Wednesday January 11, 2017

Meryl Streep's speech was patronizing to people with disabilities

On the left, Meryl Streep refers to Donald Trump's mocking of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski (who she does not name), in January 2017. On the right, a screenshot of Donald Trump while mocking Kovaleski, in November 2015.

On the left, Meryl Streep refers to Donald Trump's mocking of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski (who she does not name), in January 2017. On the right, a screenshot of Donald Trump while mocking Kovaleski, in November 2015. ((Paul Drinkwater/NBC via AP, and CNN))

Listen 11:22

Meryl Streep's speech exploited disabled people more than it stood up for them.

That's how Kim Sauder interprets the actor's Golden Globe speech, which was both celebrated and criticized for taking down Donald Trump. 

"If you're throwing disabled people under the bus to make a bigger message, then you're probably going to end up with a world in which that group is still disadvantaged at the end of the day." - Kim Sauder, crippledscholar.com 

In it, Streep chastised Trump for disrespecting a "disabled reporter,"  in November of 2015. But Sauder says Streep was just using the reporter, whose name is Serge Kovaleski, to try to gather pity, and emotion. And that she says, was in some ways, just as bad as Trump. 

The following is a transcript of Kim Sauder's conversation with Jim Brown.

Kim Sauder

Kim Sauder blogs and tweets as "Crippled Scholar." She's also completing a PhD in Critical Disability Studies at York University. (Provided )

What was the problem with Meryl Streep's speech? 

The problem with Meryl Streep's speech is that it reduces Serge Kovaleski, and by extension, other disabled people, to an object for the purpose of furthering a separate political agenda. It doesn't look at what really happened in that instant when Donald Trump was mocking Serge Kovaleski, it doesn't look at the actual impact of what  that means for disabled people, it just uses it as a way to further a separate political agenda. 

So Trump mocked him, but in a sense Streep just sort of labelled him "the disabled reporter"?

Well Streep didn't do that, the media's been doing that since the incident happened. And she's been playing on what has become a very iconic moment, and a very iconic narrative, that was created by outsiders of that moment. So, Serge Kovaleski lost his name, and became "that disabled reporter" that Streep very clearly said had no privilege, power, or ability to fight back, even though the whole reason that the mocking took place at all is because Serge Kovaleski fact-checked Trump. So, clearly he was speaking to power already, and then people got so angry at that moment, that they've been silencing him right along with Trump, ever since. 

"So, clearly he [Kovaleski] was speaking to power already, and then people got so angry at that moment, that they've been silencing him right along with Trump, ever since." - Kim Sauder

That's the part of  the story that everybody forgets to talk about,  the fact that Kovaleski was fact-checking Trump's claims that Muslims were celebrating as the towers were coming down in 9/11. 

Exactly, because Trump used Kovaleski's piece, which literally just says that police interviewed some people about allegations that people were celebrating in 9/11. It never specified who was celebrating, how many people were celebrating, or whether those allegations had actually proven to be true. 

Sept 11 2001 world trade center tower 394261_11_tower

Donald Trump mocked reporter Serge Kovaleski because Kovaleski disproved Trump's statement that Muslims celebrated after the 9/11 attacks. (Robert Giroux/Getty)

Now a lot of people, when they were polled during the election, pointed to that moment, of Trump mocking Kovaleski, and said that was the most disturbing thing about the entire campaign. What does that fact tell you? 

That it's easier to empathize, or to pity, disabled people, than it is to look at the fact that Trump had already said that there should be a registry for Muslims, which is what he was defending, when he mocked Serge Kovaleski. [And that] when he said that Mexicans were rapists, that disabled people is a more palatable group to rally around and protect, as long as you don't actually have to know what the issues that affect them are. 

What's the bigger issue for you? 

That Trump is seriously dangerous to disabled people. He is taking their health care, he'll cut, services, there's issues of access to education, accessibility, the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act]. These are the things that disabled people need others to be focused on helping them to fight for support for. And, just focusing on the bullying, isn't actually going to do that. 

