THE NEW (or maybe not-so-new) APARTHEID

I first met Kiwi Katie about four years ago, when I was still using my legs and she had just started using a wheelchair.  The Citizens’ Information Board was conducting research into the housing needs of people with disabilities, and this was their final focus group: one which actually included a few people with disabilities.

Katie caught my eye – or more accurately, my ear – as another articulate, young and motivated person with disabilities.  It was something of a relief not to be the only person talking in the room.

We finally got a smoke break, and Katie and I got to talking.  At some point in the conversation, she described the experience of using a wheelchair as “apartheid”.  I was shocked.  It’s a very loaded term, especially for those of us who witnessed the release of Nelson Mandela with joy.

But Katie went on: “I can’t go in the front door – I’m sent around to the servants’ entrance.  Our toilets are segregated.  I can’t use the mainstream bus service.  I can’t get onto a college campus or into an employer’s business premises.”  And I saw, to my horror, that she was right.

 

The parallels between the experiences of people with disabilities and people living in an ethnically segregated regime were deliciously demonstrated for me in an unexpected form.  “Better Off Ted” is one of those rare, witty, intelligent, satirical US sit-coms – and yes, it got cancelled after only 2 series.  The “sit” of this particular “com” is a department of a massive and sinister multinational corporation, “Veridian Dynamics”, and the characters work in research and development and product testing – from cow-free beef (“the meat-blob”) to weaponised pumpkins via glow-in-the-dark squirrels.


*** SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! ALERT! THERE’S A SPOILER COMING! ***

 

In one episode, “Racial Sensitivity”, one of our scientist buddies finds things in the lab mysteriously turning themselves off and on.  He tries to activate the motion sensors which control the lighting, then the doors, the toilets, drinking fountains, the lift… all to no avail.  The heroic Ted (his boss) goes to find out from Veronica (Ted’s boss) what’s going on.

The answer turns out to be that the company has upgraded all the systems in the building from being motion activated to being light activated; specifically, light reflected off human skin.  This means “it doesn’t see black people”, which Veronica is told by her superiors is a positive thing, since it sees Asians, Hispanics and Jews.

Rather than reverting to the old system, the company starts to install “Manual Drinking Fountains: For Black Employees Only”and the like.  Our scientist buddy at the centre of this says; “Thank God we don’t have a company bus”.

Their next attempt is to employ a bunch of minimum-waged white guys to follow every black employee around to “activate stuff” for them.  But Human Resources is concerned that this is discriminatory recruitment practice, so they’ll need to hire another black guy to follow the white guy who’s following the black employee, then the second black employee will need another white guy to follow him, and so on ad infinitum.  The case is finally made to the company bosses that they simply didn’t have the parking to employ every human being on the planet by 2012, and the old motion detectors are reinstalled.

 

The experiences of the black characters in this episode finding themselves unable to open doors, turn on the lights or use the lift are instantly recognisable to a lot of people with disabilities.  It even follows the parallel “solutions” of installing separate facilities for us, or of employing “normal” people to bridge that gap for us.  When the central character in these events (Lem) decides he’s had enough of this segregation, he says to his colleague, Phil: “I still have my dignity! Now will you please come with me so I can use the toilet!”  Sound familiar, fellow mutants?

 

This may be quite a convoluted way of making a point, but I think it’s a good exercise in context, perspective and humour.  It is valid to describe the supports and services and basic amenities available to people with disabilities as “apartheid”, and it is also valid that this is schocking.  So it should be.  I have no idea whether the writers of “Better Off Ted” had any thought in their head about disability rights issues, but they have nonetheless created a challenging, effective and funny picture of what it takes for person with disabilities to do those “simple” things that others take for granted, be it using a toilet or walking through the front door.

HIDDEN HEROES: Are you a Secret Superhero?

Do you have a secret identity hidden from friends and family?  Do you have talents and abilities that seem almost supernatural to others?  Do you fight for social justice and dream of a fairer world?  If your answer is “yes” to any of those questions, you might be a superhero and not realise it!

