Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
Nov/Dec 1997

Electric Edge

Boiling over Soup

Chicken Soup
is pabulum

say disabled people
Reporting by Mary Johnson

People with disabilities need to know they are special, courageous, capable and have something to share with others," said Chicken Soup's' Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen in a message soliciting contributions.
"Not so," said activists. "Special is patronizing."

Live chicken

Businessman Jim Hasse, who has cerebral palsy, was so disturbed this past summer by the thrust of a proposed Chicken Soup book that he turned part of his Internet website into a bulletin board to solicit opinions from other disabled people. The new book was to be "for, by and about people with disabilities." Uh oh.

The original Chicken Soup books were harmless enough but became "less benign" when they "started targeting specific groups," said Hasse. The upcoming one would "likely perpetuate the tendency in society to define people who have disabilities by their differences."

"People who have disabilities can probably expect to receive a double whammy with this book" -- they'll be portrayed both as "different" and "special" -- "two stereotypes most of us are trying to overcome."

Through August and September, Hasse's discussion group buzzed. On one point virtually all participants agreed: "People with disabilities are often deemed courageous or heroic for simply living," as Sean Barrett put it.

"Thinking that I'm more 'special' than others just because I happen to have a disability is patronizing," Judy Kuster wrote, "and certainly should not be justification for another Chicken Soup book."

What's wrong with this picture?
"The best part of this project is that a portion of the proceeds of the book will go directly toward helping people with disabilities," said an informational page on the website of real estate agent Ralph Roberts, who has been putting his energy behind the effort. "Betcha ten to one they won't be funding any disability rights efforts," John Phillips said when he heard about it.. "Will their millions go toward fighting to get the Americans with Disabilities Act enforced? Will it go toward getting the attendant services bill through Congress? I'm not holding my breath." "They'll put their money into perpetuating some feel-good, do-nothing program," added Tom Leonard.

"What I keep working to overcome is sentimental crap like this that allows all those people out there to be amazed that I can even get up in the morning and brush my teeth -- while not hiring me for a minimum-wage job, although I've earned a Master's degree," wrote a respondent who told Hasse he was deaf and blind. Most disabled people, he added, were "fighting to be themselves, have accommodations and still get an equal opportunity. "

But these fights, he added, were not the ones the public applauded. "I betcha a million bucks they will pick out the most sappy stories in the world," the ones where people overcome their disabilities. . . ."

That's a safe bet. Samples that authors Jim Canfield and Mark Hansen provided on their website included one titled "Everybody Can Do Something" -- the story of Roger Crawford ,"born with no hands" and a "shrunken right foot and withered left leg" who nonetheless gamely intones that "my parents taught me I was only as handicapped as I wanted to be." The other, "Yes, You Can," is the story of "burned beyond recognition" W. Mitchell whose "positive mental attitude has earned him appearances on the 'Today Show' and 'Good Morning America' as well as feature articles in Parade, The New York Times and other publications." Yet another vignette praises the "refusal of total or full acceptance of one's disability."

"Great and inspiring stories encourage self esteem, promote a feeling of worthiness and help pave the way to success in life," say Chicken Soup authors. Nothing, say disability activists, could be further from the truth.


FDR and 'Jane'
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is perhaps the ultimate "overcomer" of this century. . . . [But] he had many social advantages. . . . He was born exceedingly wealthy. He had a fine education . . . and family which could and would support him. . . .

Contrast my friend Jane . . . [who] lives in a nursing home -- she'll never get out except in a pine box, though she aches for freedom. She was born with cerebral palsy. . . . She uses a manual wheelchair which she cannot push because Medicare was too cheap to replace her power chair when it wore out. She has little education, very little money, no real family and little hope.

You'll never see Jane in Chicken Soup because she would remind able-ist bigots of the shameful way they treat our people. The purpose of their sappy sentimentalism is to hide people like Jane behind a facade of 'overcomers.' [Yet] which is the more authentic experience of disability? Which story cries out for change -- and which functions to support the status quo?

The publication of [Chicken Soup's] sappy, sentimental hogwash will ... further marginalize and obscure Jane's reality ...

-- Carol Cleigh

Not for disabled people at all
"The flavor of these stories plays to the able-bodied," wrote a perceptive Bobby G. Greer. He wasn't alone in his perception. Carol Cleigh won the contest Hasse sponsored on his website by discussing "the function such stories have outside the community of persons with disabilities."

Despite its subtitle -- "by, for and about persons with disabilities," the Chicken Soup industry's latest venture, wrote Cleigh, "isn't really about people with disabilities at all. It's really just a way to make "bigots feel good about themselves while they discriminate against us. They are allowed to think, 'well, we must not be treating them too badly because some of them are successful,' and 'why don't all of those people overcome obstacles as some have done?'

"This is not unlike men who wrote about the 'woman problem' earlier in this century" -- or, she could have added, whites who talked about providing " 'uplift' for the Negro."

The book would neither "help or empower us," she continued, but would harm the cause of people with disabilities by reinforcing the "perceptions that our differences from 'the norm' are 'the problem' and what we 'need' is to be 'fixed' or encouraged to courageously 'overcome.' " Cleigh termed this "pure, able-ist drivel which serves to mystify 'the problem.'" The real problem, she said, was "discrimination.

