most recently, officials moved Johnny from a Dallas (Oregon) group home after he reported what investigators feared was physical and sexual abuse." Also, one of Johnny's caregivers was arrested on drug charges.

Kudos to The Oregonian for continuing to cover the story. Too many times the news media don't follow up as much as they should after an investigation.

Oops. Paterson not first legally blind governor in America

That distinction goes to Bob C. Riley of Arkansas (1924-1994), who became visually impaired in WWII and went on to be governor there -- for 11 days. The AP and The New York Times began correcting themselves March 14, with the NYT contacting Riley's widow.

"Mr. Riley’s left eye was removed after his combat injuries and that he briefly had minimal light perception in his right eye," according to the NYT. 'However, that dissipated very quickly because the eye was embedded with shrapnel, and he had no vision all of the years that he was moving the mountains out there, so to speak,' she said."

But Riley wasn't able to get too much done as governor of Arkansas due to the few days he served; he took office when Gov. Dale Bumpers resigned to join the U.S. Senate.

Riley was a professor of political science at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., and had been active in local and state politics. He served as lieutenant governor in 1970 and was re-elected in 1972.

Blogger Hack N. Sack, who writes about NY politics, says many media reports also overstated NY Gov. David Paterson's father's "firsts" as an African American politician. And one media outlet wrongly stated Paterson was the first disabled governor -- that distinction goes to NY's own Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Clip of Teal Sherer's Liberty Mutual ad

Last week, I told you a bit about the acting career of Teal Sherer, but I didn't have the Liberty Mutual ad to post. Thanks to Mr. Teek for letting me know where it is. The ad, called "Election," shows a nice, nonchalant slice of life of a person with a disability. Way to go, Liberty Mutual.

Here's how Mr. Teek described the ad: "The commercial starts with a person featured in a wheelchair pushing down the street in the rain, and next getting onto a bus. Then the person gets off, still in a driving rainstorm, pushing through a parking lot with a number of obstacles. The woman pushing finally gets to her destination, which is a school gymnasium. The purpose of her rain-soaked, obstacle laden journey is to exercise the right to vote."

The web site for the ad has a place for comments, so give Liberty Mutual some positive feedback if you like the ad.

Batgirl became a wheelchair user

Who knew? I guess people who read Batman comics knew. Apparently, the Joker shot Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon, and she has been using a wheelchair for about 20 years. But it doesn't slow her down. She learns martial arts and uses the Internet to fight evil by taking on an online persona, The Oracle.

You can see her transition to disabled person here.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rhetoric about blindness begins in Paterson coverage

Headline writers love their puns, and in today's journalism crisis, many creative headlines are used to try to draw readers to the content. So the stories and headlines about the new NY Gov. David Paterson, who is legally blind, present a mixed bag. On the one hand, many stories are adding some significant information generally about blind people in America; on the other hand, some in the media may go too far in trying to be creative with language about blindness. I'm not saying never use a creative turn of phrase. I'm just saying, be careful.

Here's a glance at some of the media coverage:

"And A Blind Man Shall Lead Us" -- headline from the web page of WHAM 13 in Rochester, NY. An obvious headline that I am surprised I didn't see more places around the web. The story itself actually comments on Paterson's ability to be self deprecating. The story recounts all the positive aspects of Paterson's blindness.

"What It Means to Be New York's First Legally Blind Governor" -- Fox News discusses what the term "legally blind" means in Paterson's case.

"How a Blind Man Will Lead a State" -- Tara Parker-Pope's Health blog for the NY Times. She explains how a blind man like Paterson does his day-to-day activities.

"Legally Blind, but Confident in ‘His Best Adaptive Skills’" -- One of many stories The NY Times did this week, but this one focuses on how he gets around, with explanation from the President of the American Foundation for the Blind, Carl Augusto: “People say to me, ‘How could he function without knowing Braille?’ Well, guess what, he functions, and functions very, very well. He does it because he’s smart and uses what he thinks are his best adaptive skills.” At the March 13 news conference, Paterson had an aide call on the reporters there.

