As a disability & culture corespondent on Accessibility Media Inc, I was asked last week to come on their talk show, Live from Studio 5 (the segment begins at the 53:40 minute mark), to discuss my love for South Park and why I believe Timmy and Jimmy may just be the best (physically) disabled characters on television. While I’ve written about this before, I thought now would be a good time to revisit the series in this companion piece.
A sucker for mindless action films, I was excited to see Gareth Evan’s follow-up to the energetic and gruesome hit The Raid: Redemption (2011). While The Raid 2 (2014) is probably a mediocre film at best, there are enough interesting aspects to this film to make it worth watching. As with most reviews, the following may (read: likely does) contain spoilers – consider yourself adequately warned.
Seeing some of the commercials for the new sketch-com “Kroll Show” on Comedy Central, I figured this was going to be an absolute dud. But last night in the first episode, comedian Nick Kroll landed one of the funnier critiques of media representations of disability while also taking a shot at Canadian icon, Degrassi: The Next Generation. Given that I’m writing about (read: watching and rewatching obsessively) Degrassi, this sketch rang a little too true. For those not in the know, Degrassi featured Aubrey Graham (aka hip-hop artist Drake) playing the role of “Jimmy,” a character who was disabled from a gunshot wound in Season 4 and spent the next 5 seasons in a manual wheelchair.
Check it out Part 1 of the sketch “Wheels Ontario” on Youtube, because it’s pretty fantastic:
Last week I was interviewed for the summer issue of “The Scoop” by Independent Living Canada. You can check out the full e-magazine here, or read my excerpt below. Thanks to Erica Carson for putting up with my rambling nature.
60 SECONDS WITH…Jeff Preston!
From your Mobilize March to Cripz: a web comic and speaking engagements you have used several ways of communicating your message about a “Mobilized Lifestyle”. Which methods have you found to be the most successful, the most original, and which is the most challenging?
Identifying “effectiveness” is always difficult, especially in something as quantitative as advocacy so it’s tough to say which of my recent insanities was most successful. The Mobilize March was definitely the hardest and probably had the biggest “broad” impact in that it was an opportunity to engage in direct conversations with media and government across the province, drawing a tremendous amount of traffic to the website and an on-going legacy through the online documentary “Idling: A Transit Story.” The most original idea, or continually original, is the webcomic. I really enjoy doing Cripz because it’s an opportunity to talk candidly about disability and have a laugh at inaccessibility. It’s also an opportunity for some interesting creative resistance opportunities, like Stairbombing, which aim to use the power of art as ammunition in the fight for disability rights.
Tell us a bit about Cripz: A web comic, how did you come up with the idea and what role do you think it plays in terms of disability activism?
Cripz: A Webcomic was an idea my girlfriend, Clara Madrenas, and I came up with a few years ago aimed at reframing the discussion around what it means to be disabled and what life with a disability is truly like. We both found the average representations of disability in the media were horrible, so we decided to start telling our own stories through Clara’s wonderful art skills and my web savvy.
Cripz tells the story of three teens, two who are in wheelchairs, as they try and make their way through the dangerous world of high school in Ontario. The two disabled characters, Rhett and Griff, are polar opposites of each other as Rhett is a radical disability revolutionary who seeks the armed overthrow of the ableist majority while Griff is mostly interested in making money and getting girls. The third character, Kate, is the glue that holds the group together as she plays a happy medium between the two, with equal parts of Rhett’s brains and Griff’s charisma.I guess the biggest motivator to putting together Cripz is a labour of love—we really enjoy the story and the characters and are compelled to produce it for close friends and ourselves. In many ways, Cripz is a bit of therapy for us, as it’s a chance laugh at the tragedy of ignorance in our community and the absurdity of government policy. Broadly speaking though, we hope Cripz will help people “lighten up” about disability, realize it’s not all doom and gloom, and maybe be inspired a bit by characters like Rhett and become more radical in their day-to-day resistance of ableism.
On your website and web comic you allow your readers the opportunity to provide comments and reactions. Is this a valuable process? How do you use this feedback? Which issue of “Cripz” has received the most feedback and why do you think this is?
We think it’s always important to provide an opportunity to start discussions. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to really engage on websites anymore, opting to keep discussions to places like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. It’s interesting because we have had some great discussions about episodes of the comic, but most of them have happened elsewhere and not on the website itself. One of our most “contentious” episodes, which had the most comments both and on off the website, was called “Ridiculous” and focused on a poll run in the London Free Press. The local paper asked “Spending $12M on London crosswalk traffic-light buttons is: Ridiculous or Reasonable?” As you probably expected, 86% of over 1000 votes went with “Ridiculous.” Of course, what they left out in this discussion was that the expense was, in part, because the city wanted to install crosswalk buttons that were accessible for people who are blind/low vision and this cost is only fractionally more expensive than it would be if inaccessible buttons were installed—the real expense is the physical labour to install the devices. To parody this, we made a comic about a blind man getting run over by a car and a wealthy onlooker claiming that accessible buttons are clearly a waste of taxpayer money. This episode was featured on a couple local blogs, was retweeted a ton on twitter, and was picked up by the London Free Press in an attempt to save face on their brutal poll. I think this story really shows the power of satire and humour when fighting for disability rights—people thought the strip was cheeky and cute and, as such, passed it on to their friends until it became too big for the LFP to ignore. Its unlikely people would pass around pissed off letter to the editor with the same vigor because that stuff is such a bummer to read.
