Sunday, April 19, 2009

On Being Moved Without Moving

Everyone has to have seen or heard this Youtube clip of Susan Boyle singing on Britain's Got Talent and even I am blogging about it.

But something bugs me in the thousands of articles that have been written about this event. People are going to great lengths to tell of how very moved they were. Not because she sang an rather lovely song extremely well. But because she surprised everybody who imagined that the physical appearance of a person related to what talents they might have. But Dennis Palumbo speaks my thoughts when he asks What if Susan Boyle Couldn't Sing?
“The unspoken message of this whole episode is that, since Susan Boyle has a wonderful talent, we were wrong to judge her based on her looks and demeanor. Meaning what? That if she couldn't sing so well, we were correct to judge her on that basis? That demeaning someone whose looks don't match our impossible, media-reinforced standards of beauty is perfectly okay, unless some mitigating circumstance makes us re-think our opinion?”
Lisybabe calls this disablism, which I am not entirely convinced about – although you ought to read her post on it anyway. However, it is fair to say that the same thing happens to other disabled people all the time. We aren't admired for the talents we happen to have or the things we happen to do, and we aren't respected just for ourselves. We are admired and respected because we defy expectations. Expectations being so low, most of us defy them at least some of the time. When we fail to do so for some reason, we are no longer afforded the basic respect to which everyone is entitled.

There is this awful phenomenon where people talk about how they have been moved by some event, to demonstrate what a sensitive person they are, as if the sheer strength of an emotional response makes them good. This is especially the case when a member of a minority group has achieved something. A lot of what was said in the UK about Barack Obama before he took office was along these lines - especially given our usually poisonous levels of cynicism about politicians. People seemed to forgot that the reason the election of a black president was not about the novelty of a black man being highly intelligent and charismatic, but about the US electorate doing the right thing for a change (apologies to my American readers; I know you have been doing the right thing all along, but your countrymen have not).

Last summer I heard a certain famous person say on the telly, in all seriousness, “I love the Paralympics, I genuinely do and I cry buckets every time one of them gets a medal.” This is a ridiculous thing to confess to. It is kind of groovy when someone who is into sport declares an interest in the Paralympics, because it is taken much less seriously than other events - it suggests that they consider disabled athletes as legitimate as non-disabled athletes. But then crying when inevitably, some of them get medals? No athlete, disabled or not, trains as they do in order to compete for our tears.

I cry rather easily - I would have cried if it had been a clip Lily Allen singing I dreamed a dream (though for perhaps slightly different reasons) and I would have cried during Obama's inaugural address if he had recited On The Ning Nang Nong (which, let's face it, would still have raised the bar for US presidential eloquence). But this doesn't reflect very much on me or my values.

And this is my worry. Everyone is saying that the Susan Boyle story just goes to prove all that stuff about books and their covers, but if everyone who says this or nods their head really means it, a social revolution must now be taking place. Not that people will stop judging by appearances, just that we'll start acting on the obvious premise that it's not just very young and pretty people who have talents in the performing arts. We don't enjoy music with our eyes.

But in order to do this, we have to realise that the surprise isn't the point. The point is that there ought not to have been any surprise. Susan Boyle's novelty is her great singing voice, not her talent in contrast to our expectations of her.

Incidentally, the article that amused me most about Susan Boyle, mostly on the grounds of its title (although it's analysis is reasonably sound) is Susan Boyle: The New Face - and Voice! - of the "Spinster Cat Lady". I'm just wondering who the old face of the Spinster Cat Lady was...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blogging Against Disablism Day will be on 1st May, 2009

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2008 is now underway. Please click here to read the contributions or register your own.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009Blogging Against Disablism day will be on Friday, 1st May. This is the day where all around the world, disabled and non-disabled people will blog about their experiences, observations and thoughts about disability discrimination. In this way, we hope to raise awareness of inequality, promote equality and celebrate the progress we've made.

How to take part.

1. Post a comment below to say you intend to join in. I will then add you to the list of participants on the sidebar of this blog. Everyone is welcome.

2. Spread the word by linking to this site, displaying our banner and/ or telling everyone about it. The entire success of Blogging Against Disablism Day depends entirely on bloggers telling other bloggers and readers in advance.

