Disability as Punishment in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

This post contains spoilers for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I recently finished watching Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency on Netflix. It’s a show based on books by Douglas Adams (who also wrote The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The premise of the show really defies coherent summary. You have to watch all eight of the episodes to actually figure out what is going on. Which is in no small way, part of the appeal. I won’t try to explain the plot and this post really won’t spoil much of the plot. I am instead going to focus on how disability fits into the story and character development of two of the show’s characters.

The show largely follows Todd Brotzman who is mostly unwillingly swept up into the drama of the show. Todd is an underemployed (and eventually unemployed) loser. Despite this, he is the primary financial caregiver of his sister, Amanda who has a condition called Pararibulitis. This fictional disorder results in Amanda having vivid hallucinations of being in extreme pain. She hallucinates both a drowning and being on fire. The medications for Pararibulitis are expensive and Todd is Amanda’s only source of financial support as the disease has left her unable to work and primarily confined to her home. It is revealed early on that Todd is financially responsible for Amanda because their parents spent all their money on Pararibulitis (which runs in their family) treatments for Todd.

It is later revealed that an unscrupulous Todd has lied about having the condition to extort money from his parents. He supports his sister out of guilt because their parents’ money had run out by the time she manifested the disease and really needed the treatments.

Throughout the show, Todd goes through a lot of personal growth which includes coming clean about his lies and confronting his other less than legal behaviour (including theft from friends and his landlord).

It seems that by the end of the current season Todd is on his way to redemption by taking responsibility for his past. That is until the very end of the last episode which shows Todd talking on the phone with Amanda (who is still coming to terms with his betrayal), suddenly he drops the phone as he experiences a hallucination of his phone burning a hole through his hand. The last shot is of him writhing on the floor in pain.

Much of the show’s plot revolves around the idea of interconnectedness. The show’s titular character Dirk Gently is a pseudopsychic entity who succeeds mainly through happenstance. Things are predestined. Everything basically happens for a reason.

So, when Todd presumably manifests Pararibulitis at the end of the season, it is clearly meant to.

As soon as it became apparent that Todd had manifested Pararibulitis, I was frustrated at the use of disability as punishment. A punishment that was confirmed as the song First Things First by Neon Trees played in the background. The opening lyrics to which are,

You are never gonna get
Everything you want in this world
First things first
Get what you deserve

The disability as being somehow deserved trope is particularly disgusting because it is so prevalent outside of fiction.

The idea that disability is the result of sin is ancient and continues to be prevalent. Whether it be seen as a direct punishment for an individuals actions or a more generalized reminder of the sins of humanity.

Consider the stigma around HIV & AIDs. A lot of it stems from homophobia and the idea that people who contract the disease deserve it for their perceived sexual indiscretions.

Disability as just punishment is an idea so pervasive, that when it happens to people who have done genuine harm, it is framed as righteous. Consider Ava Duvernay’s Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma. At the end of the film while While King gives his speech at the Alabama Capitol, the camera revisits key historical figures in the film as an epilogue.

Amongst stories of activists who were finally able to register to vote or who eventually went on to win places in public office, they include an update on Alabama’s Governor. A man who fought hard against civil rights. This is what they shared.

george-wallace-1

Image description: A screenshot from the film Selma showing Alabama governor George Wallace (portrayed by actor Tim Roth). To his right is text that reads “George Wallace: Ran for President unsuccessfully four times. He was left paralyzed by an assassination attempt in 1972”

The choice to include disability along with his failure to move his political career forward after the events of Selma is clearly meant to show that he got his deserved comeuppance for his racist policies.

While Wallace was absolutely on the wrong side of history and did immeasurable harm with his racist policies and legislation, it is inappropriate to suggest that he deserved disability. Not because he didn’t deserve to be held accountable for his actions but because if we accept that disability is a just punishment then we must accept that disability is universally a negative experience.

Not only does the suggestion that Wallace got what he deserved reinforce the idea that disability is a punishment but it reinforces the idea that disability is and should be a negative experience.

As disabled people fight through deeply held cultural misconceptions about disability, it is harmful to have it suggested in either lighthearted comedies (Dirk Gently) or in reference to real people (Wallace) that those who do harm should suffer and that suffering should look like us.

Believing disability to be a punishment allows people to justify not supporting necessary services and accessibility.

Media needs to do better, even when it’s as surreal and unrealistic as Dik Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency because making it acceptable to say “What goes around comes around” in terms of disability is far from fictional. It’s probable the most realistic thing in that show and that’s a problem.

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Disability is Not the Bogeyman, Stop Using it as a Threat

About a month ago this video of Cosmologist Stephen Hawking was released onto the internet.

The video is not a lecture on physics as on might expect from someone who is perhaps the most famous scientist alive today. Instead, it is a video decrying the horrors of the “obesity epidemic”.

Vague statements are made about the dangers of being overweight or obese. I’m not going get into the science of health and weight. It’s complicated and contentious. I’m an academic in the humanities in no small part because of my total lack of aptitude for science.

