Happy Christmas! Daisy the Gator cartoon #2

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Happy Snappy Christmas!

Daisy the Gator #2

Panel One: Two Weeks Before Christmas.

Elinor is sitting at a table writing a huge stack of Christmas cards. Gator sits on the floor beside her with her tablet. She’s on Snapchat.

Elinor says, “Aren’t you sending any Christmas cards, Gator?”

Gator says, “Nope.”

Panel Two: Christmas Morning.

Elinor sits in her armchair holding one Christmas card with one small present beside her. Gator dances about in front of the fireplace waving cards with another huge stack of Christmas cards behind her and a huge pile of presents at her feet.

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Book Review: Earth Girl by Janet Edwards

Earth Girl (Earth Girl, #1)Earth Girl by Janet Edwards

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this very much despite not usually being the biggest fan of YA. But this book was charming and compelling. It painted a fascinating picture of a far-future society and ruined New York.

Possibly I’d have given it 4.5 stars if I’d had the option as I found the beginning a little slow and occasionally Jarra’s seeming ability to do everything did become a little grating (although late in the book the other characters tease her about this which greatly offsets this issue). But in the end I had to give it 5 stars because it’s not only a great read but it’s a *really good* book about disability, which is a rare thing indeed. Jarra is by no means a stereotype. She’s neither a saintly waif nor a bitter and twisted sinner. She’s neither helpless and tragic nor superhuman. She’s just a fairly ordinary, capable and determined young woman. So the book handles the disability issue superbly well even though Jarra’s “disability” wouldn’t actually be a disability at all for anyone in 2016. But maybe that’s the whole point. Disability is a fluid term and is as much about a society’s definition of what is “normal” as a person’s own limitations. I only wish there were more books like this.

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Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Nazi propaganda in disguise?

Me Before You (Me Before You, #1)Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I decided quite a long while ago not to do negative reviews. I write fiction myself, it doesn’t seem quite right somehow. But in cases like this where the book isn’t so much badly written as dangerous I feel the need to make exceptions. It’s actually disgraceful that this book was ever published. Shame on you Penguin Random House!

Okay so first of all I admit I didn’t read the whole book. I got as far as page 53 before giving up but that was quite far enough to figure out how the whole disability issue was being handled. Reading a novel is supposed to be fun or at least a mind expanding experience but for me trying to read this was just too painful. It was infuriating not to mention disturbing. It didn’t help my temper knowing that it was so popular and had received so many five-star reviews.

So instead of reading the whole book I skipped ahead to confirm what I’d already heard about it: that the book ends with the assisted suicide of the disabled character, Will Traynor. Now I’m not one of those rabid folks who are opposed to assisted suicide under any circumstances. On the contrary, I acknowledge some medical conditions are truly dreadful and I believe people should have the right to end their lives if they choose when their medical situation has become intolerable for them. But I don’t need to read the entire book to see that Will Traynor really isn’t very badly off. He’s merely a wheelchair user. He even has partial use of his hands. He has full use of his senses and his intelligence. He has no problems communicating. He’s an educated man and still an attractive one. There’s no end of things he could do with his life from a sitting position. Indeed he could easily have continued being a lawyer. He has so much to live for (okay, being a lawyer isn’t what I’d choose, but whatever). Why was it assumed he had to spend the rest of his days wallowing at home in self-pity?

As for his mental state, partial paralysis is something you get used to. In itself it isn’t a cause for lifelong depression. A sudden catastrophic accident such as the one Will suffered could be described as like a grief: for a time it’s very hard and upsetting but eventually people get over it and adjust to their new situation and carry on with their lives. Some people even say their lives improve after their accident. Sometimes a near death experience can make people re-evaluate their situation and give greater value to the life they have left. Other people find their circumstances improve in much more practical ways. Say someone is in a bad place before their accident, for instance, they are trapped in an inner city life of poverty, gang violence and crime. The accident is likely to mean they are taken out of all that; maybe as part of their rehabilitation they are given the opportunity to start playing wheelchair basketball and before they know it they are at the Paralympic Games competing for their country. These kinds of stories really do happen so sudden disability does not mean the rest of your life will be miserable or even necessarily worse than it was before the accident.

