My turn: Award winners leave out key info about life with paralysis

Posted: Friday, March 11, 2005

At the Academy Awards, two films with negative portrayals of disability won Oscars, drawing ire from disability rights' groups. Clint Eastwood's boxing flick Million-Dollar Baby won multiple awards including best picture. It portrays a main character choosing suicide after an accident resulting in paralysis. The Sea Inside, best foreign film, chronicles the true story of a man, paralyzed in a diving accident, who chooses euthanasia despite laws against assisted suicide.

Both of these movies should have been made, and perhaps even won these prestigious awards, because they spark discussion on difficult issues, something rare in movie- making today. However, both movies leave out key information, showing negative aspects of paralysis but not the real lives of persons who have successfully adapted to their lives as quadriplegics using modern-day technology.

Thirty years ago, a decision for assisted suicide had more validity. Society was not accessible to people with disabilities of any kind. Just 40 years ago, we were not allowed in the public schools and 75 years ago, persons with disabilities were begging for food on the streets, hence the word handicapped, or "cap in hand."

Today, it is a different era. Adaptive technology has improved incredibly. Many buildings and sidewalks are accessible. And, thanks to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, more than 600 Centers for Independent Living (including Southeast Alaska Independent Living here in Juneau) provide resources, options, choices, and a vital community to people with all kinds of disabilities. In 2005, there are so many more choices allowing people dignity and full control over their lives.

Eastwood's film offers an electric wheelchair, controlled by a puff straw, to the main character. The character was still lying in a nursing home bed, having no hope for a future life; a life that could have included a wheelchair-accessible van controlled by a puff straw, a life with a fully accessible house where all appliances are controlled by similar devices, a life with a personal assistant paid for by insurance. Eastwood did not offer this future to the character or the audience. If he had, the movie would have moved beyond the emotional impact it created of fear and pity, and shown a resolve and inner strength he denied the boxer by killing her character and ending the movie.

The Sea Inside shows an even darker view of disability, based on the reviews. The main character says, "I will renounce the most humiliating form of slavery, to be a living head tied to a dead body." Yet in the movie, this character rarely chooses to leave his bed, only using a wheelchair to attend court hearings about euthanasia, instead of using his wheelchair to explore his new world. This character's views and sense of personal loss should not be passed on to others who have successfully graduated from the cycle of grief, moving on with their lives.

Million-Dollar Baby also encouraged pity towards a character with a cognitive disability. During several scenes where this character made socially inappropriate comments or questions, the audience at the showing I attended laughed at him and then pitied him as another boxer beat him up. We tell our children not to laugh or hurt people who are different from us, yet this audience laughed at and pitied this character in the movie.

While we have come a long way as Americans toward acceptance of persons with disabilities, we have not conquered the emotions of pity and fear of loss of control. Parents still hope their children will be born physically "perfect" and older Americans fear disability, because they believe it will limit their lives. This is not true because of the progress made in 40 years. The greatest barriers to persons with disabilities are attitudinal ones that hinder employment and friendship. Could Americans fear disability because they believe others hold the same prejudices they feel toward persons with disabilities?

Watch these films. Talk about them at the dinner table. But realize they only show half-truths regarding disability in the 21st century. An independent life in your own community is available for those who experience disability, but only if society and the individual choose it.

• Kevin Gadsey works as an independent living specialist for Southeast Alaska Independent Living, graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with a degree in journalism and experiences disability in the form of Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita.

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