Originally published August 1996
Roll right up and come right in, ladies and gents, we’ve got big shots galore this month. We’ve got eye-popping movie stars and Eye-talian rock stars, world-class athletes and cold-facts activists. We’ve got the only openly quadriplegic recovering alcoholic conservative political candidate in captivity, and the second largest sporting event on earth. We’ve got Fonzi, Dangling and Squirt, and Jerry Lewis to boot.
What more could you want? You say you want our top-gun stars to get together on the issue, to walk our walk and talk our talk? Dream on.
We’ve got Christopher Reeve, newly disabled and stuck with the lousy job of being our hero, spokesman and scapegoat. But if some of us think that Reeve speaks for people with disabilities, why don’t any of us agree on what he’s saying? We adore him for being committed and deplore him for being exploited. We’re glad he’s raising money for cure, and mad he’s planning to be cured himself. We’re gratified he’s showing that even a well-heeled actor can go broke once the health care bills roll in and the insurance money runs out. We’re mortified that the message people love to take home with them is that a person can overcome anything, as long as you or I don’t have to do it.
We’ve got John Callahan, a seasoned gladiator of the quad wars. We’ve loved his delicious and despicable cartoons for years. Now he’s hitting the campaign trail, but sheesh, the man’s a flaming Rush Limbaugh, a loose cannon on the disability ship of state. You can’t be that way and still speak for people with disabilities, can you? It’s an unnatural act; it’s a Callahan cartoon.
We’ve got Paralympians kicking butt, collecting medals and convincing TV audiences of millions that we’re pure mom, flag and apple pie; that we all have a great job, a Buick and an upscale home in the suburbs. Are the athletes speaking for us? If so, are they saying the right thing?
We’ve got the Ladri di Carrozzelle. Their rock performances are pure disability grit — people in Italy aren’t accustomed to seeing their crips on public display — but the Ladri also raise big money for the Italian muscular dystrophy telethon. Really, what jerks.
Then there’s Jerry Lewis, about whom little new can, or should, be said. He’s unavoidable at this time of year, but most of us are already pretty sure he doesn’t speak for us. Fonzi, Dialing and Squirt don’t get the picture either, but what do you expect from dolphins?
We yearn for our most visible players to act and speak for all of us. They will not. All they can do is be themselves. All we can do is let them.
Let Reeve be Reeve. Let Callahan be Callahan. Let jocks be jocks and rockers be rockers. Let them all do whatever they do best, warts and all. Maybe they’ll get something fixed, maybe not. But when all of us start acting like we really are, the rest of the world might understand that we’re as richly diverse and human as they are — and that would do more for us than all the star quality in China.