Photos by Terry Richardson.
When Vice first brought up the idea of doing a “special issue” featuring some of my friends with disabilities I was a little hesitant. While I’ve enjoyed VICE and its confrontational style, I wasn’t sure how it would go down. It’s something I’ve dealt with a lot in the past few years. Where do you draw the line when working with people with disabilities? They can be so outgoing, outrageous, and, well, funny, but when we present them that way it’s deemed exploitation.
People with disabilities, when encouraged to express themselves, can have amazing senses of humor and moments of inspired inhibition. The six people with disabilities featured in this issue are friends I’ve known for over ten years now. They are proud individuals with a lot to say. I feel protective of them, not wanting to let strangers take advantage of their trusting and gregarious ways, but I also want them to be seen and heard.
Right now, our society places people with disabilities in the margins. They are shuttled about on buses and seated in special sections, and we are encouraged to stay far away from them. When you do see a person with a serious disability on the street or sitting in some public place, the natural reaction is to want to stare at that person. “Why is he mumbling to himself or sucking on his hand?” That impulse to stare, the one which asks “what’s up?” is a good one, and it’s a shame that the conventional wisdom tells us it’s better to ignore these folks, or treat them with some kind of sentimental pity.
I say get to know them better. Both the PC types who want us all to be extra careful with our words and the wacky comedians who think it’s funny to toss around the word retard are missing the mark. I would encourage folks to get a little closer and take some time to get to know these people before you try to help them or have a laugh at their expense. Their world is only depressing and pitiful when viewed from afar.
In 1993, while working at a summer camp for people with disabilities, I began to make some short videos with the campers. One of our favorite things to do was have the campers go downtown and interview strangers on the street. These interviews were often awkward and confusing, but they were also funny and revealing. A few years later, one of these tapes found its way into the hands of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and they offered us money to make more videos.
At first these tapes were not so well received. People wondered where we were coming from. To us, the tapes were funny and truthful, but very few film festivals saw it that way. Most festivals feared cries of bad taste and exploitation. The question I was most commonly asked was “Has anyone found this material offensive?” By that, I think they meant “am I offended by this?” I suspect this issue of VICE will face the same types of questions.
I understand why people would have these concerns, but I question the thinking behind them. What, exactly, is wrong with giving folks with disabilities a microphone? What’s wrong with them doing a fashion shoot all over New York City and posing in tuxedos? Why is that we aren’t sure if we can laugh when someone with a disability does something funny?
I think the reasoning behind all this assumes that people with disabilities aren’t really capable of making decisions for themselves, which is only sometimes true. A person can only be exploited if they are not in control of the situation or if they don’t understand it. We should not automatically make this assumption just because the person involved has a disability. I’m not advocating that everybody with a camera run out to their nearest group home and record the crazy antics over there. However, if some serious time is taken to get to know the individual and his or her family, and that person wants to be on camera, then it’s fine. We rarely see people with disabilities portrayed accurately in the media. If we see them at all, it’s with violins in the background accompanied by sappy messages about “the power of the human spirit.” Frankly, it’s boring, and it tends to encourage the public to think of people with disabilities as objects of pity.
If you want to talk about offensive, take a look at all the big Hollywood actors and actresses taking on the ?challenging? role of playing someone with a disability. To me, their trite performances are more offensive than the appearance of a real disabled person on the screen. Why not try to fill some of these roles with actors with real disabilities? And when you do, don’t be afraid to show them as real people, with faults, annoying tics, and most importantly, senses of humor.
One thing you learn right away when you spend time with people with disabilities is there’s no time for self-consciousness or vanity. A man who can’t stand or control his arms has never been able to go to the bathroom by himself. He can’t afford to be shy. He understands that you will be the one wiping his butt today. A woman who can’t chew is used to having her blended-up meal dribble down her chin. That’s just the way it goes.
Mistakes, awkward moments, and humor are important parts of living with a disability. How could you get through the day with a disability if you didn’t have a sense of humor? Just as important, how could the people around you, the ones who help you with your daily tasks, get through their days without being able to laugh at it all every once in a while?
A few months after our first feature film was released, a friend called me up and said they were playing its theme song on The Howard Stern Show. I tuned in a couple of days later, and sure enough, there it was. We had recorded a bunch of songs, with lyrics written and sung by the cast, for the film’s soundtrack. The folks at the Stern show were yucking it up over “the retards singing.”
Personally, I’m a fan of Howard Stern. It was nice to hear the music played on the radio, and it was nice to hear listeners call up and request the songs. That week we received over a hundred thousand hits on our website, so now at least all these people knew about the movie. The producer of the Stern show called and wanted the cast to come on the show as guests. It could have been fun but that old hesitation returned. Just like when VICE called, I had to think about where to draw the line. Some people might hear them on the radio and find them charming. Others might take it as a typical Stern prank. In the end, what made me decide it was a bad idea was their repeated use of the word retard. It’s a simple word, but when you get down to it, it’s a derogatory term. The folks over at the Stern show seemed to think it was cool to call their disabled guests “retards” to their faces, and I couldn’t subject these people to that.
That being said, I think Howard and the crew should be commended for at least including the many people with disabilities who appear on the show. For the most part, they give people with disabilities a chance to express themselves honestly, and this is far more than most major media outlets would dare to do. I just wish they’d take it a step further and take the time to think of a better word than retard.