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Disability as Entertainment

2009 October 1
by Julie Clawson

So I’m a fan of So You Think You Can Dance. I enjoy watching dance and I used to dance, so I like the show even though it is a mostly scripted reality TV program. At this point in the season they are just showing the try-outs – which predictably have the fools trying to get on TV alongside the good dancers and the poor folks who think they can dance but obviously can’t. But I’ve been bothered the past couple of seasons during the try-outs with how they deal with the handicapped dancers who come to give it a shot. It really hit home this week when they showed a one armed girl who had come to try out.

These handicapped dancers make it on the TV broadcast unfortunately because they make for good dramatic television. They get to tell their story and the judges get to do a teary-eyed moment before they tell them some version of “you really wouldn’t work for our program, but we are so proud of your courage.” Basically, “you look too weird and awkward to appeal to a wide audience but we will boost our ratings by using you to elicit pity and then move on”. It is never an affirmation of the person embracing their handicap and working with it, but always a pat on the back for choosing to live life out among regular people even though they are handicapped. Like with the one armed girl this week. Granted she had just lost her hand in the past couple of years, and so had to relearn how to do life, but even as the show commended her courage it couldn’t get past her handicap. As I watched her dance, I kept wondering why she wasn’t really using her half arm. It stayed close to her side and it seemed like she was hiding it. The judges then praised her for hiding her handicapped while she danced so that the viewers didn’t have to deal with seeing an imbalanced form.

I’ve been there. I recall during try-out week for drill team in high school, I was reminded over and over again that my arm might prevent me from doing the dances well – I would never look perfect alongside the rest of the team. I got the message and dropped out of try-outs. I stayed in the dance classes though as a teachers assistant and I took over teaching the special education students that had been mainstreamed into the class. The teacher wanted nothing to do with them or me and shuffled us off to the side. And I’ve mentioned here before about visiting children’s homes in Latvia where children born missing limbs are sent to live where the public won’t have to be confronted with them. I was appalled then, but I wonder how different that is from TV shows that parade us out there to show us pity but then still won’t accept us in their world as we are. (or support universal health care so that we handicapped folks won’t continue to be denied coverage for being born like this, but that’s a whole different issue…)

I don’t normally define myself as handicapped (or differently-abled or whatever the term is these days), but I also don’t try to hide that part of me. Missing my arm is just a part of who I am. I don’t want to be told that some day I’ll be perfect and have two hands in heaven just as much as I don’t want to be seen as a lesser thing to be pitied. Sure, I might need a little extra help here or there (there’s good reason why Mike does most of the diaper changing around here, one hand + poopy diaper + squirmy baby = disaster), and I’ve gotten used to the stares that constantly remind me that I’m not normal, but I’m not a circus freak here for your entertainment – and that includes those emotional tear-jerking TV moments. So I applaud those on the show who fight to get that which is different accepted as normal. The same-sex ballroom dancers are beginning to gain respect, perhaps one day handicapped dancers will be accepted as more than just subjects of our pity.


19 Responses leave one →
  1. October 1, 2009

    my thought instantly went to a different story of a guy without legs and arms who became an all-state wrestler. they didn’t have time for pity on him because he kicked the crap out of his competition. then they actually started to wonder if he had an advantage…

    but watch the first thing they make him do on larry king. they make him write. this will probably piss you off to no end, but they make him write? he’s a freaking wrestler!!! the rest of the language is odd and kind of treats him like an alien being. the good news is that he gets how much people don’t get him. he’s supposed to be an invalid, but is not.

    anyway, that’s what i thought of.

  2. October 1, 2009

    Great post, Julie. Thanks for putting this out there.

  3. October 1, 2009

    That was well put. I watch SYTYCD too and am always uncomfortable with the patronizing approach the judges take with the handicapped auditioners. On another note, I did not realize you are missing an arm. Thanks for sharing that part of you and being able to articulate this issue in a way most of us don’t think about.

  4. October 1, 2009

    Beautiful, Julie. Seriously. And you’ve got me all riled up about a couple things:

    1. How much your high school drill team sucks
    2. How ironic it is that the art that celebrates the body and its ability to move is perhaps the least appreciative of bodies in general(I just stood up to bust out a rhythm buck time step–it would be no less fun or exciting to watch with less arm happening!)
    3. How ridiculous and horrible and evil it is that you get denied coverage because of your arm. WTF? Here’s where you and I can totally agree: grrrrr insurance companies and pre-existing condition clauses. (I can give you a litany of reasons why I’ve been denied coverage, but they’re less silly than yours!) Okay. Now I’m just angry for you and me and everybody else and I’ll stop…..

    Thanks for this piece. Great job.

  5. October 1, 2009

    Great post!
    Found you recently via Twitter.

    Disability (or anything different about someone) as entertainment is almost as low as one can go.

    My younger sister had Cerebral Palsy, which affected the muscle control over her whole body, so she was very visibly different. We all learned to deal with stares/questions/etc. Due to pain and limitations, she was ready to die long before she did last year, so I’m happy for her that she is dancing on golden streets now. (though I’m not sure what heaven is like, the imagery is nice)

    Five years ago, I received massive injuries in an accident and have a severe scar (think shark bite) on my left leg. Praise God, it functions amazing well for how bad it looks. But I’ve had to adapt to life with this new body and that’s been a challenge, at times. I’m now at the place where I aim to communicate with others that different is simply that – different – not good or bad, whether it be the way my leg looks or the way someone looks or moves as they dance.

