Disability Issues in Media: a Comparison

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How are people with disabilities viewed through the media? Are they viewed positively or negatively? Are they shown having real, meaningful, reciprocal relationships? For this assignment, I have chosen three very different examples to examine using these questions. The first is a classic film set in a psychiatric institution in the late 1950s ? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). This film provides a realistic portrayal of institutional living during a time when the medical model of disability theory was the norm.

The second film, Born on the Fourth of July, tells the story of a young man, Ron Kovic, and his struggle to make sense of his life after being paralyzed from the chest down while serving in the Vietnam War. This was a tumultuous time in American Society and one that led to a major shift in the lives of people with disabilities. My third example is a children’s novel, Mine For Keeps, about a young girl with cerebral palsy returning to live with her family after spending a number of years at a boarding facility for children with disabilities.

Although this story was written in 1962, it provides a great example of a current model of care ? empowerment and self-determination. These three examples are different in many ways but I believe they all demonstrate a positive view of people with disabilities. The reader/viewer is not left with any negative stereotypes. Instead they are shown a realistic, human portrayal of people who live with a disability. All of the characters in these examples are strong, independent people who are empowered to make their own choices about their lives. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Film, 1975).

The Academy Award winning film starring Jack Nicolson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is based upon a novel of the same name. The novel was written in 1962 by Ken Kesey. Kesey based many of the novel’s secondary characters on real-life individuals he met while working at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital (Whitely & Goodman, 2005). As research for the novel, he worked the graveyard shift in the psychiatric ward and actually subjected himself to a real-life shock treatment. (Whitely & Goodman, 2005). The film opens with the protagonist, Randall P.

McMurphy (Mac), arriving at the ward of a mental institution. Mac has been convicted of statutory rape and instead of serving his time doing hard labour, he feigns mental illness and is committed to a mental hospital for evaluation. Upon arriving at the institution, he encounters the hospital’s supervisory nurse and the film’s antagonist, Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched runs the ward with a very strict routine and a firm set of rules. She holds all the power and faces no challenge to her authority ? until Mac arrives. Mac quickly discovers that the patients on the ward are “cowed under [her] iron thumb.

“(Loftus,n. d. ). With his rebellious nature and sense of fair play, Mac turns the ward upside down as he continually challenges Nurse Ratched’s strict rules. The relationship between Nurse Ratched and Mac is one of constant struggle. They both want to be in control of life on the ward. However, as neither Nurse Ratched nor Mac have a disability, for the purpose of this assignment, I will examine the relationships these two individuals have with the other patients on the ward. Nurse Ratched takes pride in running a very orderly, efficient ward.

She presides over the unchanging routine of medication, group therapy, recreation time, and sedation with “military precision. ” She remains calm and in control at all times. She speaks with a soft voice and a quiet smile, almost like she is a kindergarten teacher and the patients’ are her five-year-old students. However, unlike most teachers (I hope), she is condescending and controlling. She gives the patients no choices; instead she demands they stick to the schedule. She manipulates their behaviour through fear (fear of electro-shock therapy) and intimidation.

When Mac proposes a change to the work schedule so they can watch the World Series, Nurse Ratched pretends the proposal is open to a vote. When she ask the men to raise their hands if they would like to change the schedule, only Mac and one other patient raise their hands. The rest know better than to vote against Nurse Ratched. Through Nurse Ratched’s eyes, the patients are viewed negatively. She treats them as children. Children who need to be told what to do and to be reprimanded, even punished, when they misbehave.

Mac, on the other hand, treats the patients like his friends, his buddies. From the moment he walks onto the ward, he is smiling with the patients, joking with them, introducing himself. Even though he is told one of the patients, Chief Bromden is “dumb and deaf”; Mac continues to interact with him. He talks to him just like he would anybody else. Mac teaches Chief to play basketball (although this can also be viewed as being self-serving, Chief is very tall. Mac has him stand beside the hoop and everyone throws him the ball to drop in the basket). However, Mac’s interactions with Chief have a profound effect.

