Avatar's other missed opportunity

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The movie Avatar might empower indigenous people to rise up and defend the earth but it does nothing to empower people with dis/abilities to rise up and conquer the oppression they face through ableism. Regarding dis/ability, the message in Avatar is clear: redemption through the casting off of a defect or dis/ability. Salvation can be found by re-becoming able-bodied.

"In fact, the main character in the movie -- a crippled U.S. marine named Jake Sully --isn't really a warrior in either human or Na'vi culture until he gets the use of his legs back through a scientific miracle.

It is not an Avatar of Sully still in a wheel chair who can fight for both the humans and then the Na'vi, it is an Avatar of him in perfect form and function that's embraced by both cultures to go to war.

What if it was a dis/bled Na'vi Avatar that was presented as the saviour of their people? What would be the reaction then? Any similar to the reaction Jake Sully-as-marine gets when he first rolls off the spaceship, when his fellow soldiers refer to him as "meals on wheels?"

Sure the Jake Sully character wanted to prove himself, but couldn't he have been considered an honoured warrior in his own right, as someone who was dis/able as opposed to a useless piece of flesh because he can't walk?

You can just sense the importance of Sully's ability to redeem himself when he first wakes up in that Avatar body and takes his first run. Somehow that is when he re-becomes a warrior.

I mean, let's face it, who would want to move into a dis/abled Avatar?

I, in fact, had to watch the movie twice because the first time I got so wrapped up in the Jake Sully character as a crippled marine given a second chance to walk that I missed most of the first half. Like the feeling of depression that Sully expressed when he stated to the research scientist (Doctor Grace Augustine) that the only reason he'd signed up for the mission (to take the place of his able-bodied, scientist brother) was because he himself has nothing left to lose; as if being or becoming dis/abled brings nothing but hopelessness and despair.

To be honest, I sort of lost it during the movie segment where Sully gets to run again, after his consciousness is inserted into a healthy Avatar body. Since the 2005 accident that damaged my spine, there are moments in my life where I'd absolutely kill to be able to run again; jealous of Sully's position. I can't tell you how many nights I wake up from a "running" dream wishing it were real.

But I cannot abandon this broken body to drive a billion dollar, perfect, Avatar of myself. I'm stuck in this body on this planet where my biggest enemies are both the compression force of gravity on my damaged spine and the weight of people's prejudices regarding my assumed to be diminished worth.

Even as an activist, I get frustrated knowing that I cannot always march the full length of a protest route because the distance is too great or run with the other quick-footed radicals during a direct-action protest as they break out into a sprint to escape the police, leaving me behind. You don't know how much it hurts to be left behind.

A Matter of Value and Worth?

Not only am I challenged -- sometimes daily -- to re-define my worth in a capitalist society where my ability to produce has been compromised by an injury, I also question my worth (and the potential liability) at any physical manifestation our combined rebellious spirit. Trust me, while my flesh may be weak, my spirit is willing.

I have to confess, just like anybody else, I like to feel strong. I want to feel mighty. I don't like to be left behind; struggling to keep up terrified that I'll end hanging out with the cops at the back of the march. Bringing up the rear. (And for right now, don't suggest to me the nobility of an activist desk job. And yes, I do know that demonstrations aren't everything to the movement but as someone who embraced direct-action, manifestations of protest mean something to me.)

This said, I admit to the extremely rude audacity (as can happen in the hierarchy of dis/ability) of thinking to myself: "Well, at least I can still walk with these braces and this cane. At least I'm not in a wheelchair!", letting the grief and self-pity I feel towards myself pollute any feelings of solidarity towards my own people.

So what is our worth as the dis/abled; people who move, communicate or process information differently than what is considered the norm? With the Na'vi people representing a sort of physical perfection (unless I missed the screen shot of any Na'vi people with a visible dis/ability like me, let alone any suggestion to an invisible dis/ability and any required accommodations?)

