This Magazine

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ThisAbility # 12: American Idol has blinders on

This Magazine Staff

It has been a long time coming, but I’m finally back to my muck raking ways. Last week, I was packing in as much as I could during my last week on the westcoast, so ThisAbility fell by the wayside. Then, not wanting to overshadow the Obamascension activities on Blog This! yesterday, I decided to put this week’s entry off by a day.
Barack Obama’s mention of people with disabilities at the end of voting night was not missed here, so it’s probably the least I could do.
Anyway, last time we were all together, I mentioned my quest to deconstruct the conflict between the medical model and social model in my own life, but then I saw yet another example of how the attitude that permiates the medical model has unconsciously infiltrated the most watched show on television–American Idol.

Scott MacIntyre auditioned in Pheonix on the season premiere. He is a man who is legally blind, and plays the piano, so he was immediately given the full inspirational-superhero-savant treatment with all the trappings. “Wow it’s really brave what you’re doing,” I heard one of the judges say. Only Simon didn’t seem to be fazed by the appearent bewilderment that came with MacIntyre actually leaving his house, making the trip and singing so beautifully. The medical model was there as subtext: How could he possibly show up and do this so well? Aren’t you supposed to be damaged? Aren’t you less than normal?
Obama coined the Audacity of Hope, but for the judges of American Idol, this was the audacity of a disabled man following a dream–how dare he!
The show seemed to be giving itself a pat on the back for sending this guy to the next round, like they bestowed upon him an opportunity only they could give. Not to take away from his talent or self-determination, but, in reality, he is only the latest in a series of piano playing blind singers. Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli all paved the way that made Scott MacIntyre a “safe” competitor for a record contract. Real change would’ve been to send a singer in a wheelchair to the next round. How often do we see that? Does the world really need another blind piano playing vocalist?
Of course, a blank cheque for achievement is even worse. Sending a no-talent hack in a chair, just because you want to be progressive, discredits the disabled community even more. It shouldn’t be a news flash, but we all want to compete on our own real merits like the rest of the world. How MacIntyre is treated in the next few rounds will really tell the tale,I guess.
What happened during the post-audition interview maybe a thornier issue, but it’s all in how you interpret it…

Yes, Ryan Seacrest tried to high-five a blind guy. For most people, (just read the comments) this is dumb and disrespectful on his part. If Scott could see Seacrest’s awkward “expectant hand in waiting” moment, his response may have been, “Uuh Ryan, you dolt, I’m blind!” Seacrest knew Scott was blind going into the audition room and it’s not like he doesn’t have personal experience melding a person’s disability with social grace. He is, after all, the chosen protege of Dick Clark, someone who deals with the after effects of a stroke everyday. You’d think that their close working relationship over the last few years would give Seacrest unique insight into the general social etiquette associated with disability. Or at least, give him enough pause to think through his next move.
Then again, isn’t Seacrest’s natural respose in this instance exactly what should’ve happened in the audition room moments before? His momentary lapse means he legitimately forgot to see Scott’s disability. He saw the person first, isn’t that true equality? Too me, reaching for Scott’s hand was more of a no-no, as an invaision of personal space. Seacrest would be better served letting McIntyre handle it his own way by saying, “I want to give you a high-five, is it okay if I grab your hand?” After all, how does Ryan really know how Scott takes on high-fives in his own daily life?
People shouldn’t feel uncomfortable in voicing their legitimate questions about disability, it’s not like there’s anything in media teaching them what is proper. How can we really expect people to know how to interact with disabled people when they’re barely ever seen at all? When in doubt, ask the question because making assumptions is where we get in trouble.
Scott Macintyre photo courtesy of
broverman_a.jpgAaron is a freelance journalist living in Toronto. His work has appeared in Financial Post Business, Investment Executive Newspaper, and TV Week Magazine, along with He is a regular contributor to Abilities Magazine and is currently plotting a weekly web comic called GIMP, with artist Jon Duguay, about a handicap school bus driver who wakes up after a crash to find he’s the last able-bodied person on earth — and he’s being hunted.

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