When Penn & Teller got it wrong…

I love the show Bullshit. I love Penn & Teller. They are biased, to be sure. They fully admit it. And just because I like them doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything they say all the time. And just because I disagree with them (vehemently in this case) doesn’t mean I’ll stop liking them. They are great.

However… In the episode “Disability” (Season 5, Episode 7), they really screwed up big time.

In the first 2 minutes, as always the introduce their point: Laws enforcing adjustments so that handicapped people can get around are government intrusions and are annoying for the rest of us; therefore they are Bullshit. While Penn is talking, a muscular man in a cambered, lumbar back wheelchair (read: he obviously has exceptional trunk stability as this is an athletic-build chair) is wheeling around beside him and easily clears several obstacles.

I can see where they are going with this, and it’s so far from sensible it’s amazing they can even say their point with a straight face. Are they seriously so deluded that they think this is an accurate representation of the average wheelchair user? If so, that makes them ignorant. If not, that makes them disingenuous. And when they are ignorant and/or disingenuous in a way that marginalizes people for no reason other than they don’t like laws (specifically, The American Disabilities Act – ADA) forcing people to “be compassionate”, I get testy.

Their main beef is with the ADA, not actual disabled people. But the ADA is in place to protect these very people. Let’s face it. If there were no laws forcing public places to put in ramps and handled (as opposed to rounded) doorknobs, would a lot of them? No! That was the problem that made the law necessary in the first place. If we had any forethought for anyone other than those perfectly stable in their bipedality, we wouldn’t build buildings the way we do with lips on the bottoms of doorways and stairs into buildings. Disabled people aren’t new, we’re just starting to care. Which we should have done a long time ago, and then we wouldn’t even be in a position where people felt they needed to demand/make a law.

P&T then of course provide a few examples of disabled people who are perfectly adapted to their disability and hate the ADA too. I don’t like that word sometimes – disability. If you are functionally able to go about your daily business in an adapted way, are you really “disabled”? So do you even count in the point P&T are trying to make? Anyway… And then there are examples of obvious silliness such as braille on a drive through sign, as if those examples negate the entire premise that we should be more universally accessible as a society. And then there are examples of “poor souls”, boo hoo, who have to spend a few bucks on door knobs that aren’t stupid – the nerve!

Many people with disabilities have limits other than just wheels strapped to their ass. While their legs don’t work they may have comorbidities (or primary disabilities) such as trunk weakness, poor fine motor control, inability to pronate/supinate the forearm, inability to maintain midline gaze/head, inability to maintain posture, poor hearing/eyesight/tactile sensation, etc. All of which can make navigating a world with steps, narrow doors, round handles, etc a little much to bear. Also, wheelchairs tend to have a lot of gear on them and are heavy to cart around.

As medical science advances, so does people’s survivability with inevitable consequences such as reduced mobility and other issues. Some people are “lucky” enough to be athletic and have no problem with wheelchair mobility after, say, a spinal cord injury around the thoracic level. But many people in wheelchairs have problems like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, MA, ALS, stroke, cervical spinal injuries, etc. and can’t get by that easily. Ignoring these people was an ethical issue that was not adequately addressed until there was a law.

We need to get it through our thick skulls that we should be building accessible in the first place. Does the curb need to be 6 inches off the ground even at the corner? No. So ramp it. Why have a tiny step into a building? Is it necessary to the function of the building? No. So get rid of it. Do we need round doorknobs, or can we use handles and automated buttons? No, and yes. So use them instead. What’s the big deal? They work just the same. Is it really that annoying to park in the space right next to the handicapped space if the space is empty? Get over yourselves. It’s 5 feet. While it may seem silly, you try and wheel yourself to and from the grocery store parking lot in the snow, weaving your way through cars looming over you as they whiz by and see how hard you have it for parking a mere 5-10 extra feet away. Seriously. Not to mention, regular parking spaces are too small for most adapted cars. So people in wheelchairs can park there, but they can’t get out. [I have a whole other issue regarding the safety and placement of these spaces, but that’s a topic for another time.]

Sure it may be annoying to change buildings to be accessible, but isn’t it “annoying” (to say the LEAST) to not be able to leave your house, as handicapped people once did, because you can’t get in anywhere? Do handicapped people not have the right to go where they please like the rest of us. While I agree that the ADA may not be set up in the best way, and there should be some sort of financial help in some cases (ex: small businesses), overall I think it does more good than harm. There are people who would take advantage, and situations that ruin it for everyone, but that’s what amendments are for. That’s what politics are for.