As plots go, since it is unlikely that any human would want to move into a defective Avatar. I'm not sure what my worth would be on planet Pandora if my Avatar was a Na'vi mirror image of myself? In the film, the Na'vi all looked able-bodied, not a crutch or cane to be seen, they embodied a perfection through their physical strength and ability.

It should be noted that in Hinduism, the word Avatar or Avatāra is Sanskrit for "descent" [viz., from heaven to earth]) and refers to a deliberate descent of a deity from heaven to earth.

Emphasizing perfection, what kind of human would be interested in a malfunctioning Avatar or other crippled divine incarnation? I mean, imagine how such an image could challenge a religious belief, for example, that we humans are supposedly made in the perfect image of God. If a human is born different, or becomes different through the trails of life, if that perfect image is altered, does our worth diminish as our proximity to that perfection decreases?

Wanting to see myself reflected in my culture, so far relying on a media which uses dis/ability like some sort of visual prop to reinforce a character's broken-ness, no matter how feisty they may march around hospital corridors, I was looking to Avatar to add something to the cultural fabric of the 21st century.

Planet Earth

As for my worth here on Planet Earth, the United Nations passed the first comprehensive human rights treaty of the 21st century when the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted on Dec. 13, 2006.

It gained the highest number of signatories in history for an UN Convention on its opening day and entered into force on May 3, 2008. According to the UN, the Convention, "takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as ‘objects' of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as ‘subjects' with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society." 

These are pretty words. But only words. Canada has yet to ratify this Convention even though it signed on, on March 30, 2008. By signing, it was assumed that the Federal government was signaling its intent to ratify the UN Convention as soon as possible. On December 3, 2009, the Government of Canada did table the Convention in the House of Commons and hopefully the official ratification will soon follow.

Again, such pretty words while people are struggling to survive on in Ontario on meager Ontario Disability Support Payments (ODSP), which leave little room for dignity.

In Ontario, according to a April 2009 report by the Manitoulin-Sudbury District Service Board, a single individual living in Ontario on ODSP could receive $566 for basic needs and $454 (max) for shelter, bringing their monthly total received from ODSP to $1,020.

An individual on ODSP, the sole supporter of a child under twelve years of age, would receive $709 for basic needs and $714 (max) for shelter for a monthly total of $1,423.
That's not enough to survive on, let alone live. While there was a 2 per cent increase in such support payments in the March 2009 Ontario budget (then taking effect in November 2009), it doesn't help much.

As of April 2009, close to 350,000 Ontarians depend on government disability support. As for levels of poverty, when determining poverty rates, one key point to factor in is that the poverty rate for people with disabilities is 47 per cent higher when extra costs of disability are taken into account. Most commonly used "poverty lines" like the Low Income Measure, do not take into account the extra costs of disability. 

When some Ontarian's with a dis/ability don't have enough each month to pay the rent and pay all their medical expenses, fantasy could become escapism. Could anyone be blamed for wanting to abandon their current form and thus abandoning all the oppression and prejudice they encounter for a perfect body and a better life?

Rise Up

In the movie Avatar, I witnessed the uprising of an indigenous culture, a peoples' resistance against colonialism. I see no reason why people living with dis/abilities cannot rise up -- in their own socially imperfect but authentic bodies and minds - to launch a resistance.

While I understand the immense pressure some individuals feel on ODSP regarding speaking out against the system as they fear a backlash, I know I feel a burning desire for justice in my heart that transcends any material obstacles I may face, including my own battle regarding my self-esteem and self-worth.

And I want, demand, change; not a scientific revolution to solve the problem by giving me a new body but a social revolution that would recognize my worth as is, as a part of the great web of diversity that is human life on this planet.


The ODSP Action Coalition.

The Coalition is requesting individuals and groups to endorse our Disability Declaration.

Damn2025 is a direct action group currently bringing together disabled people, those affected by albinism, and their supporters.

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty's (OCAP) Raise the Rates campaign.


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