3. Write a post on the subject of disability discrimination, disablism or ableism and publish it on May 1st - or as close as you are able. Podcasts, videocasts and on-line art are also welcome. You can cover any subject, specific or general, personal, social or political. In the previous three BADD, folks have written about all manner of subjects, from discrimination in education and employment, through health care, parenting, family life and relationships, as well as the interaction of disablism with racism and sexism. Every year I have been asked, so it's worth saying; the discrimination experienced by people with mental ill health is disablism, so naturally such posts are welcome too.

You can see the archives for previous years here: 2006, 2007, 2008.

Blogging Against Disablism Day is not a carnival of previously published material. The point about doing this around one day is that it is a communal effort and all the posts connect to one another. You can of course use your own post to promote other things you've written as you wish.

4. Come back here to Diary of a Goldfish on the day to let everyone know that you've posted and to check out what other people have written. I shall post links to everyone's posts throughout the day, creating an archive. However, I do need you to comment and leave the URL of your post or else I shan't find your post and won't be able to link to it.


Naturally, Blogging Against Disablism Day invites contributions from people with all variety of impairments and none at all. You are welcome to contribute with podcasts, video-blogging or anything else that allows you to take part. And whilst May 1st is when this all takes place, nobody who happens to have a bad day that Friday is going to be left out of the archive.

If anyone has any questions about web accessibility, JackP has suggested checking out the Accessify Forum.

I am not an expert on web accessibility myself, so if there are any suggestions about how I can make this day more accessible, please e-mail me at diaryofagoldfish at

The Linguistic Amnesty

Whilst discussions about language and the way it can be used to oppress or empower us are more than welcome, please respect the language that people, particularly to describe themselves in their own contributions. We all have personal preferences, there are cultural variations and different political positions which affect the language we use. Meanwhile, non-disabled contributors can become nervous about using the most appropriate language to use, so please cut everyone as much slack as possible on the day.

At the same time, do not feel you have to use the same language that I do, even to talk about "disablism". If you prefer to blog against disability discrimination, ableism or blog for disability equality, then feel free to do so.

Last year I wrote a basic guide to the Language of Disability which I hope might explain some of the thinking behind the different language disabled people prefer to use about themselves.

Links & Banners

To link back to this post, simply copy and paste the following code:

These banners have seemed popular over the last couple of years and I can't think of anything better. If anyone fancies editing these images or coming up with something new, then please do so. You are free to use these as you like, so long as you use them in support of Blogging Against Disablism Day. If you already have the banner, you just need to change the URL that it links to from last year's BADD. Otherwise, you simply need to copy the contents of one of these boxes and paste it on your blog, in a post or on the sidebar as you like. The banners come in two colour combinations and two sizes. The sizes are a 206 pixels square or 150 x 200 pixels.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009This is the black and white banner which reads "Blogging Against Disablism". Here's the code for the square one:

And here's the code for the narrower one (which can be seen here):

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009This is the colourful banner which reads "Blogging Against Disablism". This is the code for the square one:

And here's the code for the narrower one (which can be seen here):

Please leave a (comment including the URL of your blog) to let everyone know you are joining in and I shall add a link to you on the sidebar. Also, if you have any questions, please ask.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How to be a Disabled Villain

In the wake of a global economic downturn and mass unemployment, disabled people find themselves among the most vulnerable people in the jobs market, just at a time when welfare reforms place increasing pressure on us all to find work. Some of us have to consider branching out in ways that others may not thoroughly approve of. I know I've written before about my ample qualifications as a Bond Villain, but this subject has been bugging me lately, plus Yanub's Disability Blog Carnival is on the related subject Action Heroes - if I can get this posted in time.

The latest offense was in an otherwise benign youngsters' movie called The City of Ember where we meet a sinister character played by Mackenzie Crook (the one from The Office who was then in Pirates of the Carribbean). Now Crook does a decent sinister, he was made up with a very pale face and lank hair and in any case we knew from his actions that this character was not to be trusted long before - as in half an hour before - attention was drawn to his limping gait and built-up shoe.

There are so many disabled villains in movies that you almost don't notice – just as you almost don't notice the number of English accents among the fictional villain community. But the Englishness thing is okay; it's always an upper middle-class English accent which suggests sophistication as well as cunning and a cold heart. The disability thing is all about wrongness. This character is wrong whilst the uniformly perfect and pretty heroes and heroines are right, and if you couldn't work that out from what is being said and done (which you really ought to have), here's a big visual clue.

