Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Deconstructing Cheney's De-Inaugural Wheelchair

When I heard that Dick Cheney had pulled a muscle and was going to be attending the inauguration in a wheelchair, I was filled with deadly fascination. How would that play out?

Would the inaugural ceremonies be even remotely accessible? Not bloody likely!

Would he self-propel, or would someone push him? Would the person pushing him be secret service, a family member, military, or a medical worker?

Would Cheney have a steel framed 70-pound hospital clunker of a wheelchair, or would it be halfway decent? My vote was for an x-frame Breezy, still cheap and easy to lay hands on, but under 40 pounds, maybe in red for its political symbolism value. Other wheelies I know were saying "No way, he'll be in a clunker." Even though I think that Cheney should (and WILL) go to jail for being a war criminal, I would have liked him to have a halfway decent wheelchair. Hell, I would personally have decorated it with the stars and stripes.

I imagined, and then later saw, Cheney being shovelled about from place to place behind the scenes, through freight elevators and dank back-hallways, maybe even a steam tunnel or two, carried ignominiously or bumped up backwards over some surprise steps no one thought about, and I felt a bit of schadenfreude there though I'm not proud of it. But I wondered, would anyone in power notice, a little bit more than they did before, what inaccessibility means, how excluding and alienating and humiliating it can be? Would anyone process, or whatever they were doing, with Cheney in his wheelchair, rather than leaving him to be tunnelled and elevatored and ramped while they triumphally process up and down majestic red carpeted staircases?



If you were enjoying their own moment of schadenfreude at the powerful man brought low, did you think about why wheelchair use was being brought low, was disempowering? Because it shouldn't be.

Yes, I kind of giggled at the Dr. Evil jokes, but I also thought about them. Did you? Did you think on why they are a stereotype - how our stories have to give its villains a scar or "deformity" or a wheelchair (and a cat), using disability as a metaphor for being evil? I'm not saying don't make the joke. I'm right in there posting the LOLcats of Blofeld-Cheney. But think next time you use the stereotype of the Evil Cripple.

I also certainly saw friends and strangers wishing permanent disability onto Cheney like it was a horrible fate, one that he deserved. I understand that is mostly just some anger talking. But this too exposes a bit of thinking in our society that people with illnesses or disabilities deserved them as a sort of punishment for wrongs or sins committed. I would like to invite people to think on that idea for a while. And think on this: why you think it might be such an awful fate for Cheney to use a wheelchair? Why is that? Do you think I have an awful fate? Do you pity me, to the extent that you would damn Cheney?

It was amazing to me, while I watched the inauguration, to see people I know from disability activism online, also Twittering and Facebook-chatting their reactions to Cheney's de-inaugural wheelchair. Were you watching? Did you feel that strange agitation and excitement and curiosity?

What I felt was this:

How bitter, but how very expected, that the top levels of our own government, the most powerful men around, can't pull it together to obtain a halfway decent wheelchair and decent access, for one of their own. That exposes the deep, deep ignorance in our country about access for people with disabilities, and how far we have yet to go.

(Have to add: I thought the Daily Show's coverage of Cheney's wheelchair was **hilarious**!! It starts at 2:32 in this video clip. He totally could have pushed it further!)

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26 comments:

Haddayr said...

Yep; I had a lot of these same thoughts, myself. Laughed and winced at the Dr. Evil comparisons; shock at how shitty the chair was and the lack of ramps.

Thida said...

I wasn't shocked by the crap chair nor surprised by how quickly the media pointed out his wheelchair use was temporary. But then it's not that long since the ADA. FDR hid his wheelchair use.

I think it's both sad and great that I still get a thrill when Obama uses the word "disabled" in a speech.

mightymur@gmail.com (Mur Lafferty) said...

I was shocked to see the obviously hastily-assembled temporary ramp he was pushed down.

I don't wish on him permanent disability, except only to make him understand how things are for the wheelchair-bound.

You'd think after the FDR days, there would be more accessible places in the area.

The Millionizer said...

that was really great commentary. the issue of disability is endlessly complex and people really do need to explore their outlook on it and realize where their stereotypes come from and how they affect people living with a wide range of disabilities.

Debbie said...

MightyMur, FDR went to extraordinary lengths to hide his disability, so very little accessibility work was done around it.

Liz, thanks for writing this!

yatima said...

I did bite back venomous comments about permanently disabling Cheney, but only because I was talking to Liz, not because I didn't *think* them.