It seems Will Traynor enjoyed extreme sports before his accident. There’s no reason at all he couldn’t still have engaged in sport, even perhaps extreme ones. Just watch the Paralympics and Winter Paralympics. Try watching some wheelchair rugby players who have a very similar level of disability to Will Traynor. Or watch some sit-skiers hurtling down mountains at ungodly speeds. If someone continues to be depressed years after becoming disabled it’s not the disability at fault but something else. It could be the negative attitude of friends and family to the disability. It could be the prejudiced attitude of the disabled person themselves. If before their accident the person assumes life is not worth living for anyone with a disability, they may well continue to believe this for some time after their accident and become depressed in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They may be blind to all the possibilities open to them as a disabled person or resistant to even trying them because of a misguided sense of pride. But these are problems of lack of education and misinformation rather than problems inherent in the physical disability and it’s just not credible that someone of Will’s level of education and intelligence would continue to hold such dumb views indefinitely. It could be poverty and basic lack of access to things that would bring a fulfilled life which are the problem though again that’s clearly not an issue in Will’s case. But even if it was none of these things, plenty of physically able people are depressed for no obvious reason at all. The real problem with this book is the fact it equates physical disability with incurable lifelong depression. This is plain wrong. Of course some people with physical disabilities suffer from depression. But so do lots of able-bodied folk.

The fact that the affect of disability on mental health is vastly overstated is not the only problem with this book. It’s also fundamentally that the disabled person—Will Traynor–isn’t portrayed so much as a person at all but rather as a disability. The way the viewpoint character—Lou–and her family speak about this man and speculate about his situation even before meeting him shows a fundamental lack of understanding of disability. Frankly it’s insulting to anyone with a disability to be viewed in this way. For instance, from page 24: “I pictured myself wiping the drool from the old man’s mouth, maybe asking loudly, “DID HE WANT A CUP OF TEA?”” If this is the first thought that comes to mind when Lou hears the words “person with disability” then she has a problem. What this phase is actually saying is she assumes disabled people are 1. always old; 2. always physically unattractive; 3. always non-communicative. And incidentally, if someone does have a hearing disability or an intellectual impairment SHOUTING AT THEM IS NOT THE WAY TO TALK TO THEM!

She goes on to describe herself as terrified of this person she’s never met. For example, from page 35: “What if he just stared at me, head lolling, all day? Would I be freaked out?” The whole beginning of the book presents the first meeting as something she is deeply afraid of. It goes way beyond the usual nerves to be expected on the first day of a new job instead trying to portray Will Traynor as some kind of monster.

Then the first time she actually meets him is extraordinary. At the moment she is first introduced to him, Will Traynor does a mocking impression of someone with cerebral palsy in an attempt to scare her further. To begin with this impression is worthy of Donald Trump. Presidential candidate Trump famously did such an impression of a journalist with a disability and was widely condemned as a result but here we have one disabled person openly mocking another.

But even worse than the mocking is Lou’s reaction. She describes what she sees as though what we are witnessing here is something out of a horror novel. For instance: “… After a pause, he let out a bloodcurdling groan. Then his mouth twisted, and he let out another unearthly cry.” Unearthly? Really? And this: “another prehistoric sound emerged from somewhere near his chest. It was a terrible, agonising noise.” It goes on in this manner for half a page or so.

The point is, if Will Traynor’s impression was sufficiently accurate that Lou believed he really did have cerebral palsy or a similar disability, why was she seeing it in such dramatic terms? Why was it scaring her this much? What’s the matter with the woman? I’ve known lots of people with cerebral palsy and they really aren’t scary people. A certain amount of nervousness would perhaps have been understandable seeing as it was her first day in a new job, but this much was just overblown.

I wondered if Lou’s terror was being set up as a straw dog. Maybe her prejudice was being established early in order to knock it down later on when she came to love Will as a person rather than as a scary disability. But even if that’s true Lou—and Will, and all the other characters too whose attitudes to disability are all just as bad–had irritated me far too much in those opening pages for me to be able to keep reading.

One closing point. I hear this book has been made into a film. While reading the first 50 pages and later writing this review I remembered hearing about a film that the Nazis had made to support their euthanasia project. This was the project where they murdered tens of thousands of disabled people. So I Googled, and sure enough they did make a film. It was called Ich Klage an (I Accuse). I haven’t seen it and there’s limited information online but as far as I can tell it’s remarkably similar to Me Before You. In fact, it might even be less objectionable from what I’ve read about it here.

