Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Medals or Bullets: possible fates in fiction vs. reality

While many readers of my last two novels have asked for a third companion piece about the later lives of Reid Conniff and Everett Forrester, I have yet to write so much as a sentence of such a project. But with historic and contemporary events reflecting what could be parts of their lives, the ideas keep forming like distant clouds. And by noticing current events, the fate disabled character Everett could be become one of either athletic glory or fatality from the end of a police gun.

First the Paralympics return, following the Rio, Brazil Olympics. Already, controversies have begun.
The Brazilian edition of Vogue magazine published photos of two soap opera stars that had been Photoshopped to make them look like amputees.

In ads for the Rio Paralympics, able-bodied models were hired, and then their limbs were Photoshopped to make them resemble amputees. This MetroNews article explains.  

Cleo Pires lost her right arm to Photoshop and Paulinho Vilhena was given a prosthetic leg. The campaign is even more outrageous because the magazine had two actual Paralympians at the photo shoot “as inspiration,” but they were not the subject of the campaign.

Vogue’s Brazilian edition said the aim of the campaign titled, “We’re all Paralympians,” is to bring visibility to the event and to help sell tickets. Fewer than 15 per cent of Paralympic tickets have been sold.

Brazilians took to Twitter to say the campaign is not only disrespectful, it also sends a negative message about people with disabilities. 

This and other issues were discussed with Actor RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad) who talked about the Paralympics and representation in TV and film for BBC's Channel 4 News. Look for it in their Facebook feed from Thursday August 25. Mitte will be in Rio as a commentator for the Paralympics.

Coverage on NBC starts Sept 9, but I doubt it'll have the expanse that the Olympics had. 2012's Paralympic events in London were expansively covered by BBC with live and recorded YouTube feeds, including the entire opening and closing ceremonies. I wrote about that back in 2012 (swimming hotties, in particular). You can view advance features, live stream and recorded competitions on the Paralympics YouTube channel.

At the same time I enjoyed watching the 2012 Paralympics, I was working on Message of Love, my sequel to Every Time I Think of You. I considered adding a chapter where Everett competes in the Paralympic Games of the time, with Reid attending. 

But trying to add a chronologically accurate description proved too problematic. The games of 1984 were divided between Great Britain and upstate New York (Wikipedia history and chronology). Besides, it would have upstaged the story I'd already created. But if I do pen a third part of the books, I might include Everett's deft basketball skills in a section. Who knows? Maybe a little javelin throwing.

Daniel Harris memorial

... or a Bullet
But athletic glory is a fate for an elite few thousand able to train and compete. For others, just remaining alive is a more difficult goal.

The number of cases of disabled people shot by the police have either grown or become more widely reported. The most recent deaths involved a deaf man and a man with autism.

As RT.com reports: Daniel Harris, a North Carolina man killed by a state trooper last week was “afraid” of police because of previous misunderstandings due to his deafness, his brother said. Harris was shot and killed outside his home in Charlotte, North Carolina last week.

State Trooper Jermaine Saunders said he chased Harris for 10 miles after attempting to pull him over for speeding on Interstate 485. Harris, who was deaf, could not hear the siren – or the trooper’s commands – and was attempting to communicate in sign language when Saunders shot him.

Charles Kinsey and a disabled client
It's rather stupid to state, as some have, that, 'if only the suspect had behaved properly, s/he would not have been shot,' when a man who lay down, hands up in surrender, was shot anyway. North Miami police shot Charles Kinsey while he was trying to help an autistic client. The widely covered mishap showcases the "guns first" tactics of police, particularly with people of color, or the disabled. God forbid they target someone who is both.

While one involved a deaf man, and others have mental -and not always visible- disabilities, it made me consider again how potentially dangerous being a wheelchair user can be.

Certainly, my paraplegic fictional character Everett has an advantage of male white privilege, and is able to communicate, but the real life cases show the horrors people face when misunderstood by police with guns who are untrained in dealing with those with communication problems.

But the statistics are shocking. According to NBC, Half of people killed by police have a disability. 

Korryn Gaines, shot by police
The report published by the Ruderman Family Foundation, states
that 'while police interactions with minorities draw increasing scrutiny, disability and health considerations are still neglected in media coverage and law enforcement policy.'

"Police have become the default responders to mental health calls," wrote the authors, historian David Perry and disability expert Lawrence Carter-Long, who analyzed incidents from 2013 to 2015. They propose that "people with psychiatric disabilities" are presumed to be "dangerous to themselves and others" in police interactions.

Another case: In Maryland, Korryn Gaines was shot and killed by police while with her five-year-old son, who was also shot and injured.

There are, however, a lot of other related details in this case, including prior warrants, and what Gaines documented as harassment, and, on the day of her death, a long stand-off, and the fact that Gaines had a gun. Her brief live Facebook recording of the event was cut short by Facebook, by police request.

Will this pattern continue, because police are not trained to assist and prevent a problem situation? Will we know about any of such fatalities if they're not documented by civilians, or when their accounts are censored by corporate social media?
These are difficult and complicated issues, obviously, and many other deaths could have been prevented. Here are five more cases going back to 2013.

Story vs. reality
It's important to pay attention to how these cases are covered. Writing fiction and journalism that doesn't represent disabled people can also be as callous and uninformed as the misguided Brazil Vogue ad campaign.  

[Update 2018] But even government information in the U.S. and around the world are lacking. A recent study found that over 96% of government websites exclude disabled men and women from showing on webpages:

"To explore this phenomenon, we researched over 500 government websites from all corners of the map. Our investigation unveiled that a majority of the websites tested had no photos of the disabled at all within its online pages. In many countries, this means that disabled citizens remain completely unacknowledged by their governing state. These people, who contribute to society and should enjoy the same human rights, deserve to be better represented. In a world that strives for equality, the disabled still suffer from a systemic prejudice that remains overlooked by most – which brings us on to a more worrying figure: less than 4% showed disabled people on non-medical pages

"Furthering our investigation, we also broke down where on the website disabled people appeared. Unfortunately, for the majority of the examples, they existed on health and medical pages, which once again pigeonholes the disabled and shuns them from complete social acceptance. The discovery that less than 4% of the pictures existed on non-medical pages was shocking in some ways, but you just have to browse a few sites to be faced with the reality of the situation."

 See WebsitePlanet for more details.  

Novelist Nicola Griffith's Do's and Don'ts of Writing About the Disabled offers some other pointers on promoting visability: 

"For example, if you think that using a wheelchair would make you feel trapped, isolated, broken, and shunned, you might assume a wheelchair user regards themselves as trapped, isolated, broken, and shunned. But they might not. For some of us, a wheelchair represents freedom, the ability to get out and about autonomously; it is a device that makes more possible a life full of friends and work and opportunity—on our own terms. In other words, one’s empathy can be unreliable."

Whether a mental or physical disability, it's more than clear that more understanding and training are needed by first responders and police in every city. And when writing about such events, even fictionally, be sensitive and careful. And do your homework.

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