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Friday, March 7, 2014

I Am Not A Scare Tactic: Talking Back to the "Don't Drive Stupid" Campaign


The media is at it again. Pretty pictures are pretty pictures, right? Wrong. They are a reflection of what the public really thinks and a reflection of how those who do not yet know what to think about a topic are supposed to think. This time, the wheelchair user is being used as an object of pity again. The media is manipulating society's fear of disability and using it to cast those who have disabilities into a place of ultimate shame. For rehabilitation class, I was assigned to interpret any media image about people with disabilities. It sounds easy and it sounds like something I would do instead of watching Netflix or eating bonbons. But when the assignment was in my lap, I was having a lot of trouble making up my mind, knowing that there were just so many options. When I asked for help on Facebook identifying a good bad or ugly portrayal, my sister dug a gem from the murky depths of cyberspace. And by a gem, I mean one of the worst portrayals I have ever seen. It's been a while since a media image of a person with a disability made me viscerally angry. And then the Internet gives you something to write about.
The infamous picture is from a Utah teen safe driving campaign called Don’t Drive Stupid. It encourages teens to avoid risky behaviors such as drinking and driving, drugged driving, and texting and driving. The message is good, but the way it was delivered should make its creators incredibly ashamed. The poster depicts a boy seated in a manual wheelchair with downcast eyes and the caption reads:  Drive stupid and score some kickin’ new wheels. Nothing’s cooler than the day you get your driver’s license. But as soon as you start driving stupid, it’s not so call anymore. Texting, using your Ipod, racing, they all fall under the category of stupid. And dangerous. So before you get behind the wheel and try to prove how cool your are, here's a little harsh reality: Nothing kills more Utah teens than auto crashes. Not fazed? Okay, how does the thought of spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair grab you? Look, every year far too many Utah teens go from cool to crippled in the blink of an eye. So if you're one of those drivers who think they have something to prove, you can start shopping for your wheelchair now. And hey, if you think that's harsh, wait until the day you roll it into school."  
Take a moment to process that. Are you banging your head against the desk yet? Let me be clear. I am not advocating for risky behaviors and I am a big fan of educating people about driving safely. What I have a problem with is the absurd idea that being disabled is the worst that could happen to a person. If you drive dangerously, you could DIE. You could KILL SOMEONE. Those should be the harsh realities. When you use lives like mine as a scare tactic, you deepen the divide between us. You prey on people’s fear of what it would be like to be me, and surround people who use wheelchairs with shame. You prey upon teens’ vulnerabilities, their desires to be cool. The subtext is this. You want to fit in. You want to be cool, but you won’t be, if you’re in a wheelchair. The message suggests that when you roll into school, the natural consequence is that you will be bullied and ostracized. And if it’s the natural consequence, then the message between the lines must be that we get what we deserve.
Disability or not, regardless of its cause, nobody deserves to be isolated, bullied, or treated as less than. The inclusion of life in a wheelchair as the doomsday scenario, and the omission of death as the ultimate fear factor leave the reader with a basic perception that disability is worse than death. When that perception is allowed to permeate our culture, part of my spirit dies. I am disabled, and I have challenges. But I refuse to see my life as a tragedy.  Most of my challenges arise from the callous manner with which my life is dismissed, devalued, and belittled by others. I am alive now, and if you someday become like me, the world will go on. You will find a way to embrace your new normal. Not everyone will be kind to you or know how to see you with an open mind. But some people will be so kind, it will bring tears to your eyes. And it will become so clear who deserves to have a place in your heart.
If you based your worldview on this ad, you would also conclude that one cannot be “cool” and “crippled” at the same time. I’ll let you in on a little secret. You can be both. A disability does not deplete your ability to be liked and loved. A cool person is a cool person. Period. End of story.
So, teens, kids, adults, seniors, don’t drive stupid. Be safe, but don’t be safe because you’re afraid to be like me. Don’t be safe because you think the world will crumble if you roll into school in a wheelchair. Be safe because you’re not dead yet, and the world needs you. Be safe because there is no name for a mother who has lost her child, only a great emptiness where words fail. Be safe because you’re ALIVE now with so much left to do. Be safe because I love you, more than you know.



Image description: The poster depicts a boy seated in a manual wheelchair with downcast eyes and the caption reads:  Drive stupid and score some kickin’ new wheels. Nothing’s cooler than the day you get your driver’s license. But as soon as you start driving stupid, it’s not so call anymore. Texting, using your Ipod, racing, they all fall under the category of stupid. And dangerous. So before you get behind the wheel and try to prove how cool your are, here's a little harsh reality: Nothing kills more Utah teens than auto crashes. Not fazed? Okay, how does the thought of spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair grab you? Look, every year far too many Utah teens go from cool to crippled in the blink of an eye. So if you're one of those drivers who think they have something to prove, you can start shopping for your wheelchair now. And hey, if you think that's harsh, wait until the day you roll it into school."  

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