Now onto the most ridiculous example of the whole show. What is “accessible”? Apparently all accessibility it stupid because the law didn’t pick doors wide enough for an iron lung to get through and because low-cognition people can park in handicapped spaces. Are you fucking serious? Sure, ADA isn’t perfect for EVERYONE the way it’s currently written. But even though it isn’t perfect, that’s no reason to scrap all accessibility laws and declare them silly. Who the hell are P&T to judge what levels of disabled aren’t disabled enough to “deserve” a parking space?

It’s easy to be annoyed with these things when there’s nothing wrong with you.

This entire episode is extremist libertarian knee-jerking. P&T are more pissed off that the government has made a law forcing people to “be nice” than the concept of the law. While there are components of the ADA that could use clarification, the concept that every place is accessible to as many people as possible is one with which I think we all should be involved. If we won’t take that leap for each other, then someone should make us. The government stepped up. Deal with it.

Maybe it’s because I’m a dirty Canadian “socialist”, but I’d rather see “ugly” ramps (a stupid argument), wider doors, functional handles on those doors, and be slightly “inconvenienced” in the parking lot than have people stuck in the houses not able to go anywhere because we were being financially, spatially, or temporally selfish.

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4 responses to “When Penn & Teller got it wrong…

  1. Kimbo,

    I generally agree with you, both on making access available to people with disabilities and about liking Penn & Teller a lot except when they disagree with me. I'm a dirty American "socialist", for want of a better term. I want to help as many people as possible. And I think that places that people MUST visit – government buildings, schools, utility companies, etc. should have accommodations for folks with most handicaps. But I don't think that you can plan for every disability that could be encountered (like the iron lung analogy) by any individual. I also don't like the concept of persons with disabilities making laundry lists of small businesses (restaurants, bars, etc.) who don't comply to all regulations and sue those businesses. At our college, just a few modifications to our building and the restrooms cost several thousands of dollars. But as a college, it was something that needed to be done, even though we serve very few people that required those modifications. I don't see the necessity of every Mexican restaurant in town having all the same modifications. Those that are able to afford the modifications should benefit from the increased business. Those that aren't shouldn't be sued because they can't. I would rather spend a little tax money on making sure that people have good equipment or assistance to help them deal with life in the best way they can. Just my opinion.

  2. I see what you’re saying, and I do acknowledge the caveats of the situation we’re all in here.

    I guess what I’m suggesting is some sort of compromise. The problem with letting certain restaurants (or whatever establishment) off the hook and not others is that it’s not fair to the businesses…or to handicapped people – it’s like deciding for them where they can and can’t go. And if no one is forced to do anything, then nothing gets done. Which is partly why there was a law in the first place.

    Much like Halifax, possibly the least accessible city I’ve ever seen. Sure you can take the accessible bus downtown, but you can’t really go anywhere once you get there because the buildings are either protected by “heritage” laws or they manage to get through some loophole keeping them from a remodel.

    Also, inaccessibility doesn’t just affect handicapped people. If we all go out to a restaurant (for example), I’m not going to ditch my hypothetical friend at the door because they can’t get in. We’re going to go somewhere else where we can all get in, so that business ends up losing all of us.

    I’m all for equipment and stuff, but quality of life is important too.

  3. Thanks for this post Kimbo… I have heard this issue from both sides and I have to say I agree with you totally.

    When I was in college working at the bookstore a few people in wheelchairs came in and asked us not to sell a specific type of thumbtack. Seems people would buy these thumb tacks because they were cheaper than the push pins and use them to put up notices around campus. Fine right? But then they would fall off the bulletin boards and because of their shape they would point up… and be a hazard for people in wheelchairs. Solution? Only sell the type of push pins that will roll down if dropped and thus not puncture the wheels.

    The store didn’t like being told what not to sell though and they continued to sell the thumb tacks.

    You are right, if people aren’t “forced” to consider others, most times they just won’t.

  4. As someone who’s uncle had severe cerebral paulsy and was confined to a wheel chair his whole life, I can say that there is good reason for the law. Now I’m no socialist, I’m quite conservative. P&T, how about you care for a loved one with major dissabilities and see if you still agree.