We complain about the Supreme Court gutting the Americans with Disabilities Act, but our worst enemy may be movies, television and news programs that shape public attitudes. Lately quadriplegia has emerged as the darling of dreaded disabilities--the media love to dramatize how "horrific" and "hopeless" a cervical spinal cord injury must be. And celebrated movies such as Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside only hint at the pervasiveness of this mindset.
When Christopher Reeve died, the TV networks dug up outdated stock footage of Reeve as a fledgling quad--any image that would showcase his dependency. The idea was to emphasize how much he had lost, how much care he needed, how difficult his life as a quad was. In the same vein, his early thoughts of suicide were perfectly suited to the sappy stuff of talk shows and intimate interviews a la Barbara Walters and Larry King.
Reeve's busy work schedule, many accomplishments and full family life were seen as secondary. Writing books, directing movies, giving keynote speeches and spending quality family time are not the stuff of high drama. In the days immediately following his death, the story emerged that he had died of sepsis caused by a common bedsore--further "proof" of how fragile the life of a quad must be.
Turns out Reeve's reported cause of death was not entirely true. If you read what I wrote in the December issue of NM, you might have surmised that Reeve did not die of a raging blood infection from a bedsore. Two sources disclosed to me that he died of a reaction to an injectable antibiotic. I quoted one of the sources--John McDonald, Reeve's rehab physician--but downplayed the news out of respect for Dana Reeve. Finally, on Feb. 16, Mrs. Reeve admitted on the Oprah show that a sudden reaction to an antibiotic was the most likely cause of her husband's death.
Prior to writing my December story, I had learned that on the day Reeve lapsed into a coma, he was feeling fine, with only minor signs of infection. Further, an eyewitness had confirmed to one of my sources that Reeve went into a sudden irreversible coma within 30 seconds of receiving the injection.
This is important news because it dispels the myth that all quads are perpetually camped on death's doorstep. The truth is Reeve had an uncommon medical history. He had been plagued with allergic reactions and unusual conditions from childhood. But the media fixated on his disability. As one TV anchorwoman put it: "In the end, his spinal cord injury was just too severe."
Why is it necessary for the nondisabled public to believe that quadriplegia is the nightmare of nightmares? Because it reinforces the sought-after illusion of superior physical stature being equated with invulnerability. Never mind that mental illness, a stroke, a heart attack or Alzheimer's could devastate anyone's ability to think, interact with loved ones, work or play. To the nondisabled public, quadriplegia is unthinkable; to many, it is a fate worse than death.
This delusional mindset devalues the lives of those of us who have learned to live with serious disability, and it fosters attitudes that limit our opportunities. It finds its way into government policy, employment discrimination, assisted suicide sentiment and a million instances of everyday discrimination.
Not surprised? Neither am I. But the question remains: What are we going to do about it?