Monday, August 13, 2012

I'll Always be 'Before'

(Photo Description: poster of Josh Sundquist, paralympic athlete, showing 'before' and 'after'. Before standing, unsmiling and poorly groomed, on his one leg in boxer shorts with a typical build, after standing, smiling and well groomed, in gym shorts well defined and strongly muscled. Beneath the before and after photos is a caption reading 'Excuses Let's hear yours again.')

I've never liked these kinds of images, using disability to motivate those without disabilities. "If they can do it, why the hell can't you?" is the message here. The "they" are those without expectations, without drive or willpower, without hope or purpose ... the "you" is the privileged, the able, the valued. I think pictures like these serve the needs to those without disabilities not those with. 

But, what surprises me, is how early it begins.

We went to a playground with Ruby yesterday and we had a blast. Well, she did, I worried the whole time ... about falling, about tripping, about bruises and scrapes ... how do parents DO this?  Anyways, we were the only people there for the first ten or fifteen minutes and then a little girl came with her dad, we all greeted each other and then they went off in search of fun. Ruby climbed and got on these things that spun her around then laid down on this big ring that you pull up and then it rolls down. I'm not conversant in the terms for playground toys in this modern era - I grew up with swings and teeter totters, things far to retro for this playground.

What was cool was that everything there was something that was accessible for me to be the supervising and assisting adult. On one thing she stood and I was able to take hold of the pole she leaned against and get it twirling quickly. On another thing, I was able to pull the big ring up and then give it a shove so it circled down really fast. On the climbing thing, I was able to both help her up and help her down. Joe was there too, of course, but he was able to sit and watch awhile while I did some of the play part.

Ruby was on the thing that required me to pull her up so she could circle down, and the little girl was trying to get her Dad, who had taken a seat, to get up and help her on the pole swing around thing. He told her that she could do it and he could watch. In frustration she said, and she couldn't have been more than 4, "He's doing it and HE'S IN A WHEELCHAIR."



Are these messages about disability so deeply ingrained in our psyche that they just appear. I absolutely don't believe her mom or her dad sat her down and said "people with disabilities aren't expected to do very much and when they do something at all, you need to be really impressed and even inspired by it." But here she was scolding her dad with the sentiment that if that big guy in the wheelchair can do it, why can't you?

What on earth did the wheelchair have to do with me wanting to have fun with Ruby at the playground? Why did it need to be mentioned at all? Couldn't I just be the kind of person who likes making a kid laugh at a playground?

I'm not sure.

But I was disturbed by it.

How do you feel about "disability guilt" being used to motivate the non disabled?

I don't like it.

(Note, I have seen this everywhere, I don't know if there is a copyright involved, if so, the owner of the copyright need only contact me and I'll take the image down.)


Beth said...

I find it uncomfortable when an aspect of my life is used as an object lesson. Same when people do this to people with disabilities. When someone with disabilities does this with themselves, ala "You can achieve your goals because I'm disabled and I did x!", my thoughts are something like, "And your disability is relevant why?"

This kind of thing reminds me of the fabled amazing, inspirational super-cripple who, despite being confined to a wheelchair, manages to do mundane things like day-to-day errands. (My favorite one were the two older ladies who stopped me going into a discount store. "God bless you! Out all by yourself!") The experience you relate clearly shows the connection, I think. The little girl was only able to guilt her dad that way because you weren't supposed to be able to do such things, this to the extent that if you can, obviously anyone can. Yucky stuff.

Anonymous said...

I hate hate hate it. I feel my touch paper lit everytime people take another identity that is basically irrelevant to the argument and say well look at that identity, it strengthens our argument, and it SOOO doesn’t. Any of us can get fit or toned, or not, disability has nothing to do with it. And when people angry about disability say, if you replace it with the n word it would be completely unacceptable, or if you said that about gays it would be immediately taken down, well that also has nothing to do with it. Of course it doesn’t only happen with activism around disability, I see anti-homophobia campaigners say that you couldn’t say this about race or disability, and people challenging racism commenting that you couldn’t say this about gay people or disabled people. Please, can we just leave out identities that have nothing to do with to with the argument in question. I wanna say to the four year old, yes he’s using a wheelchair, and what’s that got to do with it? I think the four year old would stop and think about it. But if you ask the people who produced the odious inspirational poster, I guess they would promptly come out with some rubbish about triumphing over disability. I wonder how the guy pictured feels about this, and assuming I’m correct that he doesn’t endorse the use of his image in that way, then there is another example of exploitative consumption of other people’s experience. Which is what happens every time someone invokes identity that has nothing to do with the argument.
Fuse and explosion now burned out. Thanks for the space to have the rant!