"The Vision Thing" -- Writer Stephen Kuusisto, author of Planet of the Blind (the book and the blog) and who is visually impaired himself, contributed an op-ed in the March 14 NY Times about living life as a blind person. "He’ll ask more questions than your average politician. And those who work in his administration will find that they are important not simply for knowing things but because they can describe how they learned those things in the first place. That’s perhaps the most important thing for the public to understand about professionals who are blind — we are by nature tireless in acquiring information, and we remember virtually every detail of what we read or hear." Kuusisto explains on his blog that he didn't come up with the headline and doesn't like the pun because it is associated with the first President Bush.

"Spitzer’s Successor: David Paterson, NY’s First Blind Governor" - The Wall Street Journal's Health blog discusses his blindness and the fact that he is a Mets fan.

"'Compromiser' next in line as N.Y. gov." -- USA Today focused on political implications for NY state, but also wove in information about FDR and Paterson's connection to the blindness community: "New York has had a disabled governor before: Franklin D. Roosevelt was paralyzed by polio seven years before he became governor in 1928. Few Americans knew of the disability; it could be concealed in the days before television. Paterson has been a trustee of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), and President Carl Augusto hopes Paterson would show the public that a physical disability is not a political liability. 'We hope that the next time a blind person takes over a Fortune 500 company, through David's influence people will say, 'That's not a big deal.' "

"Sighs of relief in Albany as David Paterson takes stage as new gov" -- The NY Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez also talked to AFB about Paterson. "He's a skillful and accomplished political leader," but also "a wonderful human being," Carl Augusto said there.

"His successor makes history for being blind as well as black" -- The Times of London's James Bone talks about meeting Paterson during the South Carolina primary.

"What does 'legally blind' mean?" - ABC 7 News in NY City does a report talking to Dr. Jay Adlersberg about the specifics of "legal blindness."

"10 Things You Didn't Know About David Paterson" -- U.S. News & World Report explained that one of the 10 things was "in 2004, he became the first visually impaired person to address a Democratic National Convention and, in 2006, he was elected New York's first African-American lieutenant governor."

"Autism: The Musical" premieres on HBO March 25

By BA Haller
© Media dis&dat blog
No, this isn't some twisted Broadway show, where any topic becomes a musical. It's a thoroughly engaging documentary about a musical theater program in LA for kids with autism.

I saw it at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in NYC last November and found it gave fabulous insight into autism, which has become one of the most media-covered children's disabilities in recent years. The documentary doesn't just focus on the kids and their work in the theater program but explores their relationships with their parents and siblings and those parents and siblings relationships with them and each other. Several parents honestly divulge the complexities of nurturing a child with autism and the toll it takes on marriages and other relationships.

But even with its serious side, "Autism: The Musical" has a feeling of joy. The kids have their ups and downs, but they focus on their music or preparing a scene for the musical with their own brand of intensity. And of course, given the intrusion of some negative behaviors from the children because they have autism, the film has the underlying tension of any good narrative, because as a viewer, you can't wait to see how the musical turns out.

One particularly poignant scene prepared for the musical and written by several of the kids has them dramatizing the teasing and mistreatment they receive from non-disabled children. The scene smashes the myth in many people's minds that children with autism don't care about relationships with others.

That's what makes the film so groundbreaking -- kids with autism being portrayed just like other kids, rather than as having some medical diagnosis or being a savant. Henry chatters on about dinosaurs; Lexi sings beautifully and emotionally; Adam just wants to play his cello; Wyatt loves Harry Potter and telling a story, and Neal tries to communicate without getting frustrated. Just typical kids.

Directed by Tricia Regan, "Autism: The Musical" follows the efforts of Elaine Hall, founder of The Miracle Project, described as "an innovative and exciting musical theater program that brings together typically developing children and children with special needs in an atmosphere of creativity, acceptance and joy. It emphasizes creativity, self expression and social consciousness."

Hall is the mother of Neal, one of the five children featured. Her "never give up" spirit imbues the film with a kind of tenacity that gives one hope that many kids with autism will be OK because they have someone like Elaine Hall in their corner.

"Autism: The Musical" traveled the film festival circuit in 2007, gathering five Audience Awards at various festivals and was the official selection at another 10 film festivals internationally. Now it will be shown on HBO as part of its documentary series, and you can watch the film's trailer on the HBO web site. If you don't have HBO, the film will soon be available on DVD.

"Autism" The Musical" should not be missed!