The media "don't get it" because we don't know what "it" is.
by Bill Bolt

Bill Bolt's writing has appeared in many publications. He can be contacted at billbolt@earthlink.net.

The reason that we disabled people do not like what we get from the media is that we do not know what we want -- not only from the media, but from society in general.

It is practically a cliche to indignantly proclaim "They don't get it," while never stating what "it" is. When we decide what "it" is, maybe we will get the messages back from the media that we want. But I wouldn't hang by my thumbs while waiting.

The problem is that our "its" are contradictory both because different disability groups want different images of themselves and because each disabled person has contradictory needs.

Those representing mentally retarded people seem to have the greatest range of contradictory demands. They want unlimited services and support funds, but they wish to portray MRs as just like everyone else, except maybe more lovable. If they are just like everyone else why do they need troops of counselors and attendants, oodles of funds to pay for constant supervision and expensive housing arrangements, and full-time job coaches?

The name that we've insisted on for ourselves -- the word "disabled" -- sends journalists into a tailspin. If we are "disabled," that is, "without abilities," then what is this demand for equal employment, journalists likely think. On the other hand, if we can work with only minimal special arrangements, then why do we need all kinds of government funds to live on?.

The truth is that our lives are contradictory, and our real needs are often purposely concealed from open view. In some situations we want to appear to have unlimited abilities. We do our able-bodied act. This act is called for in many situations, such as when we are seeking jobs, sex, love, companionship -- and sometimes when we are at the airport and fearful that some officious airline official will prevent us from boarding for some medical reason.

Yet when we must seek welfare benefits like SSI, the use of local paratransit, or even a disabled parking placard, we wish to be stamped as being as disabled as necessary to get the benefit. We keep our mouths shut about our abilities -- not so much out of dishonesty but out of the conviction that the non-disabled world has a black-and-white view of disability.

Either you are "very disabled" or "hardly disabled at all." The reason disabled people get mixed messages from the media is that we demand that the world get mixed messages from us: "we are lovable but pitiful" vs. "we are strong, smart and tough and can handle nearly any challenge." As long as few of us are independent, the mass of us dependent, the truly independent -- those of the small middle and upper class who can afford the goods and services that help them live a self-determined life -- will chronically bitch about portrayals of disabled people as dependent and helpless. Some of them should remember that without the sharp lawyer who portrayed them in their injury suit as helpless and dependent, they too would now be very dependent on government programs and need to continually promote an image of helplessness to assure that the funds continue to flow from the taxpayer to them.

As long as the financial, physical, and intellectual conditions falling under the rubric "the disabled" range so widely, any reporting on "the disabled" is sure to offend some large or influential group of us. As the term "the disabled" is extended to a wider and wider group, there will be even less agreement about what "it" is.

Part of the reason disability issues are avoided by reporters, editors and producers is that journalists can't figure out who "disabled people" are and what they want, why they want it, or why they should get what they want. Freud is said to have said about women "What do they want?" Freud would have needed a Freud to keep himself out of an asylum if he ever tried to figure out what "the disabled" want.

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