The Chief warms to Mac, and he starts talking again. He had been pretending that he couldn’t talk so that he wouldn’t have to participate in life on the ward. Chief had chosen to shut himself off but Mac made him want to interact again, to live again. Mac and Chief talk about escaping from the institution to live in Canada. When Mac becomes immobile after a lobotomy, Chief follows their dream and leaves the institution. While Mac has been committed to the institution and cannot leave until the medical team at the hospital feels he is ready, most of the other men on the ward are voluntary patients.

When Mac discovers this, he cannot understand it. “What are you doing here? ” he tells them, “What, you think you’re crazy or something? You’re no more crazy than the average Joe on the street! ” Mac continually challenges the patients in this way. He also shows them what life can be like by taking them fishing, organizing basketball games, and throwing a party on the ward. He shows them how to laugh and have fun. By treating them like human beings, like adults, he gives them confidence. He empowers them. Many of the patients begin to stand up to Nurse Ratched. They begin to question her.

When Nurse Ratched decides to ration their cigarettes, one patient stands up and demands to have his cigarettes. “I ain’t no little kid! ” he shouts. Of course, his demanding, rebellious behaviour results in punishment – he is sent for electro-shock therapy. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest takes place at the end of the 1950s, when institutionalization was the norm for people with disabilities. The movie was shot on location at the Damasch State Hospital in Salem, Oregon thereby providing a realistic, almost documentary-like, background for the film. (Stagoll, 121).

Many of the patients at the institution were extras and the role of Dr. Spivey, the head psychiatrist was played by the Superintended of the hospital, Dr. Dean Brookes. (Stagoll, 121). The institution is a cross between a hospital and a prison. It is white, stark and cold. There are bars on all the windows and locks on all the doors. The nurses wear crisp, white uniforms and they work behind a glass enclosure. When they need to speak with a patient, they address him over a microphone from behind the glass. The microphone is also used to announce the strict daily schedule?

“medication time, gentlemen”; “recreation time, gentlemen”. Very little care or affection is demonstrated between the staff and the patients. The end of the 1950s and early 60s was also a time when youth around the world began to challenge conformity and the status quo. The novel was written at the beginning of the counter-culture movement (the novel’s author, Ken Kesey, was whole-heartedly involved in this movement). Nurse Ratched personified the power and control exhibited by large government and businesses (Ross, 2002).

Mac’s struggle against her is viewed as fighting the “establishment, institutional authority and status-quo attitudes” that existed during this time (Ross, 2002). The anti-establishment attitude led to the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement and eventually, the Disability Rights Movement. During this time, the medical model towards disability was challenged as were institutions for housing the mentally ill. When this film was released in 1975, the Disability Rights Act (1972) had already been passed, but the film brought the reality of institutional living into mainstream America.

As Brian Stagnoll notes: ?the depiction of [electro-shock therapy] was shocking in 1975? The film let the public into mental hospitals in ways that had never happened before, and the reaction was emotionally charged. The after-effects of the shock still linger. Born on the Fourth of July (film, 1989) Based on the biography of Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July tells how Kovic became an anti-war political activist after being paralyzed in combat. Growing up in a catholic home in a small, patriotic town, Kovic believes that serving in Vietnam was an honour and a duty.

As a teenager, he is utterly convinced of the importance of his country’s mission in Vietnam and enlists in the Marine Corps as soon as he has the chance. While in Vietnam, Kovic witnesses horrors he could never have imagined, yet he still remains faithful to his country and serves a second tour of duty. It is during this tour that he is shot in the spine and paralyzed from the chest down. After returning to the United States and feeling contempt from anti-war activists, Kovic feels betrayed. He becomes lost, and struggles to find meaning in his life.

After attending a few rallies with an old friend, Kovic starts to have a change of heart about the honourableness of the war and soon becomes a protester and anti-war activist. Relations with his family and friends are strained upon his return. Paralyzed from the chest down, Kovic tells others “not to feel sorry for me? I have my heart, my hands? ” Yet people everywhere, including his family, do feel sorry for him. They look at him with pity. When Kovic’s mother embraces her wheelchair-bound son for the first time, “the camera catches her eye, registering discomfort and disaffection.

