« Third-world America | Ragged Edge Home | The ECBloggerArchives Home | Nursing home hubris in Louisiana »

September 05, 2005

Seeing in pictures

For days now we have been seeing the pictures of Katrina's wake. They like to home in on the folks in wheelchairs -- makes a better visual, y'know. Or the people on stretchers. What we see and what we don't see is the subject of today's somber blog, in which your Desperate Blogger is going to attempt to tie in Katrina victims and government malfeasance (why not? everybody else is doing that; so I sort of have to)... tie those into the John Roberts confirmation hearings and the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and probably something else before I'm done here. Oh yes, of course: Labor Day. How could I forget?

For me, all of these things come down, in the end, to a matter of seeing the pictures. Or rather, how we see the pictures. What we see in them, and what we see isn't in them. And that's where we, dear blog readers, have the advantage here.

Let's start with the big Easy one: Katrina. In image after image we see the wheelchairs, the gurneys, the people in hospital gowns. Leaving behind my immediate reaction, which is, always, why do they make people wear those godawful gowns with the open backsides that reduce one to the lowest level of patient, exposed what we see, what we seem fascinated with, unable to quit seeing, are the victims . The Washington Post's Lynne Duke and Teresa Wiltz put it like this yesterday:

They are the Other, these victims of Katrina.
And in this country, the Other is black. Poor. Desperate.

We saw them stuck there in Dante's seventh circle of hell, the Superdome, stuck amid the piles of garbage. Next we saw images of them being lifted out of their wheelchairs onto buses. The stories and the images have now shifted to the people in wheelchairs arriving in distant states where the kindhearted were making room for them. Always the pictures we see have people in wheelchairs.

The pictures we don't see: where are the accessible buses? Those of us who know about such things wonder about the access of the places these folks are going; the places they have come from. We see the phrases in the articles about people from "hospitals, nursing homes and group homes." That too is a picture, a word picture. Where did these people live, we wonder? Surely not all in institutions, although Louisiana is among the worst in the country for refusing to let people who need assistance with stuff live anywhere other than a nursing home.

The recriminations give us a picture, too: the ones left behind, say the voices behind the pointing fingers, were poor, black. We get lots of racial handwringing, because this kind of stuff is always racial, the fingerpointers say. And they're right.

But we can see that people are not seeing the whole picture.

Cutting a wide swatch through it is the image of disability. What we do not do for our disabled citizens is there in the picture, plain as day, if you can only see it.

It's like that elephant-in-the-living-room image that nobody ever sees either.

The people who couldn't get out by and large were the ones who can't afford transportation, they say. Yes -- and people who have disabilities have listed "transportation" as their number-one problem for decades. Well before the laws were passed, well after they were passed. ADAPT created the first direct-action crip movement over the right to ride the buses and the Americans with Disabiltites Act mandates lifts on buses, paratransit systems. Paratransit everywhere is worse than terrible. Where, one might have asked about Katrina, were the accessible, lift-equipped city buses to take people away? Do they not exist? Were they not used? I haven't seen any stories of that.

Because, of course, people look at the people in wheelchairs and "wheelchair accessible" transportation is not what springs to their minds. Nor di "wheelchair accessible" hotels and shelters spring to mind, either. It's not ever -- hardly ever -- part of any of those pictures. It's not in anyone's minds, usually, except ours.

Now that I've laid that out, you can see where I'm going with it. It's not so simple to say that disabled people are not in the Katrina pictures, for they're often front and center in them. What I'm looking at is how they're in there, and what those images mean to viewers, how they serve viewers. Mainly people in wheelchairs or on gurneys signal "sick." (I have not seen any photos of refugees signing, or refugees with canes or guide dogs).

When I got involved in disability rights (note that word: "rights") three decades ago, one of the first lessons I was taught was that people with disabilities were by and large no sicker than anyone else. But that may not be a true lesson. Maybe what's more accurate is that those people who make up the group people still think of as "the handicapped" -- the ones who go to special schools and work in sheltered workshops and live in group homes -- they're not sicker than the general population -- but they're a "special" population.

In general, though, the thing the activists in the 70s and 80s pounded into me -- that "disabled" doesn't signal "sick" -- is a concept that has never made it beyond our tiny circle.

What I see in the pictures tells me that we're still stuck with those images, those realities, despite all the fine talk about rights and access that those of us in the crip movement do so much of. Nothing perhaps more telling than the lead story in Saturday's New York Times, when N.R. Kleinfield (and his editors) raised "wheelchair bound" to new heights with their rows of people on stretchers and others bound to wheelchairs (emphasis mine). NYT reporters James Dao and N. R. Kleinfield both have their names in the byline, but I betcha that phrase comes from Kleinfield: His 1979 book, The Hidden Minority, A Profile of Handicapped Americans was one of the first I read on the subject, and I recall him really enjoying the emotional phrase when it came to disability. He should have learned better. He didn't.

