Saturday, February 22, 2014

Paralympian Jessica Long Goes Home

Credit where credit is due. NBC did a wonderful job with the profile of Paralympian Jessica Long, showing her visit with her biological parents in Siberia, Russia. The segment, which just aired, was beautifully done and made me cry. I’m not sure which affected me most, Jessica meeting her Mother, or meeting the now elderly women who ran the orphanage where she lived until she was adopted by American parents.

Jessica also had very meaningful things to say about understanding why her parents gave her up for adoption. They were under age, unmarried, and they felt ill-equipped to handle a child with disabilities. You could see the absolute mix of pain and joy on the Mother’s face when she saw her grown daughter Jessica. Parts of this this world are very harsh places, and people try their best to do what they feel is right. It’s great that Jessica Long got to tell her biological Mother that she understands, and that she loves her.

Photo Of The Day

Young woman in wheelchair, with blonde hair highlighted with blue, wearing turquoise Converse high-tops, red shorts, black tank top, sitting in a wheelchair

3 Rebukes To Bullying

I can't believe I'm saying it, but these three videos are inspirational! I mean “Inspirational” for real. Not “Inspiration Porn”, not revoltingly sweet, not begging for sympathy. These videos move me, and have something of substance to say. The second two I have posted before. The first one I saw just today, from a link and recommendation by the founder of the website Shared Abilities.

"Beautifully Different by Charisse Hogan"

This very personal video is the one that comes closest to what I’d call a traditional “Inspirational” video about disability. It expresses a simple, positive message in a heartwarming, non-confrontational way. It has pleasant music and adorable kid drawings. However, several things about this video set it apart and gives it bit of a sharp edge.

The underlying theme, bullying, is anything but cheerful or simplistic. She doesn't hold back from telling about the worst, with specifics.

Charisse’s positivity is totally earned and authentic. She has been through horrible experiences and is recovering, which can’t be easy and should not be taken lightly. Her optimism isn't glib.

The video makes it clear that the horrible experiences were caused by other peoples’ behavior, not by Cherisse's disability. Her understanding of this may be a little bit unformed just yet, but she’s young, and clearly on the path to viewing her disability as a part of herself she doesn’t have to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. I can't avoid being a little personal and paternalistic here. I recognize so much of myself at her age in Charisse. At the same time, like a parent, I want to tell her about all the amazing opportunities for further growth and pride that are available to someone as poised and smart as she appears to be.

"Fucking perfect anti bullying"

When I first realized that Charisse’s video was about bullying, I immediately thought of the “Fucking perfect” video, by an amputee YouTuber who is: a. Around the same age as Charisse, and b. has been bullied and made a video to address that. It is very striking that the messages of the two videos are almost identical, but their approaches are so different.

Using the words of the Pink song, this video is positive but also confrontational. It's not just because the word "fuck" is used. With or without that bit of judicious swearing, it is defiant. I don’t know much of anything about this young woman, any more than I can say I know about Charisse, but I could well imagine that this girl might have both fans and detractors among her high school teachers. Whereas Charisse strikes me as the kind of kid all but the most burned-out teachers love, I can see this young woman pushing the envelope from time to time. Hopefully, there are teachers, family, and friends around her who can appreciate a disabled person who isn't cheerful 24/7, who bites back on occasion.

Neither of these young women is better or more “appropriate" in her approach than the other. In fact, what’s so satisfying is that based on their videos, I like and respect both of them so much, each for different reasons and in different ways. It's a cliche I suppose, but they seem to represent the Yin and Yang of disability pride.

"Pro Infirmis «Because who is perfect?»"

Meanwhile, the "Pro Infirmis" video is in some ways a rebuke to a more passive, adult version of bullying … the fear, loathing, and rejection of disabled bodies. More importantly, the video focuses on the fact that even the people who have disabled bodies often subtly buy into the prejudices against them.

I think it helps to know, too, that the participants are all successful professionals in Switzerland, where the project took place. So, each of them, arguably, is already among the most confident, self-actualized disabled people in their communities. Yet, they all are so clearly moved and changed by seeing their mannequins unveiled. For a moment, the hidden wounds of low self-esteem are revealed, then almost almost immediately afterwards healed a bit by seeing and touching the mannequins. As I mentioned when I first posted this video, seeing one of the models actually give her mannequin a hug and a pat just about made me cry. This is sentiment much deeper and more profound that surface sentimentality.

People of all kinds crave inspiration and empowerment. While I will continue to call out “Inspiration Porn”, I don’t want to become hardened and cynical about all efforts to convey positive messages about disability. It seems like there are certain techniques and themes that make for really moving videos about disability, that are truly empowering and not exploitative or sentimental.

One key I think that I haven’t mentioned is each of these videos was either created by people with disabilities, or featured genuine, candid responses from people with disabilities. They are not passive objects in these videos, they have unique, individual voices. That makes all the difference to me.