The hometown folk treat Kovic with mild condescension and, like his mother, constantly avert their gaze. ” (Sharrett, 1990). Kovic’s relationship with his mother becomes more difficult as he struggles to make sense of the war and his life. His mother had always been for the Vietnam War and her patriotism and anti-communist views influenced Kovic’s decision to enlist in the Marines. Therefore, he feels a sense of anger towards his mother for what has happened to him. After a night of heavy drinking, he confronts his mother about her pro-Vietnam War stance as well as her treatment of him now that he is disabled.

“You are ashamed of me! ” he shouts at her. Kovic’s relationship with his younger brother also suffers after he returns from the war. His brother is against the war and tries to leave the room when Kovic starts spouting patriotic rhetoric. An argument ensues and Tommy says, “? you served your country, and look at you? ” Kovic replies with, “what’s wrong with me? ” Tommy feels his brother’s life has been destroyed now that he is paralyzed. When Kovic first returns from the war, he is positive and upbeat. He wants to do things for himself.

He is always telling people he doesn’t need help, he’s okay. But the negative attitudes towards him, his disability, and the war combine with the post-traumatic stress from combat finally wear on him. He sinks into a depression and begins drinking heavily. Eventually, Kovic comes to grips with his life and becomes an active voice in the anti-war movement. I actually felt that Kovic and his life as a disabled person was displayed positively in this movie. He struggles, but anyone who had been through what he had been through would struggle.

Even soldiers who aren’t injured suffer emotionally from the effects of combat. However, he overcomes his depression, faces his demons, and moves on with his life. Film critic Seligmann agrees: “? such films are not about handicaps, but about the strength of character that allows [Kovic] to move beyond [his] physical limitations and get on with life. ” Another writer, Eric Shaw (1990), disagrees with this viewpoint and feels that Ron Kovic portrays his disability negatively. He writes: Particularly shocking is the way the movie exploited the disabled.

Kovic deals with his injury in a selfish and spiteful manner. He becomes a burden to his family, and rejects and notion of returning to the normality of life in Long Island. Disabled people in the country struggle every day, heroically, proud of what they are able to accomplish and contribute. Kovic drinks himself into a rage, and head for a hedonist utopia in Mexico. Kovic does start to drink heavily at one point in the movie, but I don’t think this response to emotional pain is uncommon nor do I think it is solely a reaction to his disability.

Instead it is a reaction to the way society treated him both as a disabled person and a Vietnam veteran, along with traumatic events he witnessed in Vietnam itself. The film spans a number of years in Ron Kovic’s life, from when he was a little boy growing up in Massapequa, Long Island, to his tours of Vietnam, and then back to the United States after he was injured. The director, Oliver Stone, tried to make the film as real as possible and one segment that has been highly regarded for its realism is when Kovic spends time at the Bronx Veterans Hospital.

These scenes show what it was really like in the VA hospital: urine and drainage bags overflowing, rats roaming freely, naked men lined up on tables to be hosed down (their baths), rude and uncaring medical personnel. The hospital is filthy, overcrowded and underfinanced. The situation at the hospital becomes too much for Kovic who at one point shouts from his bed, “I just want to be treated like a human being! ” Mine For Keeps (Novel) Mine for Keeps was the first children’s novel written by Canadian author Jean Little.

First published in 1962, Mine for Keeps, is a story about 10-year-old Sally Copeland, a child living with cerebral palsy. The story begins with Sally returning home to live with her family and to attend a “normal” school after spending many years at a boarding facility for children with disabilities. Sally initially struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, to re-establish relationships with her family and to establish new friendships at a new school. Eventually, she makes two good friends, Elsje and Libby. Elsje, has a brother Piet, who believes he is “crippled like Sally” and therefore “unable to do anything”.

Sally and Elsje believe that they can help Piet by showing him what Sally is capable of doing and undertake to train Sally’s new puppy, a passion of Piet’s which he has given up due to his perceived disability. Sally is portrayed positively throughout the novel. Her disability provides her with challenges in certain situations but her parents have great foresight and are able to accommodate her needs. They are incredibly supportive and have high expectations for her. They do not try to “baby” her or keep her dependent on them. In contrast, they provide her with the tools she needs to live and learn independently.

