Sunday, March 8, 2015

The One Where I Review A Very Weird Disability Awareness Book For Kids

Well friends, it's March and in addition to being the month that allegedly welcomes spring, it is also Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, a glorious celebration of my people. So far nobody has really taken the bait on my fun and culturally appropriate awareness ideas such as an accessible version of limbo called Gimpo, "Where's Waldo? Paratransit Bus Edition,” and a microwave meal cooking competition, but still I will do my best to let everyone I meet know some crucial tidbits about life with cerebral palsy this March. Some people say any awareness is good awareness, but I'm going to have to disagree on that one. Some attempts at awareness, though spirited and well intentioned, just don't do the job. Some border on offensive while others are just mildly to moderately absurd and clearly didn't have an irony spotter on the public relations team. One such example is the “I Stand for Cerebral Palsy!” awareness t-shirts I have seen circulating on the Internet this week (see here). Noble intentions indeed, but we could perhaps begin by noting that a cerebral palsy awareness campaign centered on standing is downright hilarious and ironic. The little figure is not only standing, but also reaching for something at the same time, which with our balance or lack of balance is a little too much to ask. Many people with cerebral palsy are able to stand, some unsupported, but the fact of the matter is standing is never easy for us, nor is it generally a good way to represent our experiences because perhaps the most basic "awareness starts here" moment should be that standing is hard for us. Maybe I should get a custom edition with a person who just fell on the back of the shirt.
In the field of awareness fails, I came across this gem over the weekend. I saw on my Facebook newsfeed an article about “12 Awkward Children’s Books” (see here) and naturally the article spoke to me as a bookworm and a professionally awkward individual. I suggest reading the entire article for giggles but I’d like to highlight one in particular because naturally one of these awkward titles had to be a failed attempt at teaching children about people with disabilities. It was written in 1995, and to be fair we have come a long way since then, but I shudder to think that this book ever seemed like a good idea to teach children about disabilities. I won't even bother to say it's offensive because it is so far off base that I’m too busy snorting laughing and trying to figure out if this is even real to be offended.
This prize, written five years AFTER the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, may have been haunting the children's section of your library back in the day and I cringe to think that it still may be in some dark dusty corner where it lurks waiting to be part of an outdated awareness campaign. If you thought any awareness was good awareness, you may think again after finding this treasure.

Here's just a few reasons the book had me questioning children's literature and every person who was around ever in the book world of 1995. I was two at the time this was published and I am very glad it was never recommended to my mom and dad, unless it was to prepare them for the snarky sense of humor I would have in the future. (Watch the video here of this awesome young lady named Sarah Morrison reading it aloud here. Really. Do it.)

1.     The title is…. Who Cares About Disabled People?
While the goal here seems to be educating kids about disabled people, the title makes it seem at first glance as though we are encouraging future generations to be completely apathetic about the existence of people with disabilities in the same casual “Who cares?” kind of way that we all experience in elementary school when our math teacher tries to convince us that box and whisker plots have a practical application. If the objective is to get people to care that we exist, the author want to revisit the title. (See the Amazon page: here)
2.     The girl in the wheelchair on the front cover is petting the blind girl’s service dog
I'm very glad that the author thought to feature people with different types of disabilities on the front cover, but the girl in the wheelchair is just casually petting the blind girl’s service dog. Rewind: the first thing you are taught about service dogs is not to pet them while their coats are on, and I assure you that out of all the people to break this rule, the perpetrator would not be another person with a disability that is used to having his or her space invaded by others. If the author wants to make this doodle realistic, the unwanted dog petter should be a stranger who comes out of nowhere in the mall, starts petting the dog, and asking if it knows how to drive.

3.     The author uses the word handicapped a bunch of times
 So it was only 1995, and we all still thought ADA only meant “American Dental Association.” Some people still do. The “right” word to use to describe us is always changing, being reviewed, or being fought about on blogs. Everyone’s opinion will be different. But I’m pretty sure handicapped is very widely viewed as antiquated these days. Just saying.

4.     The line about how “we can learn what it’s like to be handicapped”. Oy.
Aside from my thoughts about how disability simulations don't work and give people very shallow insight into our lives as though disability can be tried on like a costume, we just need to talk about the awkward depiction here. Apparently, you can understand our lives by wandering around in disorganized bunches, falling and lying in an undignified heap on top of another child (who is “learning”….right? See 0:47). I will say that a lot of situations in my life with cerebral palsy have resulted in an undignified heap, most notably when my best friend and fellow palsy person tripped over me in a bookstore and wound up sitting on my footplate in the checkout line. However, falling and lying in a pile will not teach you what it's like to live my life. It may however illustrate why Twister is not a good game for an inclusive party.

