Watching the future web versionPresentation Transcript
Daniel Preston February 28, 2010
Disability: More common than we think
According to recent estimates, 20% of the world’s population has a disability.
That number is growing larger each day as the population ages.
This means that each one of us knows someone with a disability.
Defining Disability on Earth
The medical model is a common one in the United States
Usually disability is defined by a medical diagnosis based on a physical difference (a missing or impaired limb, for example)
Often interpreted by others as something “wrong” with the individual that needs to be corrected or fixed by assimilating or normalizing the impairment. This can be accomplished by using a prosthesis.
Stereotypical beliefs about people with disabilities based solely on medical information does not consider the individual as a person.
Rather, to fit with the medical model, the person with the disability is expected to compensate for a loss.
The Human Platitudes ST:TNG – “The Loss” S4 E10
Meaning and History
The word “disability” came to have its popular understanding and connotations during the mid 1800’s, but people with differences have always existed.
The treatment of people with disabilities varies with culture and historical placement.
Therefore, the meaning that disability has during any historical period must be carefully weighed against the context of that period, and not be the result of inadequate interpretations.
Ancient Greece & Killing Babies
The common historical belief is that unwanted children (and those with physical deformities) would be exposed to the elements and left to die.
ST:TNG – “The Enemy” S3 E7
Recent scholars suggest that exposure in Ancient Greece and Sparta was more rare than commonly thought and that it only happened in cases of grotesque deformities.
(Stiker, 2000; Rose, 2003)
Scientific Approaches to Disability
The following clip is from a documentary produced for Nova, the science based show on American public broadcasting. Watch how prevalent American ideas about disability become.
Our Turkish Brothers Nova: “The family that walks on all fours” October, 2006
Science Fact is Everything
After being invited into another country, American medical science and genetics prevail without concern or understanding of the people involved.
How did this happen?
How can we fix it?
Not: How can we help them?
The field of Disability Studies arose, in part, to consider ideas about the representation of persons with disabilities within specific cultures and socioeconomic circumstances.
This representation is particularly important in mass media.
A European model is more social in nature
Asks what society can do to assist the individual.
The problem is not that the person uses a wheelchair, but rather that there are not enough ramps to enter buildings.
Along with this understanding of disability, there comes the notion that it remains socially constructed – that is, determined by others and not the person with the impairment.
A new approach
Tom Shakespeare, a scholar working in disability theory in Europe, suggests that no one model (medical, social, or cultural) can completely cover what disability entails. Therefore, a combination of approaches is needed.
Disability Studies is
A field of academic inquiry that considers the importance and the value placed on persons with disabilities in our society. Often, it challenges current ways of thinking about disability and its representation.
A theoretical approach that provides ways to look at the world around us such that disabled bodies are seen as important and valuable – contributing to the environment that they inhabit.
Associated with, though not the same as, the Disability Rights Movement.
Some Goals of DS
To show that each narrative and lived experience is important, varied, and should not be considered fodder for generalization.
To break down the hegemonic practices and institutions that promote persons with disabilities as less than the rest of the human race.
ST:DS9 “MELORA” S2 E6
SyFy and Disability
Difference is at the heart of what science fiction covers.
Science fiction is uniquely and always interested in what is not the human status quo.
The difference that a character exhibits often becomes a strength for that character.
The Faces of Science Fiction
Common to all of these characters is either the fact that they were ostracized by their community for being different in some way, or they had special powers (gifts) based on their difference.
Disability tends to be constructed by the people around us, and so any one of us can be “given a disability” based on our strengths and weaknesses in different social situations.
When considering a socially constructed disability, think about what traits are turned into weaknesses.
Complex Social Issues
When it originally premiered in 1966, Star Trek set out to tackle the current social issues of the day in a format that people would enjoy.
Viewers could lose themselves in the story before they realized what the writers were doing.
For the next forty years, Paramount and the incarnations would wrestle with difficult social questions involving race, sexuality, gender equality, disability, age, and what it meant to be “different”
Investigating the Data The following chart details those shows and episodes that included a major discussion of one or more disabling characteristics, and not just the presence of a character with a disability on the show. I did not for example, include every show that Geordi was part of for TNG, for that would unfairly skew the comparison.
Some disability theorists, however, contend that the shows do little more than spout Federation dogma and reinforce stereotypical beliefs.
Scenes like the following are the basis for these thoughts:
ST:DS9 “MELORA” S2 E6
ST:TNG: “ETHICS” S5 E16
The argument goes that by not being able to foresee the need for ramps in the future, Star Trek is promoting the human (read: disabling) model.
These scholars ignore that Deep Space Nine was built by Cardassians – who likely would have killed “defective” offspring and therefore give no thought to disability.
A similar view is likely of the Klingon Empire.
These scholars also neglect the opposing view offered in these episodes.
Medical v. Cultural
Designing the Universe
Universal design works when we know what a species needs, and we have worked with them enough to understand.
To assume that we should be automatically ready for different needs that we have never encountered negates the importance of the individual needs and favors the group – hence creating a stereotype.
A 24 th C ADA
This view denies agency and different cultural beliefs to the various species that comprise the federation, and assumes that the UFP should dictate what design and ideology works for all species.
It approaches difference and disability from a civil rights perspective, which, while important, is not the most inclusive view.
It also goes against a Vulcan belief that infinite diversity exists in allowing infinite combinations.
Please SyFy – Make us think
Through its many incarnations and iterations, science fiction has continued to challenge the way we think about “the others” around us.
The stories and the genre are the best equipped to entertain and educate about whatever it is we intend to call “disability” – now and in the future.
All incarnations of Star Trek (1966-2009)
Multiple websites for image credits
“ Back to the Future Part II” opening music, Alan Silverstri, 1989
Marvel and the X-Men franchise (2000-2006)
“ No Ramps in Space”. Kanar, 2000
Narrative Prosthesis and the Dependencies of Discourse. Mitchell & Snyder, 2000
Disability and the Media: Prescriptions for Change. Riley, 2005
The Staff of Oedipus: Transforming Disability in Ancient Greece . Rose, 2003.
Disability Rights and Wrongs. Shakespeare, 2002.
The History of Disability. Stiker, 2000.
Much thanks also goes to faculty and staff at Syracuse University, SUNY Oswego, and the audience and panel members at the 2007 Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Conference where a version of this presentation was given.