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Issue 4

Media Edge




Mainstreaming ourselves

By Jennifer Burnett

"I've already mainstreamed myself," Dan Keplinger told a crowded auditorium at the TASH annual conference last November.

I thought about those words again and again during the conference, and they have stayed with me ever since. What did Keplinger mean? What is the significance of that phrase for a broader disability community? How could the disability rights movement benefit from this curious statement?

What Keplinger was getting at when he made the statement is that he is already known to the mainstream public. He has achieved this through his work and through the media. The theme of the TASH conference was "Imaging the Future"; Keplinger's opening keynote helped shape that theme as he talked about the role of media and advertising in changing a public image of people with disabilities. Also known as King Gimp, Dan Keplinger has indeed mainstreamed himself.

Keplinger's achievement as an artist may have helped him get noticed by the media, but becoming mainstreamed takes an ongoing effort. His acclaimed artwork can be viewed in a gallery in SoHo. Many of us have seen him on television. He wrote and starred in the 1999 Academy Award winning short documentary "King Gimp," broadcast on PBS in 2000. In January 2001, Keplinger was part of the Super Bowl advertising frenzy, playing himself in a stunning Cingular ad about self-expression. He admires Cingular, he says, for stepping outside the box, for not dwelling on the disability. For showing him as himself -- an artist. "What I especially liked was the message of the commercial," said Keplinger, "and that I, as an artist, had been cast to symbolize self expression."

Dan Keplinger's "I've already mainstreamed myself" was an affirmation of an idea that has been with me for a long time and a message I often find myself repeating: The media is a means for getting out a message. And the relationship between the disability community and the media is of critical importance.

In his speech, Keplinger pointed to examples of the media finally getting it right. He acknowledged that people with disabilities are more realistically portrayed, in films like My Left Foot and Waterdance. "Their lives had texture and adventure, but more so," said Keplinger. "The media is finally allowing us to be the complex human beings we already are." Keplinger speaks from experience when he makes that statement.

We've all heard media horror stories of truly offensive language being used in an article, of a reporter hung up on the courageous or the pitiful, of an editor convinced she'd be better off dead than disabled. For some of us, a bad media experience may be enough to convince us not to waste precious time and energy in an effort that may seem fruitless and even damaging to our efforts.

Yet there are those who, like Keplinger, are slowly and persistently shaping the way that their local media reports on disability, and they are seeing results. The results can have an impact far beyond the scope of what we can do individually. We are reaching a mass audience with a message of the disability experience that we own.

While it is easy to complain when we see a TV show or film that portrays a negative disability stereotype, or read an article in the newspaper that describes disability in a medical model context, complaining gets us nowhere. It's negative, unproductive and useless, unless the complaint is made to those responsible for the offensive coverage. And there the complaint will have a greater impact if it is used as an opportunity to educate.

"I think the press is ready to forego preconceived ideas about disability," says Keplinger. "We must guide them on a personal level, and each of us can help. Make sure the reporter is doing things you want, and talking to you -- not around you." Although there are plenty of people who work in the entertainment and news media industries who don't get it yet, we must acknowledge our role in helping them change.

"I've already mainstreamed myself." Think about it. If you care about how the general public perceives you, how they view who you are, maybe mainstreaming yourself is a route you should take.

What does it involve, how can I do it? There are a number of things we can do to get the word out using the media, and many of us already do them. The press release, calling and notifying media about events, and feeding reporters and editors story ideas are all tools we can use. But we must be vigilant about making sure the press is doing what we want. We must be vigilant to avoid framing our issue in a manner that can do more harm than good.

When you mainstream yourself, you go out of your way to give the press your stories. Participate in a march, work with a restaurant to get a ramp, force the city to install a curbcut, transition someone from a nursing home to the community: these are all newsworthy stories. But unless you are feeding them to the media, they are stories that will only be known to a select few: the people you work with or those directly involved in your efforts.

If you are regularly contacting the media with your story ideas, leads, and scoops, you will naturally begin to develop a relationship with a reporter who may be assigned to cover the disability "beat." This will put you in a position to guide their vision, which can have some powerful results. You provide information on preferred language, and illustrate the difference between framing the story in the medical model vs. civil rights. You educate them about talking to you, not around you. They turn to you, instead of an organization that speaks about cure and espouses pity. You become a source.

If there were a source in every community, someone who was regularly framing disability rights as civil rights, someone who was consistently putting forth a message of Real Choice in where people receive services, the American public would have a far different view of disability than it does today.

DAN KEPLINGER is represented by the Phyllis Kind Gallery, 136 Greene Street, New York 10012 (212-925-1200,212-941-7841 fax) http://www.phylliskindgallery.com/. Dan Keplinger's own website is at http://users.erols.com/kinggimp/ -- there's information on his site on how to order the documentary "King Gimp."

Jennifer Burnett is a writer and advocate who promotes using the media as a tool for awareness and change.

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