The first time I saw Christopher Reeve in person was at opening ceremonies for the 1996 Paralympics. It had been just over a year since his injury. He spoke about courage. Two weeks later, speaking at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, his speech was about Cure, "equating the regeneration of nerve cells with putting a man on the moon," as David Mitchell reported in Ragged Edge back then.
Reeve's Paralympics speech was possibly the last he made in which the focus wasn't on Cure.
Due to his fame, Reeve is invited to speak at many forums from which people with disabilities have been historically excluded. Last March's Bio2000 -- the International Biotechnology Conference -- was one such venue. What would Reeve tell this scientific group, I wondered?
Earlier that year, Reeve had told reporters that he was undergoing a therapy to wean him off his ventilator. And reports had just come out that a European group had managed to implant electrodes to allow a person to "walk" So It made sense, I thought, for Reeve to address Bio2000; the devil would be in the details.
I expected Reeve, at this meeting of scientists, to talk about the vent reduction therapy. I expected him to at least comment on the European study that had made the news, given that he was addressing a scientific group.
But no. He gave the same generic speech he'd given countless times; the speech he gets a reported $80,000 to deliver. Nearly identical to his speech to the National Press Club last December, with many points the same as in his book, Still Me, the speech was a complete let-down.
Although he did not, as reported in both Boston papers, say "help me walk," he did compare the search for a cure to the race to walk on the moon, just as he had at the Democratic Convention four years earlier.. He urged his audience to focus on cure -- if for not him, for the children that were "facing a life in a chair."
He didn't address scientific research at all.
He didn't touch on any disability political or social issues, either. Yet to the 10,000 conference attendees -- and to the news media reporting on the event -- Reeve was billed as a "disabled activist"!
Reeve's background as an actor may have taught him how to be an "inspiring" speaker. But there are dozens of speakers in the disability community who can deliver far better commentary. Missing from Reeve's message is the point that, even if a "cure" is found, there will still be people using wheelchairs -- people who need better access to community supports and basic healthcare, access to educational and professional opportunities.
Although there are far better disability spokespersons than Reeve, Reeve played Superman on the Big Screen, so he has a bully pulpit. The media wants him to be "inspiring and courageous." After all, how could Superman want anything less than to walk again? And Reeve is happy, it seems, to have the media define him, letting his media persona drive his politics.