Sunday, December 16, 2001

Alive and well

Money insulates celebs from disability experience

        Some years ago, when the late-night chat of a group of disability rights advocates turned frivolous after too much intensity and probably too many beverages, we started playing with words for potential slogans. Wheelchairs are wonderful? Blind is beautiful? Deaf is dynamic? Autism is awesome?

        Well, you get the idea. Fortunately, this was all in jest. Still, while such irreverent slogans are definitely not fit for tserious ideas, the exercise represents the reality that among people with disabilities, there is a real sense of community that is culturally similar to that of common ancestry.

        Among disability groups, solidarity is particularly apparent among the deaf.

        When my Nov. 4 column regarding Rush Limbaugh's deafness made the rounds on an Internet discussion group on deafness, the comments were significantly different from those made by any other readers. They are enlightening, not so much with regard to Mr. Limbaugh's situation, but as to the attitude toward deafness held by those who experience it.

        Of particular interest are the comments distinguishing between cultural deafness and physical or pathological deafness. Doug Dunn of San Diego, writes: “He [Mr. Limbaugh] is deaf in the sense of a physical pathology of hearing loss, lower-case d. He is not culturally deaf and knows nothing of the experiences and perspectives of deaf culture, language, history and community. He's not deaf with upper-case D.”

        In other words, he likely will never learn American Sign Language, use ASL interpreters, or know the familial spirit of sharing highly visual communication with others who are deaf.

        Far from seeing Mr. Limbaugh as a potential role model, deaf people expressed fear of the danger posed to the deaf community by someone so celebrated losing his hearing and remaining outside the realm of deaf culture.

        Robert Simpson, a student of rehabilitation counseling, wrote that an adult losing hearing needs to go through the stages of grief — denial, anger bargaining — before learning to cope. Others held the opinion that wealth and prestige will sufficiently insulate Mr. Limbaugh from acquiring the usual coping skills and will, consequently, never understand deafness beyond its medical implications.

        Because he will be able to afford any accommodations (never knowing, for example, what it is to need an ASL interpreter in a medical emergency), those immersed in deaf culture fear that his status will do more harm than good.

        As Mr. Dunn puts it, “He does not support the political interests of disabled persons and does not support the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rush Limbaugh has become even more dangerous to the deaf community than he was before, because now some misguided people are holding him up as an example. People will say "Rush said . . . and he is deaf. . . .' And they will think he is speaking for the deaf community (of which he is not a part and of which he understands nothing.”

Similar to Reeve

        Similar concerns have been voiced by people with physical disabilities regarding actor Christopher Reeve. Being quadriplegic for him, they argue, is not the same as for individuals who can not pay for treatment and personal care.

        Scrape off the bitterness and what lies beneath these attitudes is both pride and fear. Those who have had time and experience working around a disability often learn that it presents more of a cultural distinction than a medical one. There is pride in that accomplishment and in the shared understanding among those who have traveled the same roads. When a celebrity joins the ranks and sings a different tune, it is not surprising that some will fear losing hard-won ground.

        Maybe someday we'll all embrace deaf culture — disability culture — in the same way we now scramble to eat, drink and wear the trapping of ethnic cultures beyond our own. While those without disabilities are catching up, it would also be good if newly disabled celebs spent a little time learning from those who have “been there,” and if those who have “been there” cut the newbies a little slack.

        Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:


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