In 1995, I lived in an apartment with three other disabled people. Watching Christopher Reeve’s spinal cord injury (SCI) unfold on national television, believe it or not, we cheered. Finally, someone with an activist bent and massive public attention had joined our ranks. This was the beginning of disability rights becoming such a visible battle that nobody could ignore it.
Time passed and we became disillusioned. Reeve seemed completely focused on walking again. That was the media story at any rate. Cheers turned to curses.
I finally forced myself to read “Still Me,” which is Reeve’s autobiographical account of his life with emphasis on the SCI. I was extremely worried I might start throwing things, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, neither did I discover a markedly different story from the one fed to us by the media. The man had accessibility consultants. Who has those?
In many ways, celebrity and money insulated Reeve from the lack of physical access most wheelchair users encounter daily. Even hourly. Perhaps that explains why instead of becoming an advocate for ramps, elevators, and open minds, he went after a “cure” with single-minded focus. I know his foundation is committed to helping people get what they need, but from what I read it was mostly in relation to quality care and access to equipment to keep bodies in good physical condition allowing for the “cure” to be administered when it was found.
A few years later, Michael J. Fox announced he had Parkinson’s and I didn’t allow my heart to even hope. If Reeve, with his background, didn’t fulfill my dreams, Fox seemed like something beyond a long shot. Wrong again. From the moment I heard Fox speak about his condition, I was elated. He articulated Parkinson’s positive impact on his life. He spoke about his condition like it wasn’t the end of the world. He expressed a desire to find a cure, but in the meantime LIVES his life to the fullest. Happily.
An argument can be made that the nature of Fox’s and Reeve’s disabilities explains their different reactions to their new circumstances. A difference also exists in terms of sudden onset versus gradual decline. Finally, Fox had years to accept his condition before he presented it to the public whereas Reeve was instantaneously in the spotlight.
All of these things are true yet to me they do not adequately explain the difference in approach. If the nature of a disability had a strong correlation with how a person learned to cope, then we would see this relationship in the research and that is not the case. In my personal experience, rapid change from one stable state to another mostly stable state is far easier to adjust to than a situation in constant flux, which is the opposite when you compare Reeve and Fox.
Finally, the element of time. I’ve read the books both men penned and at the approximate same time post accident/diagnosis, they were remarkably distinct in how they related to their disability.
The true explanation may lie in their personalities. Through his words, Reeve painted a picture of a serious man focused on succeeding. Fox, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed incurable optimist. It is easy to imagine approach to life impacting approach to life-changing circumstances.
Whatever the reason, these two celebrities publicly reacted to their conditions disparately and I have started speaking about how people cope with disability by describing The Reeve Approach then The Fox Method. To me, it illustrates a fundamental difference in how they each conceive of their condition. Is the disability a burden to be thrown off as soon as possible or is it something to be appreciated for what it teaches, dealt with to optimize happiness, and potentially some day laid aside for the next life-changing experience? Who knew that in a Alex P. Keaton versus Superman contest I’d be opting for the conservative.
My way of dealing with disability mostly follows The Fox Method, except I feel no need to put aside either blindness or my appearance issues. I would gladly give away the chronic illness. Gratis.