And of course the biggest objection, the massive great problem with disabled villains is that these are almost the only disabled characters in mainstream movies. It's okay to have black villains - well, Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to play all of them - because there are a handful of black heroes and side-kicks. But disabled folk are still either completely absent or rotten to the core.

So anyway, some say that we're going through a period of history when people are hungry for heroes, beacons of virtue and courage in a world that has been so damaged by greed and hate. However, there can't be any meaningful heroism if as disabled people, we don't hobble up to the plate and embrace the role the fates assigned to us. Plus the pay is good. So here are

Some Dos and Don'ts of Disabled Villainy

Do be eccentric. The great advantage of being disabled is that one has to think outside the box in so many aspects of one's life that one is already ideally suited to a novel career like supervillainy. One must fully embrace one's deviation. Consider Darth Vadar; the fetish had always been there, but only after he became disabled did he acquire the confidence to wear that gear in public. They say if you can't beat them, join them. I say if you can't join them, fire lasers as them.

Don't be bitter. There's a fine line between the misanthropy necessary for taking over the world by violent means and bitterness. Bitterness is ugly, it suggests a longing for the love and acceptance of a world that denies us access to public transport. Like Mrs Clennam in Little Dorrit - uh, maybe that's a little too classical a reference, but she was a rare example of a female disabled villain. Not a very good one though, as she used a wheelchair and in her bitterness chose to live upstairs in a structurally unsound to say nothing of DDA non-compliant building.

Do be charming. Whatever harm you wish to exact on the world, it still pays to be friendly. Think of Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code (another English villain, as you could tell by the tea in his surname – it's all about the symbolism). He was such a pleasant and sophisticated gent, his English accent and post-polio syndrome were the only clues to his being a crook. Whereas the morbid Silas, with his magical albinism, well he was just a kinky fanatic with no charm to him whatsoever. Except in the movie he was played by Paul Bettany who is dreamy.

Don't be socially inept
. People with impairments which can effect social skills are by no means barred from a career in villainy - in fact, as people with autism and mental illness are overrepresented in the ranks of geniuses, we must presume that a number are evil geniuses. Yet in order to make good in badness, one has to at least maintain a basic level of personal hygiene and social propriety. Living on a diet of raw fish (like the Penguin) and having a totally inappropriate sense of humour (like the Joker) may be a step too far.

Do have the funky tech. Villains and especially supervillains tend to have money and technology on their side, so one must have the most state-of-the-art prosthetics, wheelchairs, canes and so on. I'm sure the guy who made a USB-compatible prosthetic finger has since moved into his own underground lair. Dr. Loveless in Wild Wild West also had the right idea; the movie was set during the American Civil War and yet the guy had a steam-powered wheelchair. Which was the best thing about that movie, apart from the eye candy (Will Smith and Salma Hayek - I know both can act, but in that one they just looked pretty).

Don't fake it.
Villains pretending to be disabled just gives the rest of us a bad name. Simon Grueber, the Jeremy Irons character in Die Hard with Avengence has a profound stammer which, considering the amount of talking the character does under considerable pressure isn't at all convincing. And Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) in The Usual Suspects had Cerebral Palsy except... well, you know if you saw the movie, which you really should have by now. Clearly, both characters were putting it on for the parking spaces.

Do nurture the young
. Was Long John Silver the best disabled fictional character of all time? Probably. On which subject,
Don't attempt to murder children or you might get eaten by a crocodile.

Do dress your wounds properly
. Everyone knows that one of the most dangerous aspects of a severe burn is infection, but for some reason Hollywood villains leave these things completely exposed to the elements. Recent examples include the Afghani warlord in Iron Man and the character of Arthur Dent who I guess had become "Two-Face" by the end of The Dark Knight. It doesn't matter that they're out of comic books, it's just not hygienic.

And finally, perhaps most crucially

Do get away with it. Most supervillains, despite usually being much much smarter than their goody-goody adversaries, are ultimately defeated. One has responsibility to avoid this at all costs, not only to oneself, but to all disabled people who aspire to be bad. Think Mr Potts in It's a Wonderful Life. Nobody liked him, his actions drove a good man to attempt suicide, but hey, that guy didn't claim a penny in disability benefits his whole life. Now that's a role model.

( Yes, I am terribly ashamed of having watched, let alone remembered watching, some of the above movies. And once I've posted this, I shall think of a great number of far better and more respectable examples. Or perhaps you can. )