For many disabled people, a handicap takes form of angry or heroic stereotypes

April 13, 1993|By Boston Globe

The lazy black. The miserly Jew. The dumb Pole. The ditsy woman. Unfair, unacceptable stereotypes. We all know better than to cast people this way. At least, we should.

There is another stereotype that rings just as sour to some of the people involved, but it is so little recognized by the rest of us that a portrayal of it won the Academy Award this year for best actor: the angry, bitter disabled person.

As in the foul-mouthed, nasty, friendless Lt. Col. Frank Slade, the protagonist of "Scent of a Woman," played by Al Pacino and directed by Martin Brest. An earlier example was the quadriplegic man played by Richard Dreyfuss in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" who, furious about his disability, fights for the right to commit suicide.

Leaders of the disability rights movement say that this theme -- an enraged and bitter disabled person who must be redeemed by an able-bodied companion -- is depicted again and again in movies, books, plays and television shows. It's a depiction, they say, that has real-life implications, isolating the disabled even more from the able-bodied, and subtlely blaming the disabled for the frustrations they experience. A scathing article on "Scent of a Woman" was the cover story in the March issue of Mainstream, a magazine of the "able-disabled."

Disabled people, like everyone else, do at times get angry or bitter, activists say, and it's worth noting that Mr. Pacino's character is supposed to have been nasty before he was blinded. It's also true that Mr. Pacino prepared for the role by spending time with blind people, and was briefed by a service agency for the blind in New York. But what rankles some disability rights advocates is that story after story shows them this way. And if the dramas don't depict them as angry and bitter, the stories are likely to show them in another distorted way, as heroically overcoming all odds, by dint of individual stamina and courage, to achieve great things.

Both stereotypes hurt. If non-disabled people assume that disabled people are often angry and bitter inside, who would want to hire them? Or date them? Or have them as friends?

Furthermore, both stereotypes isolate the disabled as different from the rest of us, not only physically but emotionally. They imply that it is a personal, moral failing of the disabled to cope that stymies them, not the myriad social forces that act as barriers against their success.

"Able-bodied people have a way within the media and movies of creating us either as superheroes or pathetic objects," says Michael W. Auberger, co-founder of ADAPT, a Denver-based disability rights group. "There's very little in between. You can't just be an average Joe. . . . You've got to be a hero. And you're not."

These two stereotypes, bitter or too-brave-for-words, seem antithetical, says Bonnie L. O'Day, 37, former director of the Boston Center for Independent Living, who has been blind since birth, "but in reality, I think they're two sides of the same coin. Which is the whole dimension of blindness as 'other.' . . . It really gets back to the imagery we have in our literature of blindness as darkness and darkness as evil."

Ms. O'Day, now working toward a doctorate at Brandeis University in public policy, said she has heard enough from blind friends who were offended by "Scent of a Woman," that she has decided to skip it. "It seemed to play into and promote the stereotypes of blind people that many of us are trying so hard to fight against.

"In a sense, I'm boycotting it."

A spokeswoman for Universal City Studios declined to comment about the issue.

Objections to the Pacino movie are not unanimous among the disabled community, which is far from unified itself. A spokeswoman for the National Federation of the Blind declined to comment on the movie, saying she had heard both positive and negative reactions to it.

When Mr. Pacino accepted his Oscar, he thanked a Manhattan service agency, the Associated Blind Inc., which he visited to prepare for the role, talking to blind people about their experiences. Edgar Sternstein, executive director of the agency, says he believes that many newly blinded people do go through a period of anger and bitterness at first, and he thought Mr. Pacino played a blind man "beautifully."

Mr. Sternstein did say that the movie's depiction of Slade's sense of smell being heightened is a false old notion; when a person loses one sense, he may use another sense more actively, but the other sense does not become more acute. In "Scent of a Woman," Mr. Pacino announces to each woman he meets what brand of perfume or soap she uses.

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