Sunday, January 25, 2009

Foundation for a Better[?] Life

Do readers of this blog have opinions or, better yet, inside knowledge about the "Foundation for Better Life" advertising campaign? Their advertisements are very prominent here on the Temple University campus and perhaps the university campus near you. I've begun to wonder what does it means the academic pursuit of disability studies at Temple University when the foundation's posters are more prominent than the fliers for our disability studies events. On a recent trip to New York to attend the American Historical Association conference, I encountered even more prominent billboards paid for by the same foundation featuring Helen Keller and espousing a "just do it," overcoming disability mentality.

It is noteworthy how frequently this foundation's "inspirational" campaign feature prominent people with disabilities, particularly those who have achieved a celebrity status, such as Christopher Reeve, Paralympic sprinter Marlon Shirley and the surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost an arm to a shark attack and has remained dedicated to the sport. Disability becomes an opportunity to encourage the viewer, whether 'normal' or 'disabled' to pick themselves up by their bootstraps.

Wheelchair Dancer has written on the "Devotion" campaign featuring father and son marathon runners Dick and Rick Hoyt, which she believes implies that "it is an act of extreme devotion [for father Dick] to push [Rick] through the marathons." It is instructive to read the viewer comments that the Foundation has received in response to this and other advertisements, including unanswered questions.

I would be interested to know how many of you have seen these posters in these commities and on your campuses, and if so, what were the themes? What were your initial thoughts - what do you see as the purpose of this campaign? Give the breadth of the campaign, I am trying to figure out why I have only seen the ones featuring celebrities with disabilties. I am also wondering if there has been any attempt by disability activities to communicate with this foundation or to contest their tactics. Your contributions and suggestions are welcome here.


FridaWrites said...

I've only seen a Hoyt billboard, but with these shorthand media depictions, people only get a very selective view of disability. They get a snapshot of Reeve looking strong, of Shirley about to sprint, of Hamilton holding a surfboard. They don't show the difficulties these people have to overcome--the looks Shirley and Hamilton must receive, the difficulties of clearing vent tubing that's become blocked once again, etc.

In addition, these people can more easily be labeled as "strong" or having "overcome" because they're celebrities. Someone encountering a person who experiences a barrier or medical difficulty may easily make comparisons--look at Christopher Reeve, look at Helen Keller, without realizing the barriers and medical difficulties they faced too. These depictions imply that the only barriers are the physical disability and that we'd just better stop "whining" and doing more.

I would far rather see billboards of the Berkeley activists with the wheelchairs parked in front of buses. This is the real activism (not that these others aren't activists--I don't know, but they aren't depicted in activist ways).

Another dad refers to me as Iron Woman, but he sees all of these barriers, physical and medical, and his own brother uses a wheelchair. He knows the myths and that overcoming isn't completely possible--but that I'm strong enduring through that.

FridaWrites said...

From the poster on the Everest climber who's blind:
"He has never let his blindness interfere with his passion for an exhilarating and fulfilling life."

I hate that typical media trope "he/she never let x disability interfere"--it implies that other people do or implies that disability is antithetical to joy, living, etc. It makes me shudder.

Why is it that only people with disabilities realize the stereotypes that prevail? Every journalist who writes these lines thinks that he or she is writing something original, without realizing every other journalist thinks the same way. It's like what I was told as a freshman writer--don't start papers with "in today's society," because everyone writes it.

Here's that link:

Terri said...

I am aching for the day when we hear the story of a person with a disability living their life and think that they need a bigger story to be impressed. I want people to be incensed that there are societal barriers, not wowed by heroic overcoming of them.

hymes said...

I have had an "Attitudes Are the Real Disability" bumper sticker on my old car for years. Yesterday for the first time someone with a disability who was feeling down on themselves indicated that they took it to mean their attitude was their disability. It NEVER occured to me that someone could take the slogan that way until then. I almost feel like taking it off my car now. Of course I meant attitudes towards PWD are the real disability. But I wonder how many people with and without disabilities took it the way this person did all these years now?

Dirk Buchholz said...

awww yep we are "heroic" are we not.Imagine, we get on with our lives and do not let our "disabilities get in the way".
All said it's tough being "heroic",and the pay,well forget the pay...

william Peace said...

I have only seen the Hoyt billboard. None of the visual images are enlightening in terms of the meaning of disability. In fact I think they encourage and reinforce well worn stereotypes about disability. As Frida noted the billboards imply the main barriers people with disabilities encounter are physical. This is not only wrong but misleading. The billboards make me wish groups such as ADAPT had the same economic resources. Imagine what a well funded and connected disability rights movement could accomplish?

AbigailSchindler said...

Alison Kafer from Southwestern University has done some interesting work of this. She gave a fascinating talk here at UIC called "A Better Life for Whom? Queerness, Disability, and the Foundation for a Better Life". You might want to contact her to discuss it.

Heather Munro Prescott said...

I haven't seen the ad campaign but have seen the Hoyts at triathlons since the mid-1980s. The race announcers always mention how "inspirational" they are. Also, one year they asked for donations to fund their trip to the Ironman in Hawaii. This wasn't so they could raise awareness about disability issues, it was just so they could go to Hawaii.

FridaWrites said...

I was most appalled by the statement that blindness is not a limitation. While I understand the intent, the climber is going to fall into one of those giant ice crevasses without some direction/assistance from others and there are certain occupations that are just going to be off limit (as there are for me using wheels or with severe back problems). There also has to be accommodation made for a disability so we're not excluded from participation where we can do so. Thus the seeming Western individualist mentality here overlooks that accommodation is required.

I can't wait until someone says using a wheelchair is not a limitation (sarcasm here). Until a significant number of hiking trails are made accessible, it darn sure is a limitation on what I want to do. I have nothing against challenging trails, having tackled some of them, but I'd like to spend more time going for longer runs than I can do now.

Mike Dorn said...

Thanks Abigail, I would like to read Alison Kafer's paper. As stated earlier, I could only stand so much of this campaign before having to get my two cents out there. I am also appalled that the website has people out 'spotting' and photoblogging their own billboards. It seems like the ultimate in using disability to reify or spiritualize the landscape of ablieism.

JudiElise said...

After visiting the homepage of FBL and viewing some of the images, all I thought of was "if the world was just that simple."

I am not angry at them. Perhaps, they can do some good somewhere, but not in the real world. Makes me think of huge, motivational calendars with pictures of sweeping landscapes. Nice to go "ooh" and "aaah," but I don't live there.


Rob said...

I haven't seen the ads, but recently posted about the idea that we can all simply overcome our disabilities, We need more realistic images, concepts, etc.

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