Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper is a fictional novel that describes the worldly experiences of an 11 year old girl with cerebral palsy named Melody Brooks. As the book description on Goodreads states,
“Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom – the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it – somehow.”
Today, whilst scrolling through NSDA videos, we noticed this drama from 2016 of Out of My Mind that took 1st place. I’ve attached the link above, but the main problem with the performance is that the character of Melody is portrayed in way that is both patronizing and inaccurate. The imitation of her voice, stance, and mobility is a demonstration of how disabled people are commodified in speech, and interpreted in a way that is convenient for the performer.
Take this specific instance for example. In the book Out of My Mind, Melody has cerebral palsy, which means extremely limited mobility and an inability to communicate verbally (she uses a computer speaking device). In the performance, this experience described in the book was modified and warped in a way that was, I suppose, “more efficient” to invoke “more emotion from judges”. This portrayal of Melody was done in a way that completely misrepresented the book. In the drama, her arms are adjusted in a way that is completely inconsistent with the books descriptions, so that part of the cutting was completely created out of ableist assumptions of what “disabled people look like”. The voice that was used in the performance was also an inaccuracy, considering that Melody is unable to speak in the book. The vocal impression used in the drama, again, was completely created out of ableist assumptions of what “disabled people talk like”. And lastly, the way that the performer in the video walks across the stage is also an inaccuracy. In the video, she tries to walk with a limp, again, making assumptions of what “disabled people walk like”.
This is a bigger problem than just one performance. It’s an epidemic. You can’t even go to a single speech tournament and watch a drama round without there being at least 2 pieces about people with disabilities. Why, you ask? Because the plight of disabled people is the most convenient to invoke pity from the general population. Drama pieces are cut, adjusted, and practiced, in a way that tries to cram as much pity into a 10-minute block of time as humanely possible. Disability is portrayed as something to be sad about, something that is something to be avoided and prevented, rather than something that is essential to our human nature and something to be embraced and celebrated. Pieces like this are not about uncovering the lived experiences of disabled people, but rather about picking out the most “dramatic” and “emotion invoking” parts out of those experiences, and completely misrepresenting them in a way that may be strategically beneficial for a speech competitor. It’s always about the lack of “inclusion”, but never about the lack of accommodation and the increased perpetuation of the desire for normative able-bodiedness. It is that same stereotype that causes self-hatred and internalized ableism, portraying disabled people as objects for us to feel sympathy for.
You may say that this advocation on the behalf of others is a good thing, because “can’t white people advocate for racial equality, and can’t non disabled people advocate for inclusion?”. But its not a matter of advocating, it’s how it is done. The performance in question, along with almost every other drama about disability, is akin to a white person putting on blackface and going up on stage to do a drama about the horrors of slavery; it commodifies the very thing that it is attempting to fight. It’s not a question of whether intentions are good or not, its the very assumptions that we as a society make that is the problem.
The most troubling part about it is that speech people are some of the most liberal people on the planet, yet ableism in the context of speech is seemingly completely disregarded and untalked about.
But that’s just my two cents.