Anonymous said...

I meant angry about disability issues. Oops. Angry body doesn’t type so well.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Dave (and commenters). I'm a person without a disability. I agree that the Jerry's kids type stuff is pretty offensive. This one struck me more for how it played into other cultural stereotypes (you can't be happy unless you're buff, much like the before & after diet photos).
A couple of weeks ago I was waiting to get into the ocean to do the swimming part of a triathlon. I was pretty anxious (the hardest thing for me about the ocean swim is not being able to see where I'm going) until I spoke with a blind swimmer who was looking for her guide. Although I can't say that I thought she was endowed with special skills or courage, I did think that if she was willing to get in there without being able to see at all, surely I could stop worrying about the opaque water. I don't know that I feel badly about that. It doesn't feel any different than seeing the ladies in their 70s finishing the race & hoping that I'll be able to do the same in 30 years. Do you think it is?

Beth said...

Anon 2, yes, I think it's different than seeing older people compete, in that one presumably actually has hopes of attaining such age and that one can work toward maintaining enough health to still be able to compete decades distant (though this work is no guarantee). In both these ways, age is much different than disability. Chances are that you do not, in fact, wish you had any disability (and people with disabilities usually don't wish they had more) and much if not most of disability just happens, with working to maintain health doing little to limit. The big difference is that you seek to be those spry older people, you don't seek to be a person with disabilities.

The blind swimmer... Let me get this straight, you "could stop worrying about the opaque water" because one swimmer has had a long time, perhaps all her life, to get used to not seeing well or maybe not seeing at all. That doesn't strike you as strange reasoning? And, by how you said here, you totally did the "if a person with disabilities will do it, I should be willing to, too!" thing. I wouldn't tell you how you should feel (who am I to do that?) but I hope you can recognize you did just this... and maybe examine your reasoning.

Ettina said...

I think the 'before' picture is more appealing, actually - the 'after' picture looks like he's taking steroids rather than just exercizing well.

Anonymous said...

Beth said it!
Re the blind person ‘I can’t say I thought she was endowed with any special skills’- in my experience, people with disabilities ARE endowed with all sorts of special skills, and endowed as in having spent much time passion and effort to develop these skills, facing the challenges of negotiating a world that renders them disabled. If you become disabled, I think you will find that other people with disabilities with have a boundless wealth of knowledge and skills that will be of benefit to you, whether or not you adopt the same skills as part of your repertoire.

CapriUni said...

Hate it, hate it, hate it... kill it with fire...

An online friend recently posted this link to an excellent article about this precise sort of "Inspiration Porn," and why it is so destructive, psychologically and socially: We are not here to be your inspiration (ABC --Ramp Up)

You know what I always notice about the "before" and "after" pictures (regardless of whether they're used to sell gym equipment, a diet plan, a new car, or a cosmetics kit)?

The "before" pictures are never smiling, and the "after" pictures always are. It's my hypothesis that a genuine smile in a "before" picture would eliminate nearly all the intended impact of the "after" picture.

But then again, smiles are free, and you can't drive a consumer- based economy with that kind of thinking...

Anonymous said...

Using "disability guilt" to motivate non-disabled people bugs me. People wouldn't do it nearly as much as they do if they didn't so often feel pity for us, or assume (often with no basis in fact or even logic) that having difficulty in one narrow specific area is somehow supposed to mean that we cannot do anything at all and are utterly helpless and incompetent at everything. Many of the things that surprise and impress people so much are not even relevant to disability in the first place. For example, someone else in this thread mentioned people being surprised that she could actually go out and about and run errands on her own without someone to babysit her all the time. But although there are some disabilities that really do require ongoing personal support, there are many disabilities for which this simply isn't needed, so there is no reason to be so impressed that a person who doesn't need ongoing support, surprise, manages to get along without ongoing support.

I think the "disability guilt" routine bothers me because it RELIES upon, and perhaps even reinforces, pitying attitudes and negative assumptions instead of challenging them.

