Tuesday, December 9, 2008

NYT Neediest Cases: Hurting more than helping?

I realize that the people featured in The New York Times holiday series "The Neediest Cases" receive much-needed assistance by appearing in the stories. But I am concerned that these stories heap more stigma on the people with disabilities, whose lives are already often misrepresented in the news media. These stories embody what is known as "the Tragedy/Charity Model, which depicts disabled people as victims of circumstance, deserving of pity."

This time of year these stories of "Neediest Cases" of people with disabilities appear every few days in The NY Times.

This Dec. 8 story about Elsa Tirado (pictured) seems to present her as a neediest case because she uses a wheelchair. I do like the picture, however, because it shows the obvious joy she gets from activities like a stroll near the beach.

And a Nov. 29 "Neediest Case" described in great detail a woman with cerebral palsy, who uses a speech synthesizer. Speech synthesizers are becoming pretty common these days, so I found the "gee whiz" tone of this lead a bit condescending:

Precisely and laboriously, hunting and pecking at a diminutive keyboard that emitted a disembodied electronic voice, Susan Krause was explaining how much her home has meant to her for 57 years, and how glad she is to have escaped eviction.

Tap, tap, tap. Hunched in a wheelchair in her living room, she searched the keyboard with her fingers and made a voice synthesizer say: “It’s a country place.” She was referring to Stuyvesant Town, the 80-acre Manhattan residential development that is the only home she has ever known. More tapping: “But it’s within a big city.”

Her machine-made words, as they emerged every 20 seconds, revealed a witty, irrepressible spirit in a body that must contort itself heartbreakingly if Ms. Krause is to convey even a single thought. Her intensity was such that she seemed to be tapping not just to talk, but to live, to liberate herself from the lifelong restrictions imposed by cerebral palsy.

But wait, that otherworldly voice — surely it was familiar? Didn’t it sound like — Stephen Hawking?