Laurie Toby Edison

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The Powerful Disempowered

Debbie says:

I can’t be the only person who feels a huge symbolic weight around Dick Cheney attending his last official function in a wheelchair.

It’s such a complicated story: first of all, I have a personal hard time believing the “pulled muscle” story, probably just because I’ve never heard of anyone having to use a wheelchair because of a pulled muscle. (I didn’t watch the inauguration; I listened to it. Were people standing for a long time, or were there chairs?)

Second, I can’t imagine not experiencing some schadenfreude. After all, this is the Vice President who accidentally shot one of his friends in a fake duck hunt.

But there’s more to the story. Liz Henry wrote a fine piece about it yesterday:

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.

Before I had friends who use wheelchairs, I never thought about them as stylistic and personally expressive (except that I knew some people put bumper stickers on them). Now I look at every one I see, looking for what it tells me about the person who chose it. Often, it’s easy to see that they weren’t given a choice, which is also information.

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?

To me, this is the key point. Even in the we-hope-new-world of the Obama presidency, no one in a wheelchair was scheduled to be on the stage, no one thought about the possibility that a person in a wheelchair might be on the stage, and no one worried about how to get a wheelchair onto the stage until the last minute. Sometimes, “second class” accessibility workarounds truly are the only way, but oh-so-often better solutions can be implemented with a little forethought and planning. And this wasn’t exactly a permanent structure that has been around for decades.

But Liz also has another point to make.

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’m starting to imagine a whole literature in which the majority of villains are white men in suits and ties … At least it would be different.

7 Responses to “The Powerful Disempowered”

  1. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    There are plenty of books in which the villains are white guys wearing the cultural equivalent of suites and ties. Kafka’s “The Castle” and other books. The evil bureacrats at the beginning of “Stars in My Pocket.” (Are they white? I don’t recall, and some are women – but they are the culturally dominant group on the planet.)

    As far as using a wheelchair for a pulled muscle, I assume it would depend on the severity and location of what he allegedly pulled. The last time I had serious muscle spasms in my back, I could barely walk. So I used crutches, useful tools, to get into Kaiser. I most recently used crutches after spraining my ankle last year, and didn’t walk more than a short block using them. I am going to guess that it’s a long trip through security and the Capitol building to the site of the inauguration, very likely much longer than I could have negotiated comfortably with crutches.

    What that long paragraph boils down to is that I do not find Cheney’s use of a wheelchair implausible, based on my past experience with injuries, the pain they cause, and the effects of muscle relaxants when I have used them for muscle spasms.

  2. Peter Hentges Says:

    The symbology of Cheney in a wheelchair was not lost on me. For me, personally, it echoed with some deserved karmic recompense for the manner in which the administration he served in crippled so much of this country. If there was anyone that ever deserved to end up in a wheelchair and to be ridiculed for it, Dick Cheney would be high on the list.

    I’m also somewhat dubious of the “pulled muscle” excuse, especially since he supposedly pulled said muscle moving boxes in his new residence. I just can’t imagine him moving his own boxes; unpacking them, maybe, but not moving them.

    I was also struck by lack of adequate accessibility options for the main VIP seating area. If nothing else, the tottering of George H.W. Bush and the age of Jimmy Carter should have had someone looking for ways to make the stage accessible while maintaining a common area of entrance. Heck, I bet they could have fit in a few more seats if everyone came out the door and then went down long, sloping ramps to either side rather than straight down those stairs.

  3. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    Do you think the pulled muscle excuse is a cover for something more serious?

  4. The Bald Soprano Says:

    By the way, there was at LEAST one other person in a wheelchair in the good-seats section at the inauguration. It was an elderly African-American woman.

  5. Lizzie Says:

    Agree with Lisa that I also don’t find Cheney’s use of a wheelchair for a pulled back muscle implausible. Also, I assume it was a rental so not surprising it was the standard crappy kind.

    Liz Henry’s piece gave me a lot to think about, but the jokes about Cheney being Dr Strangelove, missing his white cat, etc., depend on our perception of him as evil, before he got into the wheelchair. Teddy Kennedy in a wheelchair doesn’t bring those stereotypes to mind.

  6. Debbie Says:

    Lisa, yes, there’s plenty of fiction in which white men in suits are the villains, but in general (except in some “corporate villainy” contexts), it’s not a trope the way black-haired women or fat dictators are tropes, to name two.

    Lisa and Lizzie, I said I was “skeptical,” not completely disbelieving. It could be a pulled muscle; it also could be a factor in why he’s been so invisible for the last year or more.

    Peter and Bald Soprano, yes, we have to take accessibility into account and not just for the Vice President. That’s why it’s so shameful that they didn’t.

    Lizzie, good point about the jokes.

  7. bb Says:

    As a wheelchir user, I have no problem with the Dr Evil tag. Disabled people, like able bodied can be good or bad, and as pointed out, & IMO, he was already evil through the previous 700 & odd days of the administration. His last day being wheelchair-bound kinda put a smile on my face. See how he likes it.

    I find the malingerer tag of alleged comedies such as Little Britain far more damaging day-to-day (I’m a Brit). Since the comedy first aired here, it has become increasingly normalised to assume disabled people are swinging the lead, exagerating, up to and including the political classes; and the malingering idea is now scarily being implimented in government policy, such as disability benefit medicals and lie detector tests being used during phone calls to government welfare helplines.

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