Instead, I am going to look at the choice to use Stephen Hawking as the spokesperson for this message and some of the claims he makes in the video.

Stephen Hawking is widely considered to be one of the most intelligent people on the planet. This reputation tends to give him a great deal of influence. This is a problem. I’m not saying he isn’t extremely smart but a high level of intelligence does not translate into expertise in every subject. Stephen Hawking is not a medical doctor. His presence in the video serves two purposes.

  1. Using this veneer of expertise to lend credibility to the message in the video.
  2. Using the image of his disabled body as both metaphor and threat.

In the context of the claims of this video Stephen Hawking does not, in fact, know what he’s talking about. Obesity is framed as primarily an issue of laziness. A problem that could be easily fixed if people only had the strength of will to exercise and eat better.

The reality is far more complicated. Access to healthy food and exercise are not necessarily easily attainable.

In order to eat healthy food, you need to be able to both have access to it and be able to afford it. This is a major barrier for many people living in poverty.

Not being able either access or afford healthy food is not a=actually evidence of laziness.

Similarly, people need to have access to safe and effective exercise. As a friend of mine pointed out on Twitter,

I hate that no one will notice that he’s never lived somewhere that’s too dangerous to let ur kids play outside (link)

It’s not always as simple as just getting out and walking.

Then there’s the issue of time, depending on issues like work schedules, parenting, and housekeeping. Finding time to actually exercise can be difficult for many and none of the reasons come down to laziness.

These issues are additionally complicated if, like Hawking, you happen to be disabled. Access to healthy food isn’t just an issue of cost and availability. There is also the issue of physical accessibility of the food.

Access to exercise can be even more limited.

In the video Hawking says “And for what it’s worth, how being sedentary has become a major health problem, is beyond my understanding.”

Some possible answers are increased mechanization requiring less human involvement, more work that is heavily based around computers, etc. None of these things are inherently caused by laziness but rather the adoption of technology without considering and planning for the consequences of a widespread shift to more sedentary work.

Add that to issues of poverty and you have the makings of a widespread socially constructed and maintained problem where people don’t have access to healthy lifestyle options.

It’s an issue that won’t be fixed by labeling the issue one of laziness and trying to shame people who very well be unable to change their circumstances.

None of these concepts are I expect beyond Stephen Hawkings ability to grasp but then he’s a cosmologist and not a social scientist.

Then there is the issue of using Hawking in a video decrying a sedentary lifestyle at all. He is after all paralyzed from ALS. The video uses this and it horrifies me that Hawking let them do it.

He is shown immobile in his wheelchair opining about the laziness of others. The unspoken message is clear “how dare you lazy people choose to be sedentary, I don’t even have the choice”.

He’s used as an odd and ultimately false morality tale. Even if access to healthy food and exercise weren’t more complicated than the video lets on, ALS is a genetic condition which is not caused by diet or lack of exercise.

Yet, people are supposed to look at him and see a horrifying alternative life. They’re supposed to decide not to waste the opportunity to move because some people can’t.

This message entirely relies on the widespread adoption of the idea that a life with disability is one that is not worth living. That is a big problem that extends beyond Hawking and his personal views on his quality of life.

Stephen Hawking in this video is not just speaking for himself, he is exploiting stereotypes about the disabled experience and presenting them with all the power of his influence and reputation.

Disabled people have been thrown under the bus to promote exercise before. It often positions the idea of disability as a threat. The thing that will happen to you if you don’t exercise. Things like this position disabled people as outside the human experience because it both dehumanizes us by turning us into the monster that will destroy you because you didn’t eat your vegetables or go for that run.

As a result of being artificially positioned as the outsider, it both ignores the unique difficulties disabled people face while trying to access exercise. It also frames disabled lives as ones that are not worth living.

While that may be the belief of some disabled people, it is not the opinion of all of us (not by a long shot). The problem is that nondisabled people don’t see or hear that often enough. Getting that message from Stephen Hawking gives it more weight than it deserves.

Exercise and eating healthy is good for people. Now if only people with as much influence as Stephen Hawking could better understand the big picture of the social causes of why people don’t then maybe we could move away from the obesity shaming and blaming rhetoric which will I assure you, not fix the problems of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise.

I also wish people would stop using disability as a threat or misplaced morality tale to advertise healthy lifestyles. Disabled people deserve to be treated better than that and I for one would actually like to be considered as part of humanity when they actually start coming up with real solutions to the lack of access to healthy food and exercise. An inclusion that is unlikely if I and other disabled people are positioned not as members of the community who face issues of access to healthy lifestyles choices but as the bogeymen representing the perils of noncompliance.

 

 

The Real Problem with “Drive-By Lawsuits”

On Dec. 4 the show 60 Minutes featured a segment on “Drive-By Lawsuits” hosted by Anderson Cooper. A drive-by lawsuit is a lawsuit filed by a disabled person based on an ADA (or other accessibility law depending on country of origin) violation. These lawsuits are framed as a nuisance as they are sometimes filed by people or law firms who do this regularly.

