The following piece, originally entitled, Framing Disability in the Media: A Case Study, is an introspective glimpse into the media’s portrayal of disabled persons through my own experience as a person living with a disability. It includes a case study of a February 2006 Associated Press article which document the then ubiquitous story of autistic teen Jason McElwain’s 20-point basketball shocker. A condensed version of the piece was also featured in the Poughkeepsie Journal in the summer of 2007 in the paper’s “Valley Views” section. Below is the full text of the original paper I wrote in the spring of 2007.
“Hello, my name is Michael LaPenna and I was born with Cerebral Palsy.” That sentence, though it might be phrased differently with each time its contents are uttered, garners a wide variety of reactions from the many people I encounter in my daily life. Responses range from the simple, “Oh, really?” to the inquisitive, “What’s that like?” and the ever popular and furthermore blatantly ignorant, “Wow, it’s great to see you out!” These examples vary only slightly with each time one is said, but nevertheless, they are said with such ease and frequency that recalling them as I speak now, is almost as easy as blinking my eyes. Moreover, personal experiences such as these cause me to wonder what in our general society causes people to think, act, and react in this way. This case study is my attempt to answer this question with uncompromised honesty and integrity. In doing so, I have come to the conclusion that such uninformed and ignorant reactions are not necessarily the fault of those who give them, but more so reflect the misinformed nature of the mainstream media at it relates to disability.
Very often, I have noticed that disabled people in print, film, and public display have been shown as broken, inept charity cases in need of help as they were in 1980s telethons and today’s fleeting coverage of the “Special” Olympics and Paralympic Games. Or conversely, they are shown as triumphant overcomers of great hardship and pain as portrayed in the films, A Beautiful Mind, Forest Gump and Radio (films that largely focus on a horrific struggle of mental illness and disability). In many instances, these two portrayals may very well be accurate. For those who do suffer, I would wish that their suffering be eased. I doubt vehemently, however, that they would like to be permanently perceived in such a light. But more to my point is the fact that many are not in pain, depressed, alone or incapable of leading healthy, productive lives. They (as well as I) can be seen as happy, intelligent, dynamic, sexy or any number of positive adjectives! This case study is my attempt to change the dominant and mostly incorrect perceptions of disability and affirm more positive representations.
One such example is the Associated Press February 2006 story of an autistic high school senior’s unbelievable 20 points scored in the final four minutes of his basketball team’s final game of the 2006 season. The article is entitled, “Autistic teen’s 20-point night touches all.” It is centered around Jason McElwain, a 17-year-old equipment manager for the Athena Greece High School basketball team in Greece, NY. The general frame of the article was the usual tabloid-like inspirational story of legend.
From the very first sentence, McElwain is shown to be the ultimate man on the sidelines: “Jason McElwain had done everything he was asked to do for the Greece Athena High School basketball team — keep the stats, run the clock, hand out water bottles.” But then as if filming a Hollywood drama, the hardworking McElwain is put into the game while the team has a sizeable lead. He scores 20 points: six three-point shots and one two-pointer to make the final score, 79-43 in favor of the home team. McElwain is hoisted atop his teammates’ shoulders conjuring the town hero cliché for sure. He is quoted as saying, “I ended my career on the right note.” The article proceeds to portray McElwain as the town hero as he is mobbed by autograph-seeking fans while sitting down for a meal at a local restaurant. This is followed by a “touching” backstory in which the reader is informed of McElwain’s lifelong struggle. One discovers that the young man who is described as “dedicated” by his coach was too small at 5’ 6” to make the Junior Varsity team and thus took on the role of team manager as an alternative to playing. McElwain did the same on the Varsity level. Coach Jim Johnson is paraphrased saying that he was impressed with McElwain’s dedication, and as a result thought about allowing McElwain to play in the home finale. Johnson later describes McElwain as “such a great help” and “well-liked by everyone on the team,” to add a sympathetic touch. Then, the reader is informed of McElwain’s not being able to speak until age five and his early lack of social skills— skills that improved as he got older. The piece continues with an emotional dramatization of McElwain’s famed four minutes documenting all the major twists and turns, his missed attempts which at first scared onlookers, and of course his 20 points.