For example, on Sally’s first morning home, her mother leaves her to dress herself. Sally immediately becomes upset thinking that her mother does not understand her difficulty with buttons, zippers, etc. She withdraws into her own sorrow without even looking at the clothes and trying to dress. Sally’s mother returns to show her that the clothes have been specially chosen for her. They do not have buttons, zippers or any other features that would be difficult for Sally to manipulate. When showing Sally these clothes, Sally’s mother explains to her why they have brought her home from boarding school.

Her parents and Ms. Jonas, the head teacher, believe that Sally has learned all she can from the boarding school and now it was time for her to start learning how to be independent. Their dream for Sally is that she grow into an independent adult, a person who “decides things for herself and does things for herself and for others. ” (24) They want Sally to have her own job, her own friends, her own money and her own freedom (24). Throughout the novel, Sally’s parents continually push her to do things for herself and they provide her with the tools to accomplish this task.

Sally’s relationship with other characters is, for the most part, very positive. The majority of her friends, family members and classmates treat her with respect. They are supportive and encouraging and they are reciprocal relationships, they are not paid relationships. Only two characters have difficulty overlooking Sally’s disability, her sister, Mindy and Eljse’s brother, Piet. Mindy often takes over for Sally, claiming that Sally “can’t do it”, especially when it comes to caring for the puppy. Mindy’s words are very powerful as Mindy is the older sibling and someone whom Sally looks up to.

When Mindy takes over for Sally, claiming that she can’t do it, Sally will let her. Whenever Sally is struggling at a task, Mindy’s words come into her mind and Sally feels that her sister is right, she really can’t do it. The other character in the novel who only sees Sally for her disability is Elsje’s brother, Piet. Elsje and Piet’s family has recently moved Holland to Canada. Soon after arriving, Piet becomes sick and spends months in bed. After recovering, he is diagnosed with a heart murmur that restricts him from participating in many of his favorite activities.

The combination of homesickness and his heart condition make Piet very angry and resentful. He focuses on all the things that he is not able to do as opposed to those things he can do. Therefore, when he looks at Sally, all he sees is her disability, her limitations. An important moment in the novel is when Piet says to Sally, “You! You cannot train her – you are? [cripple]. ” (Little, 152). Sally responds to this challenge with strength in her voice and her chin held high, “[b]ut I do want to, and I can! ” (Little, 153). After this event, Sally and her friends hatch a plan to show Piet just what Sally is capable of doing.

They set out to train Sally’s dog, Susie, in an effort to show Piet that just because he has a health problem it doesn’t mean that he can’t continue doing what he wants and loves, training animals. At the end of the story, Piet is asked to demonstrate what he has trained his dog, Wilem, to do. Piet is asked to do this in front of a group of people, both children and adults. Instead of running away or saying that he can’t do it, Piet steps up to the task and demonstrates his abilities. This is an important development for Piet. First, he finds himself surrounded by people who are encouraging and supportive.

Second, he completes a task that he had felt he was no longer capable of accomplishing. Finally, he recognizes that Sally is a strong, independent and capable person. Sally’s older sister, Mindy, also develops a more positive view of Sally throughout the novel. Near the end of the story, the girls’ mother finally takes Mindy aside to talk with her about how she has been treating Sally. Mindy had only wanted to help Sally, but by constantly telling her that she “can’t do it”, Mindy only succeeded in undermining Sally’s confidence. Mindy comes to realize that helping Sally doesn’t mean living her life for her.

It means giving her the support and the tools she needs to do it herself. Sally goes through some changes herself in this novel. At the beginning of the novel, Sally is apprehensive about moving back home and away from the comfort of the boarding school. At boarding school, Sally is surrounded by children “just like her”, children who live with a disability. When Sally is told that she will attend the local school with her brother and sister, she becomes extremely nervous. She sees herself as different from everyone else. But again, her parents are incredibly supportive. Her dad tells her that yes, “in one small detail, you are different.

You have a motor handicap. ” He goes on to say, “? don’t you see that the real you, the you that matters, has nothing to do with your braces and crutches? Your laugh, that’s part of the real you. Your dreams and your ideas. [sic]” (Little, 36). Sally still remains nervous but any child going to a new school would be nervous. She does have a difficult first day due to a lack of foresight on the part of her teacher but he quickly realizes his mistakes and makes accommodations for Sally. With the continued support of her parents, and then her teacher, Sally slowly starts to believe in herself.

