photo of Brooke Ellison

What a high-powered agent can do for you.

By Mary Johnson.

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge..

  • Read our sidebars: Flattery and Cliche-o-rama
  • A front-page New York Times story in May about Harvard graduating senior Brooke Ellison seemed a throwback to an earlier era -- an era when no federal law required colleges to accommodate a student's disabilities; a time before the Americans with Disabilties Act, a time even before the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.

    Very little seems to have changed in the way reporters behave when they get hold of an inspiring overcomer cripple story. Except that today's cripple may have a book agent.

    Brooke Ellison does. "Ms. Ellison intends to write her autobiography," New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg notes near the end of his May 17 inspirational profile. And her agent is with the William Morris powerhouse.

    The agent's likely been shopping her story. Not only did Ellison appear as the main feature of the May 17 New York Times, but she sat head to head with NBC's Katie Couric a few weeks later.

    Rights and access are not part of this Brooke Ellison book package. The sell is traditional all the way, from the focus on the How She Does It to the Surprising Twist.

    Steinberg's coverage tells little of Ellison's academic skills. In the first paragraphs, however, we learn she was "struck by a car on her first day in the seventh grade and given little chance of survival"; that she "awoke after 36 hours in a coma, as a quadriplegic"; that she has "no sensation below her neck"; that she has "a scratchy voice"; that she talks "over the clicking of a ventilator that forces air through her trachea and into her lungs 13 times a minute." An Ellison accomplishment? "Piloting her wheelchair (as well as the cursor on her computer screen) by touching her tongue to a keypad in a retainer on the roof of her mouth."

    It's pretty clear Steinberg isn't interested in the broader issues of quadriplegics gaining access to higher education, but on Ellison's "improbable educational odyssey." The story's meant as gee-whiz inspiration, the emphasis on "heroes": "Those looking for a hero in this story . . . should focus on her mother, Jean Marie, 48, who has sat at her daughter's side in every class since the eighth grade. After Ms. Ellison was admitted to Harvard, the family decided, reluctantly, that Mrs. Ellison would temporarily leave her husband and teenage son in Stony Brook, N.Y., and move into a dormitory suite with her daughter." That's the Surprising Twist.

    Questions as to the appropriateness of this (would you want your mom hanging with you in college?) never come up. Discussions about Ellison hiring her own attendant never arise.

    Harvard, "which costs more than $30,000 a year, made herculean efforts to ensure that she would attend. The university provided her with scholarships not only to supplement her father's salary as an administrator in a Social Security office but also to pay for her costly medical needs." The fact that the school is legally bound to accommodate Ellison's disability never comes up.

    Ellison, we're told, idolizes Christopher Reeve, her hero.It figures. The story is so much cliche, from Cripple Saddened By Loss to Courageous Overcomer to Inspiration To All, that it's likely her agent packaged the entire thing.

    Flattery will get you . . . into Harvard?

    Couric: And no one counted on her getting into Harvard. In fact, Harvard really jumped through hoops to figure out a way to accommodate her. And that was very flattering.

    Ellison: "I was so flattered and so stunned that ... that they would really go to the lengths that they had gone to in order to get me here.

    In fact, not only was Harvard extremely generous with financial aid, it also provided a van to shuttle her to classes, concerts, and campus events. Harvard even renovated a dorm room to accommodate her medical and physical needs. . ."

    NBC Nightly News, June 8

    Neither NBC's Katic Couric nor Brooke Ellison seemed to understand "that, by law, Harvard was required to accommodate her," says the Disability News Service's Leye Jeannette Chrzanowski, who added that the interview "came across as though the University had done her a favor by making accommodations for her.

    "All Harvard programs, services, and facilities should have been accessible to people with disabilities years ago," said Chrzanowski.


    Saddened by loss

  • "Ms. Ellison conceded that she does have moments of sadness, particularly when her sleep is interrupted by dreams of the dance classes that were her childhood passion. (A poster in her dorm room, brought from home, showed five pint-size ballerinas at a dance bar, the middle girl desperately trying to stretch to reach as high as the other four.)"
  • Courageous

  • Fellow student Neil Holzapfer "was struck by the courage that it would take for her to be in this kind of atmosphere, which is stressful and intense under the best conditionsŠ"
  • An inspiration:

  • "Kevin Davis, a retired Cambridge police detective who would often drive Ms. Ellison to class, said: 'Brooke's captured my heart. It's inspiring to know a person of her character.'"

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