In the quest for positive images of disability in culture and the media, one might not think to look in the genre of superhero movies and comic books.  Yet here is where we find characters such as Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men, who is a wheelchair user with extensive mental powers; and Dare-Devil, blind lawyer by day, vigilante crime-fighter by night.  It is easy to recognise these characters as having visible and recognised disabilities, but there is more to it than that.

The social model of disability (as opposed to the medical model) claims that disability arises from the failure of mainstream society to incorporate physical, sensory and intellectual diversity within its structures.  If the structures and institutions of society were designed differently, people who now have disabilities could be integrated into the mainstream without being at a disadvantage.  Superheroes live outside of mainstream society because their physical differences – flight, invisibility, telepathy, quick reflexes – are too far from social “norms” to be an integral part of the community.  For this reason, most superheroes have a secret “normal” identity with which they interact according to social expectations, and their secret superhero identity, where they can use their talents and skills to benefit society without that self-same society being aware of it.

Many people with disabilities with whom I have spoken feel a division or split in their persona, demonstrating to one part of society their disability and needs for support, while simultaneously demonstrating to others their independence and capabilities.  As a visually impaired person, I catch myself sometimes putting on an act of being “blind” – not making eye contact, very deliberately navigating by touch – so that people around me will be aware of my visual impairment without accusing me of “faking it”.  At other times, I find myself utterly belittling my disability to demonstrate that I am a capable, talented person; to show to others who I am without them becoming fixated on a white cane or guide dog.  The same is true of Dare-Devil (played by Ben Affleck in the movie), who uses a white cane for mobility when he is plain old Matt Murdoch, the lawyer, but who leaps from building to building using touch and hearing to fight crime by night.  Despite the chilché of those with sensory disabilities having almost super-human powers in their other senses to compensate, I have to admit that others often find the acuity of my hearing uncanny.  As if that weren’t enough, the same genetic condition that reduces my vision and makes me hypersensitive to pain, also gives me a hyperacuity in other senses.  Until today, when this subject was raised, I did not think it extraordinary  that I can smell cancer.  I can see how this ability might seem supernatural to others.

Superhero personae, as well as those of super-villains, are often created through trauma and accident – the Joker’s accident at a chemical factory, Batman’s witnessing his parents’ murder, inspiring a drive for vengeance.  However, it can just as often be a genetic mutation – the X-Men are all mutants shunned from mainstream society, the TV series “Heroes” where genetic mutations cause a number of “powers” to manifest.  It is particularly interesting to note that a character such as Daphne from “Heroes” develops a superpower (she can run mind-numbingly fast) in contrast to a pre-existing condition of cerebral palsy.  The film “Unbreakable” by M. Knight Shyamalan, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis, revolves around Jackson’s character, nicknamed “Mr. Glass”, seeking out and encouraging Willis’ character, who has never been sick a day in his life.  Mr. Glass was born with ostegenesis imperfecta, giving him brittle bones and limiting his physical life.  Being a fan of comic books, he believes there must be someone out there with an “opposite” condition to his own.  He pushes the “unbreakable”, super-strong Willis into taking a super-hero crime-fighting role, allowing Mr. Glass to assume the position of “super-villian”.  This film quite clearly shows how the medical model of didsability has pushed Mr. Glass’ character into a bitter and resentful pursuit of life: unfortunately, quite a common “super-villain” origin story.

Another aspect of the superhero myth with which people with disabilities can identify is the realm of bionic implants and prosthetics.  The X-Men’s Wolverine has an implanted skeleton of adamantium which gives him inbuilt claw-like weapons; Batman’s love for gadgets and gismos is well-known; and Robocop is brought back from the edge of death by being fitted with a range of prosthetics and computerised implants that make him the ultimate crime-fighting machine.

So, does your wheelchair or prosthetic limb enable you to go faster than your flat-footed compadres?  Does your ability to interpret sound and have a 360° awareness of your surroundings mean that you know what’s going to happen before everyone else?  Does your unique way of understanding and perceiving the world around you enable you to come up with solutions that “normals” would never think of?  Your secret identity may be so secret that you don’t even know it yourself…