When she gets a new puppy (who is nervous and scared) and is responsible for caring for him and then training him, Sally’s confidence continues to grow. She has a few ups and downs along the way but she continues towards her goal of training her puppy and helping Piet. The story takes place in a small Canadian town in the early 1960s. During this time, many people with disabilities were institutionalized. Sally’s parents do send her to a boarding school for children with disabilities but only because they feel the school will be able to help her in ways that they are not able to.

Once they feel that she has learned all that she can at that school, they bring her home to live with the family. In the town, there is a day school for children with disabilities but they do not send her there. They send her to the local public school with her brother and sister. Sally’s parents are very forward thinking. They see Sally as a “regular” child, just one who has motor difficulties and needs to use crutches. They have the same expectations of her as they do their other children, and they have hopes and dreams for her just as they do for their other children.

They want Sally to become independent; they want her to have a job, her own friends, and her own money. They want her to make her own decisions. Sally’s parents act as a support and a guide for her when she needs it but they do not live her life for her. Through their actions they are empowering Sally to make her own choices and to grow into an independent adult. Conclusion In my opinion, all three examples I have chosen portray the characters living with disabilities in a positive way. The prejudicial and stereotypic images as presented in the article “Handicapism” are not promoted to the audience in these stories (Bogdan and Biklen, 1977).

The disabled characters are not physically ugly, they are not violent, and they are not criminals. This is not to say that other characters in the stories do not express handicapism in their interactions with the disabled characters. For example, Nurse Ratched treats her patients as children. Often people with a mental disability are stereotyped as being childlike and simplistic (Bogdan and Biklen, 1977). Nurse Ratched and the other staff at the hospital perpetuate this stereotype by treating the patients like children who cannot (or should not) make decisions for themselves.

With the arrival of Mac, however, the patients break out of this role and begin to challenge Nurse Ratched’s authority and in turn, her control over them. In the end, however, it is only Chief Bromden who chooses to leave the hospital and really live his own life [Note: in the novel, all the characters leave the institution]. In the other two examples, Mine for Keeps and Born of the Fourth of July, both disabled characters, Sally and Ron Kovic respectively, are empowered to make their own decisions. They learn to lead independent lives; lives that are not dependent on service systems.

Through this assignment, I have learned to be more critical of media images surrounding disability. I am aware of handicapism and how the media plays a part in promoting negative (or positive) stereotypes about people with disabilities. Resources Bogdan, R. & Biklen, D. (March/April 1977). “Handicapism”. Social Policy. p14-19. Douglas, M (Producer) & Forman, M (Director). (1975). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Motion Picture]. USA: Warner Studios. Kitman Ho, A & Stone, O. (Producers), Stone, O. (Director). (1989). Born on the Fourth of July. [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal City Studios, Inc.

Little, J. (1962). Mine For Keeps. Toronto: Puffin Books. Loftus, D. (n. d. ) “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Movie Review”. Allwatchers. com. Retrieved 14 October 2005 from: www. allwatchers. com/Topics/Info_3893. asp “Not a Pretty Picture”. (Spring 1990). Accent on Living. Vol. 34, Issue 4, p68-76. Ross, J. (2001). “GradeSaver: ClassicNote: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Author of ClassicNote and Sources. ” Gradesaver. com. Retrieved on: 14 October 2005 from: http://www. gradesaver. com/classicnotes/titles/cuckoosnest/sources. html. Seligmann, J. & Wilson, L. (1/15/90).

“Heroes With Handicaps”. Newsweek. Vol. 115, Issue 3. Sharrett, C. (1990). “Film Reviews: Born on the Fourth of July. ” Cineaste; Vol. 17, Issue 4, p48. Shaw, E. (4/1/90) “Fallacy on the Fourth”. National Review. Vol. 42, Issue 6, p. 6 Stagoll, B. (Feb. 2003) “Books Reconsidered: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. ” Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. Vol. 37, Issue 1, p118-122 Whitley, P. and Goodwin, S. (2005) “One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest by Ken Kesey” Kingwood College Library. Retrieved on 14 October, 2005 from: http://kclibrary. nhmccd. edu/kesey. html

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