Thank you so much, Liz, for pushing me outside my comfort zone and leaving me there; for holding up a mirror to my ableist privilege. I am sorry that you have to.

black-pearl-10 said...

You know my mind went straight to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, and not Bond.

Anonymous said...

liz how about a barkamp at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in may.held at the phantom ranch.

JCK said...

Poetic Justice. Pure Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised Geo H W Bush didn't have a wheelchair. He appeared to have great difficulty walking and I was alarmed that his wife abandoned him on the stairs as he arrived at the swearing in. No one assisted him and he looked trapped on the stairs.

Did he have hip surgery recently?

Anyways, it surprised me that he was about to keel over an no one gave him an arm.

Sarah Schuyler said...

Thank you--very eloquent; and of course you're right. In and out of the events and official buildings it would've been freight elevators and rickety ramps all the way. The "great man brought low" schadenfreude speaks right to the way those with disabilities are perceived (unconsciously or not) as lower beings. That's why my mom would be asked "what does he want?" in reference to my dad sometimes, instead of their asking him. A great piece; you should expand it to an article!

Sarah Schuyler said...

By the way, I found you linked in the comments on Slog: http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2009/01/20/wheelcheney

Liz said...

Well, this is interesting:

A bunch of people perfectly demonstrating what I'm talking about:

A lot of pop culture references to evil people in wheelchairs and a lot of glee

Benny Hill-style video clip with wacky music

Naomi said...

Interesting observations on the specific wheelchair. It never occurred to me that he would have anything other than a hospital clunker -- because the only people I've ever seen with lightweight, well-designed wheelchairs are people who use them long-term.

I think that (1) he was hampered by the ignorance of the average American on accessible technology, and (2) he may have been hampered by the bias (from him, or from the people who arranged the wheelchair for him) that having a good wheelchair would telegraph "PERMANENTLY DISABLED" rather than "temporarily injured." A hospital wheelchair very definitely telegraphs "injury" rather than "disability," and that may have been more important to him (or his handlers) than a comfortable, usable piece of equipment.

capriuni said...

I admit I was gleeful at seeing his disability, and seeing him in a hospital clunker.

But it was not entirely out of spite, but more cosmic irony: here was someone who, for the last eight years, scoffed at people who were not among the powerful, and yesterday, on his last day in the public eye, he was now seen to be among the very people he had looked down upon.

Also, as several of my friends (and Craig Ferguson and Conan O'Brien) pointed out, he was in the wheelchair because he pulled a muscle lifting boxes he didn't trust anyone else to handle (because, surely, the White House staff would have gladly helped move heavy boxes for an elderly man with a bad heart, if only he had asked), so his secrecy had come back to bite him, in the end.

...And then, I felt bad for making the connection between physical disability and shadowy character. But in this case, it's a matter of historical record, not metaphor.

crow said...

Thanks for helping me think about this. I'd felt like the evil cripple stuff was emanating from Cheney and his evilness rather than from the wheelchair stereotype, and still do to some extent, but I'll think about it some more.

I'd have to say that I do think it would be an "awful fate" for Cheney to use a wheelchair, because it's limiting and inconvenient. I think people who must use wheelchairs do have an "awful fate" and pity them. I've had to use crutches, and a knee scooter, and didn't like being so immobile. I felt lucky when I could walk again.

toddlerplanet said...

Hi, Liz. After spending some time in a chair myself, I was very interested to see what happened there ... and it was just as I feared. When he was whisked away from the procession onto the steps, I was appalled. When he sat in the midst of all those standing and chatting, and no one talked to him, when no one saw him, I felt a terrible pang.

I pointed it out to my mom friends, over for a viewing party, but it wasn't enough.

Thanks for this.

Mom101 said...

You nailed it Liz. Every line.

Deb on the Rocks said...

There's a lot to think about in your post. I did feel delight that he might be in pain, that he might feel himself to be weak, and that he caused himself an injury that made him face his dependence on others. I didn't like the "dr. evil" bits, but I joked about volunteering to push him into the Potomac. I think I really fell into the stereotype that the use of the chair = less powerful. I was acutely aware of the limitations it created for his full participation and was embarrassed that his dignified travel wasn't handled better. I have to think about where my brain went on some of your points.

Liz said...

Deb: My brain went there too, for sure. Then I couldn't stop thinking about it!

ingrid said...