"There is no reason that public buildings, housing, transit, grocery stores and theaters should not be accessible. Disabilities are nothing new. Nondisabled people build the world so we cannot enter. . . What's at stake here is whether we are a minority group facing discrimination or a collection of 'unfortunate' individuals."

Sharon Campbell struck a similar theme. Nondisabled people reading this book "need to see how they can make changes in their actions and attitudes so we don't have so darn much to overcome."

Bowl of soup

A new definition of 'inspiring'
"I guess there probably won't be an examination of the prejudices of [nondisabled] people; that probably won't be inspirational," wrote Anne MacClellan. "If the editors of this book want inspirational stories I'd like to see them focus on some of [those who] campaigned to change laws and attitudes."

The authors of Chicken Soup had no concept of what could really inspire disabled people: that was the message of many who participated in Hasse's forum. Susan Ludwig thought that the new Chicken Soup book, as now conceived, would merely "isolate people from one another."

Many people worked to explain in their messages that disabled people were hungering not for sappy sentimentality but for the power of the disability community itself.


'Just to see what they'd do ... '
Chicken Soup is going to reinforce the idea that my disability is a personal difficulty that somehow I've managed to surmount, instead of a complicated web of ... physical and social customs that seem almost designed to shut me out. ...

I've submitted substandard work to people just to see what they'd do, and had them rave about it ... what I [actually] do doesn't matter at all to so many people. My worth to them is dependent only on some myth they have; I myself and what I do are irrelevant ...

-- Cal Montgomery

The real kind of "inspirational" stories disabled people needed, one wrote, were ones that told them they could have power to break down the social and physical barriers that society put in their way -- that this was what the disability rights movement was all about.

The "real story," wrote Deborah Kaplan, was about "what has happened to our lives and our images of ourselves through our connections" with other disabled people.

"We see through each other's b.s.," she wrote, and we "recognize the commonalties of living with a disability. We can be honest with each other without worrying about how the other person will interpret our disability experience."

Though it was difficult to use the word, she added, "we truly 'inspire' each other by reminding ourselves that we are not alone, that we do not have to handle all this stuff all alone.

"What we have in common is the cultural context of disability. I have had the same experience with other disabled people from all over the world. We are treated poorly everywhere -- and we can support each other."

"I wanna hear a story 'bout a teenager who holds a sit-in with her disabled and non-disabled friends to get an elevator fixed," wrote Michael Michaelangelo. "Let's write about real crips in a real world."

"We need a story about the disability community ," Kaplan continued, "-- about how it feels to know you are not alone, and that there are other cheeky, sarcastic, powerful, witty, wise disabled people to share this life with."

In many ways, Hasse's discussion group accomplished exactly what Chicken Soup authors said they wanted (but apparently have no real idea of how to do). " Thank you for the effort you are making to draw members of the [disability] community together," Ludwig wrote Hasse. "If Chicken Soup did nothing else, at least it did this."

Something was wrong

-- Jim Hasse

Reader's Digest subscribers may like Chicken Soup books, but don't try to warm it over and serve it to people who have disabilities. Chicken Soup stories are written and selected according to a very rigid problem-triumph-lesson formula that seldom reflects reality and is inherently sentimental. Their sentimentalism tends to reinforce the stereotypes we all have about one another. Feeding stereotypes further divides us. It does not bring us together."

When Jim Hasse, a Barbaroo, Wisconsin businessman with 32 years of experience in corporate communications, checked out the website being used by authors of the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series to solicit stories for their new book, Hasse felt offended, but at first he didn't know why.


Chicken Soup editors
  • don't use stories that show how "special" disabled people are.
  • don't pick stories of people who "overcome disability" by hiding it.
  • do recognize that your format plays to nondisabled sentimentality.
  • do tell stories of disabled people fighting for rights and access.
  • do show readers how they can make changes in their actions and attitudes "so that people with disabilities don't have so darn much to overcome."
  • do tell stories about the activist disability community, about common bonds disabled people share.

  • After thinking about what such a book would mean to him, born with cerebral palsy, he wrote a letter to Chicken Soup authors expressing his concerns. Hearing no response, and not convinced the Chicken Soup authors would thicken the pot, Hasse used a discussion forum on his own website to establish a dialogue among those with disabilities and those without about presumptions Chicken Soup authors need to avoid in the stories they select for publication. His Website now contains a summary of the discussion forum's results.

    Hasse promised to award $50 out of his own pocket to the person who posted, in his opinion, the best advice for the authors in terms of usefulness, originality and conciseness. He also offered a complimentary copy of his book to two other individuals who posted the most useful advise for the authors. In 1996, Hasse self-published Break Out: Finding Freedom When You Don't Quite Fit The Mold, a memoir of 51 true stories, each illustrating a turning point in his understanding about what it means to be presumed different in the U.S. and abroad.

    The $50 recipient, W. Carol Cleigh, summarized her August 20 posting this way: "The only real purpose of such a 'Chicken Soup' book is to perpetuate and re-inscribe able-ism."

    Jim Hasse can be reached by e-mail at: JHASSE@JVLNET.COM or by fax at 608/356-3797.


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