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Christopher Reeve, rest in peace

by Mary Johnson

Christopher Reeve has died at age 52. Reeve fell into a coma Saturday after going into cardiac arrest, said an early Associated Press story. Like many quadriplegics, he was dealing with a difficult pressure sore.

Becoming a quadriplegic after a fall off a horse in 1995, he became "the most famous disabled person after Roosevelt." To the public, Christopher Reeve symbolized the "fight for cure" -- recently he was known for his support of embryonic stem-cell research.

In his most famous role prior to becoming disabled, he had played Superman.

Reeve's appearances on our website were in bit parts. He never really got a role of his own with us. He was too clearly able to play the role of prototypical crip celebrity who ignores disability rights in favor of mouthing the cliches so dear to the public. And so we missed no chance to shine the spotlight on him in just that role.

In my book, Make Them Go Away, he had a major role, but he was cast to type once again: "In focusing on cure," I wrote, "Reeve sanctioned a belief the American public already held: that a disabled person's defining problem is that his body is not 'whole'; that what he needs -- the only thing he needs, really -- is to be cured. That without this cure, things will never truly be all right for a disabled person. For this is the message one sends when one pushes for cure to the exclusion of rights and access."

No, we never got to meet the man, never sought an interview. Sam Maddox, then of New Mobility magazine, seemed to get the closest anyone could have come to getting Reeve to articulate his true feelings about disability rights. "People say to me, 'why don't you give up on that [cure business] and work for better conditions for people with disabilities? Work harder for the ADA, bring up people on charges who fail to meet the [access] codes?' " he told Maddox. "I can't do both effectively, in my opinion."

The National Organization on Disability named him to its board; for them, Reeve served as a spokesperson for things beyond research into spinal cord injury. But even at this he seemed to stay away from disability rights, from talk about the lack of access and accommodation faced by disabled people in the U.S.

I remember once having a frank discussion with N.O.D.'s communications director about that. The truth was, he said, that Reeve did speak about disability rights. But those parts of his speeches rarely got any coverage. The media, he said, wanted to hear about spinal cord research (and later, stem cells), not disability rights. I suspect that is true.

Many disability activists remained convinced that in time, Reeve would embrace the cause of access and accommodation.

We are awaking today to a week in which we will read and hear all sorts of encomiums to Christopher Reeve the actor, the brave man who kept on in the face of tragedy, the man who became an icon for stem cell research.

What we will not hear are tributes to the man who changed America's understanding of disability discrimination, who put a face on the problems this country causes wheelchair users by the persistent denials of access and accommodation.

Had he lived, Chris Reeve might one day still have come to symbolize to the American public the fight millions of us must wage in order to get out of institutions, into homes of our own, into jobs, into the public environment. Many of us wanted to believe he would someday embrace the rights issue much as he had embraced, as a nondisabled man, many progressive causes. He had worked for imprisoned South American writers. He'd fought to stop a coal-burning power plant in Albany, N.Y. He'd helped Vice President Al Gore clean up a beach.

Christopher Reeve, rest in peace.

From Ragged Edge Online:

Dream Sequence (essay)

Christopher Reeve's controversial Super Bowl "walking" ad

Christopher Reeve meets the D.R. Nation

Wishing for Kryptonite

From Make Them Go Away:

Clint Eastwood and Christopher Reeve (excerpt)

Posted Oct. 11, 2004

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge. Her most recent book is Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights.

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