Serge Kovaleski

Serge Kovaleski is an investigative reporter with the New York Times. He called out Donald Trump after Trump appeared to cite a story Kovaleski wrote for the Washington Post after 9/11, as the source of Trump's claims that Muslims celebrated after the terrorist attacks. (Twitter )

But isn't that also a demonstration of compassion? We heard Streep referencing compassion in her speech, isn't she showing compassion by calling out Trump's disrespect of Kovaleski? 

Not really, because if you don't understand the issue, and what is actually going on and the impact of it, or the impact of how you talk about it, compassion and empathy very quickly just become pity. 

So it's a, sort of a paternalism, or a kind of, sense of needing to protect a segment of society that needs our protection?

Yes. Exactly. 

But if we were really listening, we'd be much more concerned about things like access, and fairness, and not about some guy mocking some other guy in a speech. 

Exactly, I mean, because bullying is clearly wrong, and it shouldn't have happened, and it needs to be called out, but it needs to be called out in the context of why that particularly is bad and because..it's silences disabled people, not just because it's mean. 

"Bullying is clearly wrong...but it needs to be called out in the context of why that particularly is bad...because of what, how it silences disabled people, not just because it's mean." - Kim Sauder

Now, a lot of people are going to hear this, and they're going to be coming at this interview with their own reaction that they've had to Meryl Streep's speech, over the past few days, and they're going to hear you sort of challenging that reaction, but I think those people probably think that their reaction is coming from a really good place, and that Meryl Streep's speech is coming from a really good place. So how do you sort of make all that fit together? 

I mean, people always talk about intentions, but I'm really more concerned about effective outcomes. Her intentions probably weren't to overtly put forward disability rights because, although people seem to think that the second disability is mentioned anywhere, that suddenly that's what people are doing. Her intention was to draw attention to protecting the media and making sure we have a free and open media, and she used disability to do that. 

And, I'm not attacking Meryl Streep, I'm not trying to say that, fighting Trump, is wrong - it's clearly very good - but the problem is...when you're fighting for a better world, who is going to be included in that world? 

If you're throwing disabled people under the bus to make a bigger message, then you're probably going to end up with a world in which that group is still disadvantaged at the end of the day. So, it's not to say that everything she said, or her intentions were bad, it's how she went about doing it, and people need to start looking very critically at how they advocate for a better world and who is actually going to be included in that better world. 

Accessible Icon Project

Kim Sauder says disabled people face bigger issues than being disrespected by Donald Trump - issues like accessibility, and health care. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

Is part of the problem also the fact that these are able-bodied people, defending disabled people? 

Yes and no. I mean, in order to have a better society, disabled people require non-disabled people to actually get on board with that. The problem comes from when people don't ask and listen and learn and have us actively included in the conversation, and that was one of my other big issues with Meryl Streep particularly doing this. She was talking about how actors, as their profession, go into the lives of other people so that they can tell stories and show people that aren't actors how what those lives are like, what that feels like. Hollywood and television generally, is an industry that is very exclusionary to disabled people, we aren't really there, so you've got a bunch of non-disabled people, writing stories, acting those lives, about disabled people, without any meaningful inclusion of actual disabled people. And presents that like, "we tell these stories so you know what that feels like," so she's saying "what we're doing is true." And that's a problem, because Hollywood has a very checkered history of how it portrays disability, and it's generally very stereotyped, negative, and not particularly realistic. 

For all the people out there, who come at this with the assumption that the lives of disabled people are more difficult than their own lives, and so their gut reaction is to feel some sympathy, what should they do instead? 

Remember that a lot of the reasons why the lives of disabled people is harder is not because it's inherently harder to be a disabled person, it's harder to be a disabled person because we live in a society that doesn't give us opportunities, that isn't accessible to us. It's something that is done to us. So, we need to make the world a place where we aren't socially marginalized, and are given opportunities to speak for ourselves.