I had to think about it. For a while.
Since I don’t have cable, I didn’t watch the Golden Globe awards in real time last Sunday night. But several of my friends sent me the video of Meryl Steep’s speech and asked me my opinion. And after a few days of watching the video several times and reading some blog posts by other people with disabilities, I can honestly say I have mixed emotions.
On one hand, I applaud Meryl Streep for bringing back into mainstream news that our president-elect mocked a reporter with a disability. The act was despicable and demeaning and I am never going to be convinced it didn’t happen (no matter how many of his supporters send me a copy of the one story to the contrary.) As a person affected by significant disability, I never want the story to fade or be forgotten.
This is what Ms. Streep said:
“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work.
But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back.
It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.”
Ms. Streep starts out by saying “an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you (the audience) feel what we feel.” To me, what she is describing is empathy. And I always think empathy is a good thing. I had a professor when I was in graduate school who defined empathy as “your pain in my heart.” I was still with her at that point. Thought the message was nice.
And then, she went on to describe the reporter that our next president mocked as a “disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back.”
When Ms. Streep said that line, the vibe that I got was one of pity. And that is where she and I part company.
While it is true that we cannot all be billionaires, I would never describe Serge Kovaleski (the reporter that Trump made fun of) that way. He is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who works for the New York Times, and who has worked previously at the Washington Post and the New York Daily News.
He couldn’t fight back? Really? He is a journalist. He could have written anything he wanted about the incident. And that makes him powerful as well. More powerful than many people who get mocked in society. He could have written about how being mocked made him feel. And most of the world would have been interested. He chose to remain quiet about the event itself, only saying repeatedly that Donald Trump’s comments about a story that Kovaleski had written fifteen years prior were not true. He had every right to fight back. He chose not to do so. That tells me only that he has a whole lot of class.
I have a problem when others speak about people with disabilities in the context of pity. I hate it. With a passion. In my experience, pity paralyzes. Pity invites people to stay stuck. Pity emphasizes the gap between “us” and “them.” As long as there is pity in the world, people with disabilities are never going to be seen as equals. I have never known pity to do anyone any good, either the sender or the receiver.
Instead, as Ms. Streep first suggested, I encourage all the people in society (not just actors) to enter the lives of people who are different…and feel what we feel.” But that is only the first step, the launching pad. Don’t stop there. If anyone feels anything negative about my circumstances, what I would want most is for them to take action.
I try never to pity myself (although some days I must confess I have my moments.) Pity makes me feel like Tiny Tim, and not in a good way. Instead, my hope is that people around me feel what I feel and that those feelings cause them to start moving. Because it is only positive movement that is going to make my life better.
Do you feel my frustration about having to search for quality caregivers on an almost continuous basis? I would love it if some friends would volunteer to share the flyer advertising the job on their Facebook page. Or maybe assist me in developing a list of people who might be willing to help out in a pinch.
Does it resonate with you sometimes that I don’t drive and cannot leave my house much without the help of a caregiver, and therefore my social life is somewhat limited? Let’s set up a time to visit or have lunch together. Do you Skype? Or can you call me at a time when you have a free few minutes?
Is it hard for you to imagine not being able to run to Walmart at a moment’s notice when you run out of something you need? Every once in a while, I would sincerely appreciate you touching base with me and asking if I need something next time you make that trip.
Do you feel strongly that I should be able to live in my own home, with the support of caregivers, instead of living in a nursing home within the next few years? Then stand with me and speak out against the Medicare and Medicaid budget cuts that this new administration is proposing.
All of those things move me away from a place of pity and help me to feel connected to my community. And that is my ultimate goal.
So anytime anyone looks at an aspect of my life and is inclined to feel some pity, this is what I want to tell them.
Make your move.