I'm not saying that there aren't times when a person really does do something very well that their disability really does interfere with in some way. But 99% of the time, this isn't the case at all.

Part of the problem may be that many people cannot seem to grasp the difference in daily functioning for a person with a temporary injury versus a permanent disability. Many people have little experience with disability but usually do have experience with being temporarily unable to do certain things due to injury. But where people go wrong in trying to extrapolate from a temporary injury to a permanent disability is:

1. They forget that dealing with an injury may mean needing to not only compensate for missing abilities or functions but also taking care to avoid aggravating the injury in ways that wouldn't happen for a permanent disability. For example, some years ago, I experienced serious injury to most of my fingers. My thumbs were perfectly healthy, but because each thumb was immediately adjacent to the most seriously injured finger on each hand I still couldn't use them much because it was hard to use my healthy thumbs without bumping my poor injured finger on the objects I was trying to manipulate. Whereas if the fingers had simply been missing, or if they at least hadn't hurt so much at the time! Then I would have had much better use of my thumbs.

2. People fail to recognize that a person with a life long disability has had years to figure out coping mechanisms, whereas someone dealing with a temporary injury might have only a few months at most to learn these same skills. People with life-long disabilities also are more likely to be plugged into networks of people with similar disabilities, which gives them all sorts of opportunities for learning coping skills that someone with a temporary injury might not be able to figure out on their own.

3. People with permanent disabilities usually purchase all kinds of assistive devices that people with temporary injuries wouldn't bother to invest in. For example, people permanently incapable of typing can invest in speech recognition software to do most of their typing for them. But a person whose hands are only temporarily injured normally wouldn't have access to this software unless they work at a large organization that has already invested in this kind of software for use by other employees (as happened for my former boss some years ago). It's too expensive to invest in for something that will go away in a few days.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous stated 'I wonder how the guy pictured feels about this, and assuming I’m correct that he doesn’t endorse the use of his image in that way, then there is another example of exploitative consumption of other people’s experience.'

I was curious after reading this comment about the origin of the pictures. They are in fact from his own site:

Karen said...

I'm not sure the fact that this was on his website makes any difference at all. I don't like this kind of thing at all. I particularly hate the "if I can do it, you can do it" kind of motivational speech. You did it because you did it, I'm afraid that has very little to do with me.

Shan said...

Well, if it's on his website maybe HE feels that way? Maybe he thinks "If I can do it, with one leg, then the rest of you have no valid reason not to." Which makes a difference to the perception of him as a victim, but not to the offensiveness of the image to you, personally.

I get annoyed with this stuff too, although I can easily imagine a range of feelings on the subject. Mostly I think I'm annoyed because the whole impression is one of dismissiveness - I myself am "able-bodied" therefore nothing should stop me being an Olympian.

Screw that. PLENTY of things can stop me, and I have a right to be as out of shape as I want to be, just like he has the right to be as IN shape as he wants to be.

Anonymous said...

As to the photo - it doesn't bother me - the saying does - but the photo doesn't. Good on him - good on anybody who can be disciplined in anything - piano, art, running - whatever. No doubt the fellow made money from his endeavours - and isn't that part of what we like to promote - self-sufficiency?!?!? If we cannot have some pride in our accomplishments - then - well we might as well cancel the para-olympics - why acknowlege anything?

As to the little girl - it is a little girl. A little girl who wanted her daddy to get off his butt and play with her. No doubt she saw the fun Ruby was having and wanted some of the same. I don't think such complicated formulas went through her 4 year old brain. She stated the obvious - with no intention of hurting you. I think it was her frustration of not having her father participate. Ingrained??? Hardly think so. Unconscious jealousy of Ruby and her fun uncle??? Probably!

Where's this pride you've been talking about? Why not be proud she noticed what you were doing - playing. You just happen to be in a wheelchair.

Moose said...

GRRRR. Disability Theatre is so offensive, and, worse, the able don't understand WHY it's so offensive.

EVERY TIME I comment on how offensive this crap is, someone says, "But it's so INSPIRING to see what someone with a disability can do! If they can do it, why can't other people????"