Like Me Before You it’s a love story. Like Me Before You it seems the film doesn’t blatantly support involuntary euthanasia (mercy killings) at all but rather supports assisted suicide (voluntary euthanasia). The main difference appears to be the disability. I’m not a doctor but in Ich Klage the disability in question is Multiple Sclerosis which can be terminal and I suspect towards the end is one of those conditions which unfortunately can be extremely unpleasant. Arguably in such a situation a disabled person of sound mind should indeed have the right to choose to end their own life on the basis that their quality of life had become intolerable. But there’s absolutely no excuse for arguing in a novel like Me Before You that someone of Will Traynor’s degree of disability, whose condition is in no way life-threatening, who has everything to live for, has any physical reason for wanting to end their life. Even if he was living a much less privileged Western life where he had far fewer opportunities for work or leisure and a much poorer quality of life, ending it all would still not be an acceptable solution. What he would need in that situation was help out of his poverty not a lethal injection.

So I didn’t like this book. I’ve given it one star. I wish I could have given it none at all although I suppose that’s unfair as I’m sure as a novel it’s perfectly well written. But bearing in mind this is such a controversial area it’s really very depressing that the author apparently didn’t make any effort to really understand disability and in particular how it affects mental health.

Speaking as someone who writes fiction and who reckons she knows a fair bit about disability, assisted suicide and disability isn’t an area even I’d feel confident to tackle. It’s a minefield; I don’t pretend to have all the answers. The novelist treads on this ground at their peril.

But this book exists, and it’s popular, and I and other people with disabilities will have to live with it. Although how we’ll ever teach people to understand what it’s really like to have a disability when people with disabilities are portrayed like this in fiction I’ll never know. And how can we ever allow assisted suicide to become legal for those who really need it when people are being told mere wheelchair use is enough to make a life not worth living?

I’m not sure people will ever really understand what it’s like to have a disability. And as long as books like this are allowed to be published and are popular that certainly will never change.

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Posted in disability, paralympics, personal, reviews, Uncategorized, writing

Daisy the Gator #1

I’ve started a new comic strip. Here it is!

daisy-the-gator-1-us-election-nov-2016

Daisy the Gator #1

 

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Panel 1: Picture of Daisy the Gator lying on the ground, with a thought bubble over her head reading: “They should let me vote in the US election.”

Panel 2: Picture of Daisy with a ballot paper. Hillary, Trump and Green Party on the ballot paper. Gator has voted Green because she is a very vivid green.

Panel 3: Picture of human Elinor in wheelchair with speech bubble: “What are you doing, Gator? You can’t vote. You’re not American. You’re the only known example of Alligator Britannia, not Alligator Mississippiensis.”

Panel 4: Happy looking Gator with envelope.

Panel 5: Gator walking along with envelope, thinking. With thought bubble: “All gators are American. Unless they Chinese. Me not Chinese. Must be American.”

At the bottom: message to Join Gator’s Gang (aka E. Caiman Sands’ free mailing list) for more cartoons and free fiction. Sign up at: ecaimansands.com/newsletter/

 

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: Book Review

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a powerful book about the oppression of women by men in a future fundamentalist Christian America. The theme is one that stays with you. I’m sure this is a book I won’t forget too quickly.
Women have lost all rights and independence in this society. Certain women including the protagonist are passed around amongst the male elite and are treated as mere objects designed for producing babies. Women themselves, especially older women, are instrumental in enforcing this situation.
I gave this book four stars not five stars for a couple of reasons. First I didn’t think it was quite as well-written as Atwood’s later book, Oryx and Crake, which I read a few years ago. And also because I found certain parts a little bit hard to believe, vague and lacking in detail. For example, the apparent ease with which the president and Congress were swept away; and the rather vague explanations for why there was a fertility crisis. In this respect I’m not sure the book is exactly good science fiction, although it certainly is science fiction despite what Margaret Atwood has occasionally claimed. But I enjoyed it and most of all am pleased I read it. I will surely remember it.

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Paralympics: Should it be merged with the Olympics?