There are a number of problems with the segment.

It utilizes stigmatizing footage of disabled people

The segment utilizes background footage of Ingrid Tischer who has this to say about seeing herself in this context,

You know what’s awesome? Seeing yourself — excuse me, parts of yourself, the non-mouthy parts — on The TeeVee showing how disability access in built environments are achievable and cool in a segment where the talking parts of other people — excuse me, men people — explain the horror of running a business that doesn’t break the law or limit their customer base. Courtesy 60 FoxNews Minutes

The footage does not include her head. She is completely depersonalized.

It doesn’t delve into why there are so many ADA violations

There is no active monitoring of ADA compliance. Dealing with infractions of laws governing accessibility (in the US & many other countries) is often primarily done through complaints. So while the law may say what needs to be done, unless someone actually complains there is little incentive to actively comply. There is no independent body doing regular inspections and meting out fines for noncompliance.

The segment doesn’t question why so many of the people hit with these so called nonsense lawsuits are ignorant of the law but it shows that ignorance as reasonable. No one questions why business owners are so unaware of their responsibilities.

It suggests that compliance is only necessary if people are complaining

One of the questions that every business owner is asked is whether anyone has either actually used an accommodation or asked for it prior to the lawsuit. The answer is invariably “no”.

This is framed to seem as though the accommodation has been up till now unnecessary and that the request was ultimately frivolous. Ingrid Tischer provides insight into why disabled people don’t make requests and don’t forcefully complain if an accommodation is unavailable.

You know why I never used to ask for a pool lift and maybe never even sought one out? (Despite excellent legal reasoning that ought to render the issue moot.) Because I’ve been hardened by the indifference of business owners. You know – the people who admit on national television they weren’t following the law and somehow are the sympathetic victims of rapacious crippled people.

This segment ultimately frames accessibility law as overreaching legislation that demands things that are unnecessary but fails to look at the reality of living in a world that is routinely inaccessible. There is very real truth to the idea that if you aren’t expected to show up then you will simply learn not to. Particularly if your presence and needs are treated as an inconvenience.

It frames people who file these suits as nuisances

One of the glaring omissions of the 60 minutes piece is that it doesn’t look at how these ADA infractions would be ameliorated if not for these lawsuits (in fact it none to subtly suggests that maybe there didn’t really need to be accommodation in the first place).

The ADA is law and yet it is widely overlooked by the people who are supposed to be subject to it. The segment points out repeatedly that proprietors don’t think that the people filing are actual customers but my question is; so what? These accommodations aren’t supposed to be things people have to ask for. They are simply supposed to be available. Why is it relevant who points it?

Cooper also talks about the lack of warning before a lawsuit but he doesn’t actually look at whether warnings are effective. In fact, they go out of their way to make accommodations seem inconvenient and excessive. They point out both the specificity of the requirements (though brief lip service is paid to the importance of this) and the costs. Then they go out of their way to say that the expensive accommodation goes unused.

It basically undermines the very purpose of the ADA.

It doesn’t look at how poor enforcement of the ADA has led to the abuse of disabled people

The segment also looks at how unscrupulous lawyers recruit disabled people to use as claimants and then cheat them out of the proceeds. This is a real concern. The segment however, points at the ability to sue over ADA violations as the major contributing factor in this kind of economic abuse. However, if the ADA was actively enforced it would do away with the very need for widespread filings and thus make this kind of abuse less likely to occur. Suing over ADA violations would be less lucrative.

It puts the blame for societal stigma against disabled people on disabled people who demand access

Perhaps the most egregious part of the segment is that it makes a point of voicing the idea that demands for access breed ill will toward disabled people. The problem is that this ill will already existed. The proprietors just had plausible deniability. They didn’t accommodate because they just didn’t know any better and they didn’t know any better because they didn’t take time  to think about the needs of disabled people and their legal obligations towards them. This lead to the creation and maintanence of inaccessible spaces.

Ill will doesn’t only exist when people acknowledge it. It was just subversive and deniable. Having it pointed out and there being a financial ramification is not disabled people’s fault. Saying it is, only serves to encourage disabled people to stay silent.

***

It would be far better if government took an active role in monitoring and enforcing accessibility legislation. It would likely create a more accessible environment. It would also remove the need for mass lawsuits. It would also remove the proprietor as victim narrative because the law would be enforced more uniformly. People would not be able to opine that they had been hit with an infraction when the guy down the street did not.

Complaint based systems are not useful in enforcing legislation that is designed to help a marginalized group. It creates an adversarial environment where the marginalized are somehow always to blame because they can’t see and force everyone to comply equally.

Creating a law meant to create more equality but not including a substantive way of enforcing it says a lot about how unimportant that equality really is.

The real problem with drive-by lawsuits is not that they happen but that we live in a world that makes them so easy and in some ways necessary to create accessible spaces.

I only wish Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes had considered that before airing that segment.