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Human rights and inhumane wrongs

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Ethics, Termination by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on January 7, 2009

Every child has the right to be born healthy but do unhealthy children have a right to be born?

That is the question raised by this news story on NDTV.com that covers the claim by B Subhashan Reddy, Human Rights Commission chairperson in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, that it is time for a legislation to prosecute parents for knowingly giving birth to an unhealthy child:

“If either or both parents are HIV positive, or have communicable diseases like TB or leprosy or genes related to Down’s Syndrome, dyslexia, they should not produce a child. Even muscular dystrophy, why should they produce an unhealthy child?”

You can watch a video of the news report here.

While Reddy does not state directly that parents of potentially unhealthy children be required to terminate the pregnancy the inference is clear – as is the suggestion that when it comes to human rights, unhealthy babies do not necessarily qualify.

The report includes responses from those that believe that “neither the government nor any law can decide if a child should be born or not”.


Tropic Thunder redux

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Campaigns, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on October 6, 2008

I promised some time ago that, unlike many of the bloggers writing about Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, I intended to see the film the first chance I got so I could make up my own mind about whether it is offensive to people with disabilities.

What with one thing and another, today was the first chance I got as my wife allowed me the decadence of an afternoon at the cinema. The initial response is that I cannot understand what the fuss was all about.

I previously wrote that “The protesters against Tropic Thunder appear to be either misunderstanding or willfully ignoring the fact that Tropic Thunder is a satire in order to get their point across” and that I couldn’t “shake the feeling that this was a protest looking for a target.”

Having seen the film I am more convinced than ever that this was the case and that a protest was the wrong strategy. I couldn’t help thinking about the claim made by David Tolleson (executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress) that he came out of the cinema having seen Tropic Thunder “feeling like I had been assaulted.”

The claim is as laughable as anything in the film. The target of the jokes is so clearly Hollywood, as opposed to people with disabilities, that I believe you would have to have a huge chip on your shoulder to think otherwise.

One of the main issues protesters had against the film was the portrayal by Stiller’s  character (an action film actor trying to be taken seriously) of Simple Jack. In this article from The Guardian, David Tolleson described the portrayal as “shockingly awful”, missing the fact that that was, in fact, the point. The satirical portrayal is also criticised within Tropic Thunder itself.

Having seen the film I find it hard to believe that those leading the protests that had also seen it did not understand that Simple Jack was satirical portrayal of an actor playing someone with intellectual disabilities, as opposed to the sort of ridiculous portrayal of disability seen in other films.

Within the context of Tropic Thunder Simple Jack makes sense, although I can understand that in isolation it would appear offensive. It would appear that DreamWorks made a big mistake with the viral campaign based on Simple Jack that kicked off the protests against Tropic Thunder, and was right to pull it.

The protests could, and perhaps should, have ended there and some of the other complaints against Tropic Thunder are difficult to fathom.

In The Guardian article, Tolleson describes “a segment of the film involving Stiller and Matthew McConaughey. When Stiller’s character says he wants to adopt a child, McConaughey looks at a photo of himself with his arm around a boy vacantly staring into space – clearly meant to have an intellectual disability – and says: ‘At least you get to choose yours. I’m stuck with mine’.”

Like others I do not think it was clear that the boy was meant to have an intellectual disability. In the short period of time that the boy is on the screen I would suggest it is impossible to know for sure if he is supposed to have some sort of disability or just be uncool and uninterested.

If one assumes that protesters against the film understood that it was satire then one has to assume then that they chose to ignore it in order to draw attention to the campaign to eradicate the use of the term “retard”.

That is an honourable campaign and I agree that the word retard should be used sparingly in the media. The word is used many times within Tropic Thunder, but almost exclusively entirely within a single conversation between the characters player by Stiller and Robert Downey Jnr.

I previously argued that its use in this conversation was justified by the context of the characters and the storyline, and this is definitely the case. From that perspective the repeated use in the conversation is much more justifiable isolated use in other films for shock value or to get a cheap laugh.

I fully understand why those that protested against Tropic Thunder are concerned about the portrayal of disability in movies and in reducing the use of the word retard and wish to bring their concerns to the attention of the film industry, but I maintain that in Tropic Thunder they picked the wrong film to protest against.

Which presidential ticket is the real advocate for disability?

Posted in Learning disability, Politics, Support services, Termination by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on October 5, 2008

Having commented on Sarah Palin’s nomination as the Republican VP candidate and the subsequent increase in the media’s coverage of Down’s syndrome I decided not to write about the election on this blog, mainly due to the fact that I didn’t want to be seen as an outsider telling people how to vote in their own election

However, as a parent of a child with Down’s syndrome, I cannot help following coverage of Palin’s candidacy, and have read a couple of articles recently that motivated me to comment. I hope Americans will appreciate an independent viewpoint.

Like Disposablebrain I have been surprised by the amount of “special needs advocates” who appear to have given Palin their support because she has a son with Down’s syndrome.

I’m not saying Palin doesn’t deserve respect for raising a child with Down’s syndrome but I am saying that is not a reason to to vote someone into the White House.

The suggestion that anyone with or involved with Down’s syndrome is somehow obligated to support Palin is also pretty offensive – like suggesting all women must support her, or all ethnic minorities must support Obama.

I also think that the eagerness of some to bow down to Palin leads to exaggeration. Witness this article that seeks to give credit to Palin (and more specifically her son, but I’ll leave the deification of Trig Palin for another post) for Congress passing the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act.

I wrote back in August that it was naive to think that Palin would push forward legislation and rights for people with disabilities if she were elected. Palin has done little so far to change my opinion.

She has of course promised to provide families with special-needs children “a friend and advocate in the White House” although as the report of that promise points out “Palin did not say what her White House advocacy would mean.”

While Palin’s candidacy has undoubtedly increased the quantity of debate about Down’s syndrome, this article makes the point that the quality of the debate hasn’t increased accordingly.

“What I want is a serious national conversation about raising children with disabilities — the way that government, schools, churches, doctors, HMOs, and most of all friends and families can help us… Let’s talk about the federal mandates that order, but do not fund, early intervention. Let’s talk about universal health care and special education. Let’s talk about how to help our children find meaningful lives as adults.”

All of these are issues that do not appear to be being addressed by McCain-Palin, as far as I can see. They do begin to be addressed by Barack Obama’s plan to empower Americans with disabilities, however. The plan aims to:

“First, provide Americans with disabilities with the educational opportunities they need to succeed.

Second, end discrimination and promote equal opportunity.

Third, increase the employment rate of workers with disabilities.

And fourth, support independent, community-based living for Americans with disabilities.”

If someone can point me to a comparable commitment to people with disabilities from McCain-Palin I’ll gladly link to it here.

Many Palin supporters have praised her decision to continue her pregnancy with Trig, noting that when it comes to her Pro-life beliefs actions speak louder than words.

I would argue that the same is true when it comes to supporting disability. So far we’ve heard a few words from McCain-Palin, but the action (PDF) is coming from Obama-Biden.

UPDATE – See also this article in the Huffington Post, which goes into much more detail on the respective policies – UPDATE

I understand that some disability advocates are disappointed with Obama’s track record on votes related to abortion, and I’m not claiming that either side has all the answers, but I do think that abortion and support for people with disabilities are different issues, and as the article above states, when it comes to disability the debate needs to be focused on the latter rather than the former.

I’m not going to tell people how they should vote, but I do want to make the point that if disability advocacy is a significant influence on your decision then people should look beyond family to policy and then make up their minds.