Fear and Ignorance

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 06, 2017 # Events

I have a confession to make. It has to do with acting like a complete jerk in the service of standing up for disability rights. I went too far, crossed the line, and made a fool out of myself. It taught me a lesson. Maybe you’ll get something from it, too.

A year or so back, as the Chair of the Writers with Disabilities Committee at the Writers Guild, I served as the moderator for a panel discussion with the writers of the series, “Switched At Birth.”

“Switched At Birth,” if you missed it, was a highly-acclaimed cable series largely centered around deaf and hard of hearing characters. It was on for five years and was clearly a breakthrough program. The writers naturally assumed they were invited on stage to be praised and encouraged. Then the crowd showed up.

A good half of the people in the room were deaf or hard of hearing themselves, and they were mostly there to castigate the show, not praise it. In the first half of the presentation, I threw softball questions to the panel and they had no trouble hitting them. Then the format called for the audience to submit questions on paper. They weren’t love letters.

As I quickly thumbed through them, the biggest beef was, obscenities aside, why were there no deaf writers, directors, or producers on the show. A reasonable question if asked in a respectful way. I decided to become Defender of All Disabled People and put the same sneering, self-righteous spin on it as the written question. I made the whole panel feel bad, and angry, at being blindsided as they fumbled around for the right answer.

The deaf contingency loved it. I was channeling their anger. I went from interviewer to shamer. I was railing, not talking. I became a rabid anti-ableist.

The problem is, in my twenty and a half years living in a wheelchair, I don’t think I’ve ever met an outright, in your face, unadulterated ableist – someone who despised me as weak, stupid, and useless. Growing up in Oklahoma in the 1950’s – I still walked – there were people who acted like that, who hated and harassed people with disabilities. They were scorned even then, fifty years ago. We didn’t call them ableists. We called them (unprintable).

In my view, “ableism” is an apt label for all the structural or institutional impediments barring people with disabilities from full lives. But the people I run into personally almost uniformly suffer from another social disorder: fear and ignorance. They are afraid of saying or doing something offensive and feel uneasy in your presence. They are afraid of peeving you off or being shamed. Those fears often stem from the fact that they’ve never really hung out with people with disabilities nor seen us on TV, film, and in the public square. And then there is plain old everyday ignorance, as in, “You know, I never really thought about it.”

Scott Silveri, creator of ABC’s “Speechless,” another breakthrough show about to start its second season, admitted to that third kind of ignorance at a recent conference.

To paraphrase, he said he had worked in Hollywood for years, writing on shows like “Friends,” before it dawned on him to feature a kid with severe CP in the middle of a show. The rub is that Scott grew up with a brother with severe CP, spent every day with him as a kid, and remains very close. If he didn’t think of his own brother as a character, what about the other 99.5% of Hollywood writers? There are not crip-hating ableists. They just need their heads slapped with a pig’s bladder to wake up and look around.

Back to “Switched At Birth”: I attacked that table of writers as villains rather as people who clearly cared and may have been nervous or fearful of working with the deaf behind the scenes. Or, like Scott, it never crossed their minds.

With my hostile onslaught, I never got an honest answer from them. Everyone on stage couldn’t get off soon enough and the whole affair was a bust. They never even replied to my earnest apology. Shame someone in public and you have an enemy for life.

I hope you got something from this little story. I know I did. It’s always good to confess.

© 2017 Allen Rucker

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How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life