In the midst of the chaos, both McElwain and his father David who is watching from the bleachers, are unphased. McElwain’s father adds, “The thing about Jason is he isn’t afraid of anything. He doesn’t care what people think about him. He is his own person.” Eventually, the drama unfolds with McElwain hitting shot after shot as the crowd is awestruck by his performance. Finally, the piece wraps with talk of McElwain’s team’s shot at a section title and reminds the reader that McElwain will not be playing in any more games. It does say, however, that McElwain plans to play basketball at Monroe Community College where he will study Business Management.
On the whole, this article conveys what is to be expected of a sensational news story: drama, elation, struggle and triumph. It has elements that are typical of any human interest frame. The reader sees a young, enthusiastic team manager who loves basketball finally get the chance to be in a game. This is followed by an amazing feat of athletic talent in which the young man is able to score 20 points in four minutes. And yet the drama does not end only with this young boy’s amazing achievement (by almost any standard), but rather is highlighted further by the boy’s being autistic and it is then framed around the boy’s disability.
As a person who has lived with a disability all of my life, I find this frame to be unnecessary, stereotypical and exploitive of someone with a disability. To me, as I see him, Jason McElwain as a highly functioning autistic male who, though having struggled in his speech and social skills, has overcome nearly all of his setbacks. I make this observation interestingly enough, after seeing video of both McElwain’s play and his speaking ability. When I saw the footage of the game and post game interview, I did not see a horribly incapable or sick person. I saw an articulate young man with a slightly slower speech pattern who did a great athletic thing. To score 20 points in four minutes is a great achievement for any player, not only for one with a developmental disability. If anything, it shows that being expected not to be able to do a thing makes one more inclined to do it, and at times, better than expected. However, this article is framed like a charity endorsement in which a loving coach decides to fulfill his philanthropic duty to the world by letting the “special” kid in the game. Would Jason McElwain have gotten such a once-in-a-lifetime chance if he had just been the team manager who was short and bad at basketball? Maybe he would have. But in my high school, if you were not on the roster, you did not play ever. Further showing that he is not in need of such gratuity is the fact that McElwain is planning to study Business Management in college. So by my standard, he is not only normal, but more than likely, quite smart in some aspects.
As far as McElwain’s being a hero is concerned, I feel that might be warranted. Again, scoring 20 points in four minutes might make any player, let alone a team manager, a hero. However, when his coach goes out of his way to emphasize the “disabled” boy’s being well liked. The statement very much carries with it an aura of charity. Statements such as this and a title like, “Autistic teen… touches all,” evoke nothing but a kind of inspirational pity that has long plagued people with disabilities. It is as if one were to replace my earlier example of, “It’s great to see you out!” with “It’s great to see someone like you score so many points!” In my heart of hearts, I feel that Jason McElwain and others like him simply need to be respected for who they are as human beings first and seen as disabled people only if relevant to the situation. By this I mean, if McElwain were a double-arm amputee who scored 20 points shooting with his feet, I would be astonished! However, he was just a team manager who practiced with his team, developed his skills, and got a chance that most team managers do not. So, therefore, to me Jason McElwain is still a hero, but only in the sense that he has proven to me that one should not be dissuaded from one’s hopes and dreams by others’ false impressions of what is possible, but rather one should be driven enough to prove those naysayers wrong.
//In summation, I would hope that this case study opens the eyes of whoever reads it. Mine, I feel, is an opinion shared by many [people with disabilities]. It is one that says one’s only limitations are either self-imposed or imposed by the greater society when it places limitations where they need not be, whether this comes in the form of a lack of wheelchair access or a false perception that autistic people cannot play basketball. To these ends, I ask on behalf of Jason McElwain, myself and other “disabled people” that the media, as well as society as a whole, stop seeing us only as pitiful or inspiring, but instead try something new and see us for the human beings we are.