And that may be the whole point of this blog: People should have learned better, but they haven't. We don't really look at images of disabled people down on their luck, whether with Katrina or any other images, and think first of "access denied" or "government forces people into nursing homes" -- in other words, we don't think of it the way we think of race. We think of those people as individual sick people, as victims. Movement folks always yell about "people first" stuff: well, we have that, really -- and that's about all we have. Those images are of people, first... but nothing about anything beyond individual people. And for any movement to be successful, for the larger issues to get into people's awareness, you've got to have something beyond "people, first."

We may or may not like the racial pontificating going on. Still, listen to how the arguments are framed. And notice that any discussion of the pictures with the people in wheelchairs does not to lead to any similar kinds of discussion about the government's malfeasance regarding accessible hotels, shelters, buses, planes....

Gimps are in the pictures, but as individual victims. There's nothing about a "minority" or a "movement" to be known from these pictures.

To me, it looked like the same kind of thing when I read the list of witnesses the Democrats plan to call on to testify at John Roberts's Supreme Court nomination hearings. These three in the list of witnesses jumped out at me:

Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center and a leading authority on sex discrimination and the law.

Wade Henderson , executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and an authority on a variety of civil rights, civil liberties and human rights issues. ...

Beverly L. Jones, a court reporter from Lafayette, Tenn., who had to use a wheelchair and successfully sued Tennessee under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Do you spot anything different about the picture of the disability witness? Sure: she's testifying about her own personal situation. The others, we assume, will be testifying about the public issue their organization focuses on.

Maybe the fact that Beverly Jones is telling her story will be far more powerful than Greenberger's and Henderson's recitation of cases and precedents. Still, one could say that with the first two we'll be seeing the forest, and with Jones, Senators -- and the nation -- may be able to get away with seeing only a tree.
The New York Times editorial yesterday (Sunday) was back to what's more typical. In their list of the things they were urging the senators to be sure to quiz Judge Roberts on, disability rights was nowhere in the picture. I've beaten this issue about all I'm going to beat it -- and I wouldn't have brought it up here, except that it fits so appropriately into this blog entry. It didn't surprise me. But I did notice what wasn't in the picture. And the point I'm making isn't so much that it wasn't in the New York Times editorial as that it wasn't in the editorial writers' thoughts -- just like it's usually not in most people's thoughts. That's really the point I'm making.

Which actually gets us around to Labor Day: it is probably belaboring things by now to say that disabled people by and large still aren't in our nation's employment picture. Few in America outside the disability movement really expect them to be, either. I'm not sure which is sadder -- that they aren't there, or that nobody really expects them to be there. Remember the pictures from Katrina's wake: nobody would expect those folks in the wheelchairs to have jobs, certainly.

The Jerry Lewis telethon is still going on today. Jerry got himself in the news this year by announcing that the Telethon would also collect money for folks in Katrina's wake. Is there anything to that picture that we need to look at? Maybe.
The administration is being chastised on the blogs today for using foot-in-mouth Pat Robertson to raise funds for Katrina relief. That's because there's diversity of opinion about Robertson, fueled by his recent comments about

Of course Jerry has said a lot of stuff too. But even a lot of crips see only good in Jerry.
COMMENT-BODY:This was said better than I ever could, though I've tried. Thank you for this, and putting better words to what I've been thinking and feeling.

~I think "bound to wheelchairs" may be meant to be an explicit description. It appears that New Orleans considerable gang problem made it into the Superdome and the Coliseum. The best way to make sure a wheelchair did not get stolen may have been to literally strap the user in.

~I've been saying on other sites that I saw more people in wheelchairs in the coverage than I did looters. The other demographic that really stood out was the number of babies and small children. I'm going to guess they made up at least 10 percent of the people in the Superdome and Coliseum. But, for the people eager to blame the victims particularly, the babies are invisible. Why?

~I did see one feature that gave more than a passing look at a disabled evacuee. But, it was about the bravery of the Coast Guard rescuer who used an axe to cut a hole in the paraplegic's roof so he could be extricated. I haven't seen any people in wheelchairs, blind or deaf interviewed.

~I think that images of death may have overwhelmed images of disability. When people see bodies lying in the street and floating in the river, that makes more of an impression than anything else.

~I suspect that many liberal groups are not going all out for the Roberts' hearings because his confirmation is virtually assured. Short of him being photograped buggering Bush, nothing is going to stop it.

Posted by mjohnson at September 5, 2005 10:03 AM