  6. October 1, 2009

    Without trying to sound like I’m simply trying to “spin” this positively, or making excuses for others (or myself) who fail to do what they ought, it occurs to me that one of the best things about the Internet age is that we know longer have quite the luxury of ignoring those who “aren’t like us” that we may have once had. To be sure, we’re still struggling to figure out how to deal with that fact (when we aren’t alternatively trying to ignore THAT reality entirely!), but it gives me hope that things will improve with time and continued effort.

    Thanks for making us aware.

  7. October 1, 2009

    well. put.

  8. John Munzer permalink
    October 1, 2009

    I’ve noticed that, once the media starts to actually acknowledge the existence of a previously marginalized group, (whether marginalized for race, orientation, or disability), there’s a period where it’s all comedies (think The Jeffersons, Will and Grace, Timmy from South Park…) or weepy dramas (think Roots, Philadelphia, Rain Man…) It takes society a while to come round to the place where people are just people, with some interesting variations. It does seem to happen eventually. For example, by now no intelligent person particularly cares what color our president is, we just hope to God he can fix the mess.
    It’s like our culture has to laugh at people or weep for them – in other words, feel somehow superior – before we can feel safe actually getting to know the people. THEN we’re able to move on to truly accepting each other.
    It sucks while the transition is still in the beginning stages (and for people with disabilities, whether physical or cognitive, our culture is still in the laughing or pity stage). But it does seem to gradually move the right direction. At least, I hope so.

  9. Dawn permalink
    October 2, 2009

    Julie, thanks for this post. I found your blog quite by accident one day and I don’t really recall how. I might have been on another person’s blog that linked to yours… At any rate, I was drawn to it because of the title; onehandclapping.

    My daughter who is 11 had a stroke in-utero and has little functional use of her left hand. Over the years, she has mastered the art of one hand clapping. As an 11 year old girl, she’s not as comfortable in her skin as you are, but I pray she will be one day. She is a masterpiece in my eyes.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. Karl permalink
    October 2, 2009

    Good post and good reminders, Julie. Reading about your experiences made me both angry and sad. Hopefully also, more committed to treating people with disabilities just plain normally – with consideration if they need extra help with something but without condescension or embarrasment/awkwardness.

  11. October 2, 2009

    wow…I know I already posted how I never realized that you were missing an arm, but I only JUST NOW got the name of your blog…onehandclapping. Boy, am I slow or what!

  12. October 3, 2009

    Julie(s) –

    I loved meeting you tonight. My blog is focused on much less important topics than yours :) … but I am a woman of faith and tolerance and look forward to continuing a conversation with you.

  13. October 4, 2009

    Hil – great meeting you too! I wish we had had more time to chat personally.

  14. October 5, 2009

    Tia Lynn: I knew Julie was missing an arm, and I *still* didn’t catch on to the name of her blog until Dawn’s comment! 😀

  15. October 6, 2009

    Thank you very much Julie for highlighting this embarrassment for those who watch little TV. Shows like the one described are sadly rather natural; but, the natural human instinct to notice differences in people, and to objectify them as “other”, stems from vestiges of a very low rung on the evolutionary ladder.

    Human beings are capable of so much more. The acting company, of which I am a part, named PHAMALY is a group of actors, dancers, and singers that happen to have a variety of disabilities. We’re good not because were a bunch of disabled folk who can draw on the audience’s compassion and move them ‘because we’re trying so hard’. We’re good and draw large crowds because we’re very talented actors, dancers, and singers. We’re simply damned good!

    Our website is

    Come see PHAMALY present entertainment that just so happens to be produced by people who are considered by some people as ‘disabled’!

  16. October 6, 2009

    Kevin – thank you so much for sharing that link! I really appreciated this statement from the site – “PHAMALY also educates other theatre professionals in methods of adapting their performances to include differently abled actors.”
    So often this is about people not knowing what to do with us, sometimes just a little education or suggestions for tweaks can make a huge difference.

  17. Karl permalink
    October 7, 2009

    “So often this is about people not knowing what to do with us, sometimes just a little education or suggestions for tweaks can make a huge difference.”

    Julie, that’s a great point. Often people want to do the right thing to accommodate or make a differently abled person comfortable and able to participate simply as one human being among many, but just aren’t sure what the “right thing” is. They don’t want to be patronizing, but they don’t want to be callous. They don’t want to make unwarranted assumptions – some people are very self-conscious about their disability while others act so naturally about it that everyone forgets about it within 30 seconds. People don’t want to offend by either omission or commission, and are afraid that whatever they do or say may be the wrong thing. This causes awkwardness, which is felt by all parties. I know I’ve experienced this anyway and some helpful suggestions and education would have been very welcome.

  18. October 10, 2009

    Bad lurker here. :-) I read everything but rarely comment, I’m afraid. I just wanted to say that this is a true and beautiful post, raw and vulnerable. Thanks for writing this.

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