5.     The “everyone is handicapped in some way” analogy
I appreciate the fact that the author is trying to emphasize that we all have things we can't do, but the fact is not everyone's difference is subject to institutionalized discrimination. People with disabilities can be kept out of places simply by their architecture and have to call ahead when looking at new restaurants. Sorry, awkward boy playing a violin indoors, I fail to see the parallel. (See 1:06)

6.     The author implies that you can come to understand our lives by drinking and drugging…?
Apparently, the author thinks drinking and doing drugs will create an appropriate stimulation experience. Oh? I admit sometimes my lack of balance makes me feel like I may as well be drunk, but to imply that this is a good way to see what it's like to be me is rude and just… weird. Not to mention that instead of just telling kids that drugs and drinking are unhealthy, the author insinuates that a great reason to stay away from these activities is to remember that it could result in them turning out like us. Ouch. I generally don't like my life being used as a scare tactic for innocent children. Besides I think my life is pretty awesome.  However, according to this book, accepting cheap beer from a strange blonde boy in a leather jacket will lead you to understand my perspective. Hm. (See 1:27)

7.     The body shaming on the page about "unhealthy food"
Aside from the thoroughly confusing insinuation that eating a hamburger will make you turn into to me (“Eat a Burger! Grow a Wheelchair!... the next big ad campaign?), there is some blatant body shaming here as the author implies that gaining weight will be a “handicap”. While large amounts of weight gain can have negative effects on your physical health, this page seems to imply that kids should be afraid of people who are bigger or that they will somehow become “less than” if they gain weight. Or, apparently, if they eat "junk food".  What if I told the author that I already use a wheelchair and sometimes I eat at McDonald’s? Mind blown. (See 1:29)

8.     The “we should feel fortunate page”
Maybe what the author is trying to say is that non-disabled people should appreciate that they are not subject to ableism, but instead it comes off as “Phew, we’re not one of THOSE people!” It is not always easy to have my disability all the time, but I certainly don't want people to pity me or look at my life like “Well, that would suck!” because I love my life, thanks! (See 1:43)

9.     Just like human beings!
The author says at 2:25 that “most handicapped people” are “just LIKE human beings!” Um. What? We are not just like human beings. We are human beings. This page makes it seem like sometimes we put on people costumes for fun.

10.  The old man running over the innocent children
It seems as though the author was trying to say that disabilities don't make people automatically angelic. This is an important concept and actually quite progressive. But I'm not sure the way to do it is to show an irate elderly man running over some biking children in what looks like a large red golf cart. But.  Moral of the story: We can be buttheads too! (See 2:31)

11.  The “help the handicapped!” (Possibly without their permission) page
There is a well-intentioned page that seems to tell children that we need help sometimes, but instead it makes it seem like we always need help and shows some awkward doodles of an elderly man being crossed over an intersection and a nondisabled person grabbing a box of cereal for a disabled person off a store shelf. The thing is, there seems to be no discussion about how we should only help disabled people if they need or want our help. Help without consent is not helpful.  Maybe I wanted to reach my own damn cornflakes. (See 2:47)

12.  They tell jokes too!
The author seems to be alluding to the fact that we have senses of humor but does so by saying that handicapped people often joke about their “problem” as though we all have the same problem and as though our disability is the problem in our lives. We all have problems and most of the time they are quite like everyone else’s. My disability is not my problem. Finding the motivation to shave my legs in the winter may be. Oh.  And there’s the fact that the author makes it seem like we happily tell jokes to entertain others like sea lions. And as for joking behind my back, I’m pretty sure people with and without disabilities do that to each other. If I saw someone leave the house with pants and underwear on the back of his or her wheelchair I would be joking about me for sure.

13.  The weird way the author talks about not staring
The author wants to tell kids not to stare at disabled people, which is great, but does so by showing a little girl strapped into an otherworldly looking blue lawnchair. I have so many questions. I have to admit I’m staring. (See 3:01)

14.  The author’s confusing statement about pity
The author tells kids not to pity us. Awesome. Then why on the previous page are they told essentially to feel fortunate that they are not like us? Doink. (See 3:10)

15.  When you’re friends….
After a couple more awkward doodles of able-bodied people having fun with disabled people (think man with a brace struggling down the beach) and a reappearance by lawnchair girl, the author declares triumphantly “when you are friends you don't notice handicaps”. I know that the author is trying to say not to see ONLY our disabilities, but there it is again, the insinuation that you can't possibly see a person AND the disability without him or her becoming less of a person. My friends see my disability and still see me as a valuable person. That's the way it should be. Frankly, they better notice my disability because if they don't, they may foolishly invite me to take the stairs with them. What it really should say is “when you’re friends, you love each other if you have a disability or not.” And if you really love me, you learn how to make clever jokes about my disability. (See 3:45)

And so, because we’re friends, celebrate this awareness month by being conscious that some awareness is good awareness and other awareness is just an epic fail that will probably have a group of friends laughing at you and making a ranking of hilarious awareness campaigns gone wrong. Happy Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, all!  You are all invited over to prank call the wheelchair repair man and play a game of Pin the Wheel on The Wheelchair.  Just don’t bring any balloons. The potential popping may trigger my startle reflex.  In the meantime, I do hope this author has plans to continue the inappropriate children’s book series. Some titles I suggest are “When Will My Paratransit Bus Come?” and “ I Pay People to Shower Me.”  I’m waiting patiently on my book deal. In the meantime, I am laughing at this author.

Author’s Note: Props to the snarky young woman that read this on YouTube. You are a citizen hero.