Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Royal Family: Disability and Agency

I ran across a story on the Huffington Post. The title - Will And Kate Fight Stigma Against Down Syndrome In Beautiful Way.

The story unfolds by talking about the royals first:
He’s only a little over a month old, but Prince George may have already learned his greatest lesson from his benevolent parents.
Prince William and Kate Middleton usually shirk gifts for special occasions, but they recently made an exception for an artist with Down syndrome, TODAY reported. Tazia Fawley, 43, spent six months crafting a bright painting of children’s classic Rupert the Bear flying over a bridge in the Bristol Balloon Festival in England in hopes that the royal couple would accept it and hang it in their home.
The story then briefly moves into a discussion of the artist, before returning to its discussion of how wonderful Will and Kate are.

First - nice job royal family.

Second - the story here is about this wonderful artist - her talents, her interest in the royal baby, her development as an artist, and so forth. We talk about person-first language - woman with Down syndrome, not Down syndrome woman. In this article, the headline doesn't even have a person, just the two celebrities fighting stigma. They are the active ones here and Fawley is invisible.

I try not to judge headlines harshly as they exist solely to drive clicks and "Will and Kate" are going to get more clicks than just about anything else. But the whole tone of the piece makes it about the royals, not about Fawley, who surely is the real story here. She's the actor - painting, getting the message to the royals (through her parents, who are also interesting to think about as all three of them deal with age and disability). Will and Kate are passive - they receive the gift. I'm actually very pleased about that, but really, all they did was say yes. The story is Tazia Fawley.

When we write about charity, and this came from HuffPo "impact," which is all about how people make a difference, it's easy to fall into the trap of giving all the agency to the benefactors - the people with money, the people with foundations, the people saving the poor people, the sick people, the children, the brown people, the uneducated, whatever. It's important not to render the people with a need mere foils on which to shower generosity and then show off benevolence.

The original piece from the TODAY show is better, I think, as it emphasizes the artist and her family. It takes about the process of getting the painting to its destination and how Fawley feels about her work (wanting color for the baby).

It turns out that I'm perfectly comfortable with Will and Kate serving as her foil and headline driver, so people click and read about this remarkable woman.

For the record, here's her lovely work of art.

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