My dad was wheelchair-bound and I'd say that the quality of his chair was more due to the unrestrained stranglehold supply/insurance companies have on manufacture and distribution of quality chairs. (Imagine he'd needed a bariatric one ... he'd have been rolled down that ramp in a Walmart shopping cart.)

That's an issue I wouldn't mind seeing addressed.

sophia said...

I was thinking about attending the inauguration. While I could have done the two mile walk from a friend's apartment to the Mall, but I doubt I could have stood the four or five hours in cold. I thought about taking my wheel chair but looking at the route I would have had to take, I decided against it and watched it on tv instead.

I feel that I should have been there more than Cheney.

fatadelic said...

I took my friend to a outdoor concert recently. I was astounded, although I am sure you would not be, how many people just stepped over the top of her wheelchair in the crowds. Some would apologise, but mostly not. The one that really cheesed me off was a guy who stepped over the top of her and then said sorry to me rather than her. What am I, her handler?

Andrea Shettle, MSW said...

Re, why even a wealthy powerful man uses a clunker of a wheelchair: I suspect that's probably primarily due to widespread ignorance about the difference among different types of wheelchairs and how much difference the right wheelchair can make to your quality of life, even if you're only using it for a relatively short time.

I know I was fairly ignorant about different types of wheelchairs until I happened to know a friend who uses one. After that, I could SEE how "clunky" and awful most hospital or cheap rental chairs are. (And also FEEL it when I try to lift them! I cannot really handle a hospital or rental chair except just for pushing, but can lift a better-quality light-weight chair onto a bus or whatever without trouble.)

But, I suspect that most people who have not really seen wheelchairs up close on a frequent basis are not especially conscious that there really ARE such dramatic differences among different types of chairs. So if they suddenly need a chair, especially if they only need it short term (so it doesn't really occur to them to research it much if no one encourages them to do so), they just take what's offered. I suspect most people are just too oblivious to the existence of any option beside the hospital clunker.

I also suspect that there is an issue where many people still just automatically assume that medical personnel always know best. If they're saying, "Here, take this chair," then there may be an assumption that, well, they know what they're doing, so this must be the best wheelchair for the current circumstances, injury, etc." It doesn't occur to them to challenge those assumptions enough to say, "Wait a minute, I don't just want to 'get by' in this wheelchair, I want to actually continue on living my life even for the relatively short time I need to use this chair." (I wonder how the medical personnel would react if more people did that? How simple would it be to even FIND middling-decent rental chair for a few weeks or months? Would medical personnel work with you if you asked for something you can push more independently and actually do things in, or would they just look at you blankly and act all confused about why you can't just have your spouse do everything for you for a few weeks?)

As for being conscious of accessibility barriers: unfortunately, I suspect a person would have to live with an impairment for many weeks or months (not just a few days) before their consciousness is really raised in a significant way.

For someone who doesn't already know much about disability issues, I think it would be too easy to attribute any temporary inconveniences or humiliations (such as being unable to join other people for certain activities, or having to take an inconvenient route somewhere) to, "Oh well, this is just what happens when you're injured. In a few more days I won't have to worry about this sort of nuisance any more." And they totally fail to make the extrapolation that

1. It doesn't HAVE to be this way, and,

2. It's like this ALL THE TIME (not just temporarily) for anyone with permanent disabilities, and,

3. They would feel very, very, VERY differently about this "annoyance" if they had to deal with it as a constant feature in their daily existence (permanent disability), and not just as a random glitch in their life (temporary injury), and,

4. It really, REALLY just point blank DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.

Katja said...

Debbie said...

"MightyMur, FDR went to extraordinary lengths to hide his disability, so very little accessibility work was done around it."

Actually, an unbelievable amount of work was done to make things accessible for Roosevelt, but it was all temporary or torn down after he died. The street in front of the Capitol was ramped (the entire street!) so that his car could be driven up to a level entrance. Naval vessels including the USS Augusta were re-fitted for when Roosevelt was on board with hand-operated elevators and ramps over the combings.

See Hugh Gallagher's book FDR's Splendid Deception for more information on the incredible lengths to which the Secret Service went to make the world traversable for the President.

The sad thing was that it was all temporary - there was no conception that these changes could benefit others. At Hyde Park, curators removed all the ramps and other accessibility features for years, until badgered by disability advocates to make the National Park property accessible again.

gs said...

==Do you pity me, to the extent that you would damn Cheney?==

Having recently had the experience of having my mobility temporarily impaired by surgery, I can only say that I admire you, tremendously.