Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 17 January-March 2003

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Australian Activists Protest Visit by Christopher Reeve
By Mike Ervin (mervin4241@aol.com)

Whenever Christopher Reeve makes another big media splash in his quest for a cure for spinal cord injuries, two things usually happen. First, the media runs as far as it can with the superficial angle of the broken Superman desperately trying to become whole again. When that occurs, some disability rights activists feel angry and degraded and strike back.

But as Christopher Newell, a quadriplegic from Australia, puts it, attempting to derail the Reeve media locomotive with a few shots from grass roots range is like "pushing manure uphill." Newell has a Ph.D. in medical ethics and teaches bioethics from the disability perspective to medical students at the University of Tasmania in Australia. When Reeve came to Australia in January to address the Forum on Spinal Cord Injury organized by Bob Carr, Premier of the Australian state of New South Wales, Newell helped launch a media campaign highly critical of Carr and Reeve.

Newell joined two other Australian national disability rights leaders-- Erik Leipoldt, a Ph.D candidate in human services at Edith Cowan University in Perth, and Maurice Corcoran, President of the Physical Disability Council of Australia, in issuing a statement that accused Carr of exploiting Reeve for personal gain.

Not only is Carr in the thick of a reelection campaign, Corcoran says, but also, "The embryonic stem cell lobby is using the whole 'disability tragedy' as lever to get governments to change policies."

Event attended by hundreds
The two-day event was attended by hundreds of people with disabilities, medical professionals, researchers, politicians, etc. Reeve used the forum to talk about what seems to have become his favorite theme, the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research for treating and curing spinal cord injuries. The timing was not coincidental. In November the Australian Parliament voted to permit such research in their country but also put a three-year ban on all types of human cloning. Since it requires "therapeutic cloning" (implanting human cells) for an unfertilized egg to create embryonic stems cells, Reeve criticized the moratorium as equivalent to a research ban. "It's time to say we need to address human suffering with the kind of urgency you'd expect the fire department to see when the building's burning," Reeve said at the forum. Carr was a staunch supporter of Reeve's position during the emotional Parliamentary debate that proceeded the adoption of the moratorium.

Newell says, "I use medical intervention every day to stay alive--oxygen, steroids. None of us is saying 'Let's get rid of medical science tomorrow.' Many years ago I woke up and decided this wasn't going to miraculously change. Despite all of what medical science can do, you're actually going to have to live with a disability. And as we grow we end up encountering positive dimensions to disability."

Reeve paid US$75,000 for speech
Carr also paid Reeve a fee of $130,000 ($75,000 U.S) of taxpayer money. Quantas even redesigned the first class cabin of one of its planes to accommodate Reeve and his entourage.

"By the way," says Newell, "the same week that Christopher Reeve was flying in a modified jumbo jet, Quantas managed to totally wreck my wheelchair."

As the media swirl around Reeve's arrival was rising, the three men issued a statement with their alternative view to many press outlets. An excerpt: "Social isolation, physical, social and attitudinal barriers create much of the suffering that can arise from having disability, including quadriplegia. It also comes from the devaluation of any human condition which is not reflective of the societal worship of youth, agility and physical beauty. Inadequate support services, dehumanizing institutions, high levels of unemployment and exclusion from regular education are some of the results of this devaluation..... The cure for this injustice cannot be fixed by medical science..... We must, as a society and as individuals, truly invest in an unfettered removal of social causes of disability, and also accept fragility as part of the human condition."

Newell says of Carr, "He's an ex journalist who understands the value of using disability to sell his government as compassionate."Australian politicians in general like to talk about disability rather than consulting people with disabilities.They pat us on the head in front of the media, but as soon as the cameras are turned off these politicians tend to wash their hands of us." Corcoran says there are still about 9,000 Australians with disabilities (and about 150 in New South Wales) living in institutions that are "hospital-like" facilities." These "Dickensian style institutions," as Newell calls them, were built in the 1970s. The mainstream media picked up on none of these angles, except for Australian Public Radio. But the Sydney Morning Herald did asks it's readers to comment on whether public money should have financed the trip. Among the responses;

I don't think this is going to break the State's bank. Look at what he has achieved,what he hopes to achieve while he's here, and the hope he gives to others who suffer the same disabilities. You will fly again Superman.

Are we so shallow headed these days?? Do we only listen if a celebrity speaks?? What about the many other local people suffering? Why can't we pay more attention to them? I can barely take an overseas holiday myself.. and yet my tax dollars are going to pay for one for a celebrity!!

This will hopefully lead to breakthroughs on injuries that cost the NSW community much much more than $130,000 a year... No. Can't Corporate Australia pay??

No consultation with disability community
Corcoran thinks the money spent on Reeve is far from the most important issue. "It wasn't so much the money. It was the principle that Premier Carr went ahead and organized this without a lot of consultation from the advocacy organizations."

Corcoran says the New South Wales chapter of his organization pressured Carr into scheduling time on the agenda for Australian activists with a different point of view. They spoke of segregation, lack of funding for support, social isolation.

"They were able to get their message out to a major conference where they had medical specialists from all over the country, from overseas, policy-makers, etc.

"The mainstream media reported none of it."

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