So the Paralympics is drawing to a close and the big question is, was it all worth it? The games certainly didn’t get off to a good start. The entire Russian team was banned and there were huge questions over whether Brazil was going to be able to fund it. Once it got started, though, all these problems seemed to die away. The African states who were threatened with not receiving their travel money received their funds; the banned Russian team were quietly forgotten. Even the empty seats were filled when the Brazilians wisely reduced the ticket price so that citizens could actually afford to get in.

I started this blog post fully meaning to say no, it’s not worth it and that the Paralympics should be merged with the Olympics. Although disability sport isn’t a topic I’ve ever given a lot of thought to, for a long time I’ve supported an inclusive rather than a segregated approach as I do with all (or most) aspects of disability. At a fundamental level, segregation of disabled people is little different than segregation on grounds of race or gender. If women’s events are included in the Olympics, why not disabled people’s? People with disabilities are being marked out as inferior by their very separation. If we’re going to have commercialised disability sport at all it ought to be part of the main Olympics.

The Paralympics began in post-war Britain and at that time institutionalised segregation was the norm. But unlike other parts of British life it hasn’t been undone.

In the course of writing this blog post, though, and more particularly watching the enthusiasm of Brazil for its own games, I’m no longer so sure a segregated games isn’t for the best. It does seem likely that as a standalone event the Paralympics has a greater social impact. That’s likely to be particularly true in host cities where the necessity of staging a large event and welcoming lots of elite international disabled athletes can hardly fail to have some kind of positive effect. Also, in those countries like Britain that do choose to televise the games, the media coverage is surely greater than it would otherwise be.

In the ideal society I still believe the Paralympics and Olympics would be merged, but I’m not convinced that ideal point will ever be reached. Disabled people will never really be understood by most people. I’ll write more about why I think that is the case in future blog posts. But for now the best we can do is put aside the ideals and opt for what works best in the real world.

paralympics-olympics-medal-table

Comparison of countries’ performance in the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games


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Paralympics: Marcia and the Fall

The Paralympics opening ceremony took place last night and I began this morning by tweeting my favourite part: Amy Purdy’s interesting, elegant and thought-provoking dancing with a robot routine. Forget my novel-in-progress. The cyborgs are already here!

But then I started looking through everyone else’s tweets and honestly, I wish I hadn’t bothered. The most tweeted part certainly wasn’t the robot dance; indeed I didn’t spot one tweet about that. It wasn’t the dances by the blind couple or the hair raising flying-wheelchair-through-flaming-ring stunt either. It wasn’t the lighting of the torch. It wasn’t even the booing of the Brazilian President. No, it was the part where torch bearer Marcia Malsar fell on her ass.

The excuse given for endlessly retweeting Marcia’s mishap is that it illustrates “courage” and “determination.” But to my mind celebrating a disabled person for falling on her ass, even if she did climb back to her feet and eventually complete  a short walk–something most people can do easily (though not me I might add)–is merely patronizing. There’s even a word for it: “inspiration porn.” Worse, these kinds of attitudes are potentially damaging as they place unreasonable demands on disabled people. Overly celebrating ordinary daily functions like walking not only infantilize adult disabled people but are even more dangerous for children. Kids are already liable to lose much of their childhoods in physiotherapy rooms or being surgically altered because over-eager parents and medical staff want to “fix” them to fit some kind of imaginary norm; when you add the emotional element of “inspirational child overcoming their disability” to the mix, the poor kid is doomed. So when they should be sitting in classrooms getting an education or out playing with other kids getting socialized with the rest of humanity, they’re shut away being encouraged to take one more agonizing step than they managed yesterday.

I suspect Marcia falls on her ass a lot. Get used to it! That’s just how she gets around, nothing inspirational about it. It’s also notable that all those tweets omit why Marcia was chosen as a torch bearer in the first place. According to a couple of British newspapers she was the first Brazilian paralympian to win a gold medal. She won it in 1984 in the 200m when clearly she was a lot younger and presumably didn’t fall down. Although I’m the first to admit I’m something of an agnostic when it comes to many competitive disability sports, in fact that I’m an agnostic towards the idea of all commercialized competitive sports, I’d still be a lot less dismayed by the human race’s attitude to disability if Marcia was simply recognized for her wobbly sprint back then rather than for falling down and dropping the torch yesterday.


I’ll likely be posting more disability-related posts during Paralympics season. If you liked this post please do follow the blog, or join my new Gator’s Gang mailing list to make sure you don’t miss them.

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