So what you're saying here is, only disabled people who act like able-bodied people are worth your praise and attention? Only disabled people who do something "special" are worth calling out? Do all disabled people have to jump through hoops and be inspirational before we're considered "normal human beings", or is it more that you want to shove them up on some pedestal to worship them like a god?

Yeah, so someone in a wheelchair did something an able-bodied person can typically do. So a person with no arms learned to play a guitar. So a blind person learned to navigate a busy street by themselves. If these people were able, you wouldn't think twice. But since they're "different", you prop them up to be called out.

Well, I call BULLSHIT.

Cindy B. said...

As a mother, I can say it is extremely likely that if you were not in a wheelchair but had a cup of coffee or a newspaper in your hand and the father had also had a coffee or newspaper, the little girl would have said "but, dad he has a cup of coffee too so why can't you push me". She was trying to get her dad to do what she wanted him to do and was trying to eliminate his excuses.

Bubbles said...

I would almost like to think that her acknowledgement of the wheelchair was more about recognizing that you had obstacles (as you often chronicle here) and the she saw that you were far more motivated to play with Ruby than her dad, who didn't face the same obstacles! I have to admit, I am guilty of this one, at the moments in my life when my children are feeling entitled, are being whiny or demanding I often remind them how few obstacles they face in life and yet the still complain! Reading this I completely understand where I may be teaching them to see people with different abilities as being less... gonna have to think on that one...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Anonymous at 2.25 from Anonymous L.
I went on the website to check it out, looks like Josh is a guy with a briliant sense of humour and I think the pic and caption are with humour and irony.
Wanna say, everyone don’t miss the amputee rap on the contact page
Listen up people don’t feel sorry for me
In the morning I wake up 10 seconds after you
cos when I put my swag on I only tie one shoe
And when I do my laundry it totally rocks
Cos unlike you I don’t have to pair my socks

Belly (Liz McLennan) said...

Wow. Some fierce responses here. I'm afraid to comment, to be honest - there's a "damned if I do/damned if I don't" vibes to the comments on this one. I think I shall wish everyone a Happy Tuesday and come back tomorrow...

Dave Hingsburger said...

Thanks again for a lively set of comment. I agree that some of the comments were 'fierce' and I'm thrilled that this is a safe place for people to state exactly how they feel. There was disagreement, of course, but that makes this a discussion. I think I need to clarify that I had no problem with the picture, only with the slogan that accompanied it. As for the picture, good on him for achieving something he wanted to achieve. It was the 'disability guilt' thing that stuck in my craw. I maintain, though there are those who disagree, that the little girls comment, reflected the same thing and it still strikes me that it can happen so young. I also want to clarify that I wasn't hurt by the child's comment, good heaven's I'm not that thin skinned. I just thought that the comment was worth noting and discussing, and that's exactly what happened here.

Melissa said...

My first thought was just like Cindy's. I can see a 4 year old only trying to break down her dad's resistance to playing with her, not making a comment about disability specifically.

Molly said...

at least now there's one more little girl aware that disability is a difference and not a lesser than situation.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a disability. I have a son with an intellectual disability, and so I realize more with each passing day that I tend to view the broadly-termed "disability" through a different filter: The mommy filter, the intellectual disability filter, the "my child is still a toddler and needs protection from lots of things" filter.
I read the "inspiration porn" thing, and I have to say that I don't understand completely. This post is a bit different from that but touches similar points.
Why is it so bad to find inspiration in anyone who overcomes an obstacle to do something? Particularly if they are one of the first to do it, or have figured out a way to make something happen that couldn't have happened without their ingenuity, or hard work, or...?
The other post used a photo of Oscar Pistorius as its jumping off point. He is the first double amputee to ever compete in the "mainstream" Olympic games. That is pretty inspirational to me. The man runs faster than some seven billion people (which, biological legs or prosthetic ones is still inspirational to me!). He has done something most people thought he couldn't, and was the first to challenge that notion and prove that it could be done. (I will say I did recoil a bit when they referred to his competing against "able-bodied" athletes...I'd say his body is quite able!)
Jackie Robinson is an inspiration for the same reason--He was the first to do something that many felt he couldn't (or more shouldn't in his case) do. He had no disability, but still had limitations placed on him by his surroundings and the society he lived in, just as many people with disabilities do. Some are denied access by security officials, some by stairs.
Breaking down a barrier, any barrier, is an inspiration in my opinion.