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Read My Dr. Phil Nightmare by Angela Gaggero.


  Hey, Phil, How's Discrimination Workin' For You?

by Cal Montgomery

"Discrimination towards those of us with mental illness is just as much a horrible act as discrimination towards people because of having AIDS or because of the color of their skin or their religion," says Neal David Sutz. And he's taking action to back his position up. Sutz is suing Phil McGraw, better known as TV's Dr. Phil.

When Sutz showed up to a taping of Dr. Phil's show last September 19, he says, he was asked to sign a studio audience release saying, among other things, that he's not mentally ill. That didn't go over too well.

photo of dr. phil There's a graphic of the release toward the bottom of Sutz's statement about what happened. It's got eight statements, covering things like pay (studio audience members don't get any) and editing (Paramount can use whatever footage it likes of the audience). Item 2, which is the one to which Sutz objects reads, "I represent that I do not suffer from a mental illness and am not currently under psychiatric care. I further acknowledge that Dr. Phil McGraw, the host of the Series, does not and will not administer individual, group or medical therapy; and his advice, opinions or statements should not be considered individual, group or medical therapy or a substitute or replacement for those therapies."

"Since I was not comfortable signing the release, for the reason that I have been successfully treated for a diagnosable mental illness (bipolar II disorder with ultra-ultra rapid cycling and mixed states - the most difficult form of bipolar disorder to treat), I asked one of the staff members if I could speak to someone regarding the waiver," says Sutz.

"The producer I spoke with indicated that I could go in to the show as I had hoped, on the condition that she and I would each initial [the mental illness statement] and then have me sign below on the signature line. I would also then, she said, have to not speak or communicate to Dr. Phil during the taping or interact in any manner with the taping of the show. In short, sit there, shut up and say nothing. She also said the reason for the statement was that Dr. Phil does not want to interfere in on-going therapy that someone with mental illness might be going through."

Sutz left the studio but not the struggle.

He argued first that "people do listen to his words and taken them as counseling," and then that the disclaimer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. And now he's suing..

This story should sound at least a little familiar to Ragged Edge readers: last fall we published a story about Dr. Phil allegedly discriminating against Angela Gaggero's friend, Shakeel, who, she wrote, "walks with canes, but . . . can climb stairs," and who Gaggero says was required to sit in the section reserved for disabled people -- which just coincidentally happened to be in a place where their view of the stage was obstructed and the they were invisible to the cameras. An amazing coincidence, that.

"You don't want the red carpet rolled out for you," Shakeel told Gaggero, "but you also don't want to suffer psychological and physical isolation, either."

Well, yeah. Dr. Phil has a PhD in psychology. He should definitely know that.

But let's face it, most of us have a guess as to why he seems not to. Mine is that he treats the environment as a given and encourages people to adopt strategies that'll help them navigate within it. He's big on personal responsibility and on changing people to fit the world; you don't hear him talk so much about changing the world to fit the people. "How's that workin' for you?" is one of his slogans, and if whatever we're doing isn't workin' for us, he thinks we ought to do something else.

Activists like Neal David Sutz don't take the environment as given. When they come up against something they don't think is right, they refuse to adapt themselves to it, and instead throw themselves into the fight to change it.

To that, I imagine Dr. Phil would offer up another of his slogans: "Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?" Let me counter with a Justin Dart slogan: "Justice for all."

Nearly-random book recommendation:
Sheila Gordon's Waiting For the Rain. This one's a novel about South Africa during apartheid, telling the story of two boys -- one black, one white, friends from early childhood -- as they grow up, first together and then apart, and as Frikkie defends the system in which he was raised and Tengo struggles against that very system. All too often criticisms of practices, policies, and acts which help to oppress people are pushed to the side as oppression becomes about whether the oppressors consciously choose to support oppression. Virtually no-one does (and even if they did, in a society without mindreaders they could quite easily lie about it), and oppressive systems are a problem no matter the state of mind of those who support those systems.

If we could adapt ourselves to a world in which we are pushed to the margins, physically like Shakeel or socially like Sutz, would we be happy? Maybe. There are plenty of disabled people who accept being pushed to the margins. But there are also plenty who don't.

On the other hand, Dr. Phil has a system that works for him -- and that allegedly includes an acceptance of a world that pushes disabled people to the margins. And if it works for him, why should he change?

That's where activists like Sutz and Shakeel can make a difference. Discrimination is already inconvenient (or worse) for the people against whom it is used; activists can make it inconvenient for the people who're using it. Discrimination is already unpleasant (or worse) for the people against whom it is used; activists can make it unpleasant for the people who're working it. Discrimination is already wrong; activists can make it unwise.

And we have to believe that they day will come when we can ask the Phil McGraws of the world, "How's discrimination workin' for you?" and they'll have to answer, "It's not working at all."

Posted August 9, 2004

"Hey," says Cal Montgomery, "you may not believe it, but activism really does work for me."

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