Cripz often serves as a critique of society and media representations of disabled people especially your episode “Starring Role”, have you noticed any considerable changes in media representations in the past 5 years? Explain.
It’s really hard to say if the media is getting better at disability or not. There are certainly ebbs and flows when it comes to news coverage of disability, as you will get one really insightful and critical story followed by a paternalistic piece of trash. I think there are a growing number of “cool” disabled characters in the mainstream media, including a very progressive representation of spinal cord injury on the show Friday Night Lights and the always hilarious South Park and Family Guy that poke fun at the stupidity of disabled characters in other shows. What we really need are more people with disabilities getting involved in the production and distribution of media pieces—that’s how things will improve the fastest.
From your website it is apparent that you use many social networking tools. Which do you find is the most valuable to connect with your audience? Which do you think has the most potential?
Twitter is an amazingly active community, despite being quite small and specialized in Canada. We’ve made some really great friends on Twitter over the past year and they’ve been really helpful in pushing out the content and getting more people reading our work. We’ve also found some great discussion on content aggregator websites like Reddit and Stumbleupon, where we’re able to reach a population that have little contact with people with disabilities, which is one of our primary targets when producing the comic.
At Independent Living Canada, we recognize the critical importance of youth leadership in the disability community, what do you see as being your role as a young leader in the community?
Sacrificial Lamb? Turncoat? In all seriousness, this is a question I’ve asked myself before and I can’t say I have a satisfying answer for you. I’ve often wondered what role I could play and, more specifically, what roles need filling. Compared to the civil rights movement in the USA, does the disabled community need a moral leader like Dr Martin Luther King? What about a media savvy one like Malcom X? Or militant leaders like Huey Freeman? I’m not so sure disability rights is comparable to some of these past struggles, and rather, we all need to make a bit of revolution happen in our own lives, every day, rather than waiting on someone else to do it for us. Isn’t that part of the problem to begin with, being reliant on other people to do everything for us? With a group as diverse as the disabled community, it’s impossible to have just one or two leaders—we all must be leaders and we all need to get to work!But if we decide to take up arms and overthrow the normies, I vote Rhett to be our General.
Last year, Internets were abuzz over the past few weeks over the launch of the new Ben Stiller movie “Tropic Thunder” and the American-led boycott by advocates for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The argument is that the movie presents a negative representation of individuals with intellectual disabilities through a borderline-obsessive use of the word “retard” and a “Simple Jack” storyline, which allegedly aims for cheap laughs at the expense of people with intellectual disabilities.
Being a disabled advocate who is currently studying representations of disabilities in the media, I had to check out this movie and see what all the buzz was about. Although not immediately sure how I felt about the movie, upon further reflection I’ve decided I quite enjoyed it and don’t agree that this movie slanders individuals with disabilities.
Now, before I go any further, I will admit that I have never been diagnosed with an intellectual disability and do not consider myself to be directly a part of that community, although I did coach a Special Olympics hockey team for several years.
Having said that, I feel it’s important to look a little closer at this movie and not immediately classify it as trash just because it uses the cursed “R” word excessively. A quick glance at the Simple Jack storyline reveals the storyline is not taking shots at people with intellectual disabilities or attempting to get laughs at their expense. At its core, Tropic Thunder follows in the vein of many recent comedies, and arguably any comedy worth watching, in that it’s attempting to push the audience to a place they may not be overly comfortable confronting and then poking fun at our prudish perceptions. The goal here is to imply that these social faux pas may actually be ridiculous and require re-evaluation. What has been lost on some viewing this movie is that it’s a satire and is not attempting to make truthful claims about people with disabilities.
What this movie IS attempting to satirize, however, is Hollywood itself. Rather than poking fun at people with disabilities, Tropic Thunder is quite obviously taking aim at the Academy’s obsession with mentally challenged characters and the near-absurd parade of questionable movies that have been given the title of “masterpiece” simply because an actor pretends to have Down syndrome or autism (read: I Am Sam, The Rainman, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Forrest Gump, etc). It can be argued that these types of movies can be quite positive, inspiring audiences to “be better people.” At best, these movies help to show people that individuals with disabilities can contribute to society in a meaningful way, putting a face to disorders that are oft monolithic and marginalized.
But at their worst, films like I Am Sam contribute to a prevalent paternal superiority felt by the nondisabled, promoting the notion that people with disabilities have it so tough compared to everyone else and “normal folk” all have a lot to learn from those living the “simpler life.”
Ultimately, these films normalize what I like to call the “disabled hero syndrome,” where any accomplishment, no matter how easily achieved, place disabled character upon a pedestal of triumph. For accomplishing the simplest of tasks, we are often showered in patronizing complements and congratulations, to the point that every time I manage to go to the washroom anywhere but all over myself I half expect I’ll make headline news, complete with ticker-tape parades, a big achievement medal for bravery, and accolades raining from the rafters. While the disabled life can be difficult and sometimes we do go to extraordinary lengths to accomplish things some may consider medial or inconsequential, I’ve always found it strange when people are astonished and inspired by me completing a task that the nondisabled are simply expected to manage.
It is this superiority complex that Tropic Thunder so aggressively satirizes, to much success. If you ask me, we should not be boycotting or chastising Ben Stiller, we should be thanking him!