A note to Tom Hanks about disability, media and respect

Tom HanksDear Mr. Hanks,

Did you realize the other night when you told David Letterman on his late-night show that you’ve been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, that you also completely redefined yourself?

Before the show, the media would describe you as an Oscar winning actor with starring roles in the movies, on Broadway and television.

After your announcement – and forever more – you will be labeled as an Oscar winning actor who happens to be diabetic.

You’ll learn quickly, Tom, that no matter what your accomplishments, no matter what message you want to get across to your fans, the media will focus on your diagnosis like a laser beam. Reporters will use that awful word – diabetic – which lumps you into a category that incorrectly implies sickness and an uncertain future.

The millions of us with mobility disabilities know what it’s like to be defined by our physical conditions. In our ranks are the most talented, energetic, accomplished people on earth, but if a media outlet writes about any of us, the focus is on disability as if the reporter is blinded by it. Apparently nothing else we could possibly do is considered newsworthy. Inspiring, perhaps, but never newsworthy.

Tom, you are now expected to be an inspiration for the millions of other Americans who have Type 2 diabetes. If you’re being interviewed about your new movie, don’t expect to talk about the film. Expect to talk about diabetes, and be prepared to inspire others to rise above the disease. This, as defined by media, is your new mission in life.

A woman I admire who was one of the driving forces behind the independent living movement in America, and who also worked for the Clinton Administration and the World Bank, was interviewed by my local newspaper a few years back. She was in town to speak at the local university about her efforts at the World Bank.

It just so happens that this accomplished woman had polio earlier in life and uses an electric wheelchair.  For the reporter, the story was her disability. Her accomplishments at the World Bank? Not the story. Her work in education when Bill Clinton was in the White House? Not the story. The importance of independent living centers? Not the story.

Mr. Hanks, you may have a hidden physical condition, but don’t think for a minute the media won’t be blinded by it. During press interviews you’ll try to get the reporter off diabetes and onto your latest film project. Good luck with that.

Christopher Reeve never succeeded in getting the press to respect him as an actor after his accident.  And the woman who wrote and directed your hit film, “You’ve Got Mail,” kept hidden for many months that she had cancer because she didn’t want to be described in the press as “Nora Ephron, who has cancer …..”

Believe me, it’s demeaning to be labeled only by your physical condition, and it’s unfair. Maybe you’ll fight back just enough to help the rest of us be seen for who we are and what we accomplish, rather than by the state of our bodies.

Good luck with that, too.

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