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Geordi La Forge and Ablism Bingo [Apr. 4th, 2009|06:39 pm]
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[capriuni]
I was originally planning on making a post titled: "In the future, all Disabilities will be irrelavant," and to use Geordi La Forge as an example, and how his VISOR not only functionally erased his blindness, but might as well have been (to the first-time or casual viewer) nothing more than some sort of hip, 24th Century, fashoin statement. But it's been years since I watched any TNG, so to refresh (and double-check) my memories, I went to his official Startrek.com biography page, and my jaw clenched when I read the opening paragraph of his "Psychological Profile":

The outstanding characteristic La Forge shows is his longtime adaptability to and satisfaction with life, symbolized by the fact that his birth-blindness until recently was overcome not by direct surgery but by the unique VISOR instrument — which, though painful allowed him to "see" throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, from heat and infrared through visible light to radio waves. It attached at the temples via implants which connected directly to the brain and provided such a complex and broad-based input that the user had to concentrate to focus on one area. It was perhaps this intense focusing ability that has enabled him to master the complexities of warp engineering and other starship systems.
(emphesis my own)


Gah! I could win at Ablism Bingo just by going through this one paragraph alone:

    (B) A life-long disability that could only be "overcome" by the gift of technology.
    (I) Living with the painful treatment is better than living with the pain-free disability
    (N) "Overcoming" the disability and living with the pain is symbolic of a greater and deeper spiritual strength, and/or intelligence
    (G) Being "happy," (or having 'satisfaction with life') even though disabled, makes a person Special
    (O) A person's disability is the first, and most important, factor in the development of that person's psychology.


Now, here's why I think this is made of Wrong and Fail:

If Geordi was blind from birth, and didn't aquire the "salvation of technology" until later in his childhood, than surely he would have learned his own ways of maneuvering through the world, on his own, as babies and young children do, normally. If vision never was a tool in his brain's toolbox, than his brain would have used other tools (or invented new ones) to navigate through the world instead. But once again, the disabled person needs rescuing from their disability, in order to live and function in the "normal" world. ... In a later paragraph, it's revealed that Geordi's greatest psychological weakness comes from the fact that he was trapped by a fire before he was given the VISOR, and seperated from his family, for two minutes before he was rescued (as if being able to see would have made it easier for him to escape on his own).

The second one really bothers me. It has particularly troubling implications in the real world if people actually believe this is a true representation of how disabled people view their lives, especially if these people are doctors and therapists who are in the position to decide on courses for treatment (The implications are especially hard on children, who don't have the power or authority to say "no"). How would therapies, or the design of adaptive equipment, be changed if that assumption is turned around?

Treating a disability as symbolic of a deeper spiritual or psychological state is another way of "othering" a person: they're not of this world, they're a "gift from the angels" (something you often see in television "human interest" stories about families caring for disabled children); they're not real people -- they're metaphors for the "rest of us."

And everyone on the planet has difficulties and burdens in life that can make us grumpy and bitter and angry at the world. And yet, everyone is also capable of being happy and well-adjusted. A physical disability, in and of itself, is no greater a burden than any other.

Um, yes. The place of a person's disability in their psychological makeup is just as thorny and tangled as any other aspect of their personhood, including race, gender, gender orientation, nationality, birth order, sun sign, favorite color... etc., etc..



And this is outside my ken, so I'm asking rather than offering an opinion...

How troubling is it that the only human of color (there's also Worf, but he's an Alien of Color) in the "everyday crew" was born in the African Confederation? I mean, yes, there is the recognition that "There's more to planet Earth than America and Europe." But is there also the subtext that "Americans and Europeans are White, and Blacks come from Africa"?

Just wondering.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: peskipiksi
2009-04-04 11:16 pm (UTC)

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I find it particularly interesting that the writer seems to think the visor "saved" Geordi from his disability. I tend to think of it as trading one "disability" for another: total blindness vs. pain and information-overload. (The scene in Insurrection where he's seeing a sunrise for the first time makes me think perhaps he saw it that way too.) That has to be an intensely personal decision, and frankly I think the factors that led Geordi to choose "visor" over "blindness" would be a far more interesting discussion to find in his psych profile.
[User Picture]From: capriuni
2009-04-04 11:39 pm (UTC)

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... the factors that led Geordi to choose "visor" over "blindness" would be a far more interesting discussion to find in his psych profile.

Yes, this. Exactly this.

The fact that the reasons for his choice are not even considered is another example of the ablist attitude that "Of course disabled people want to be normal, Just Like Me, more than anything else in the whole wide world Alpha Quadrant."

It's the same attitde that prompts strangers to ask me: "Do you ever wish you could walk?" and then to give me semi-hostile looks when I answer: "not really... I wish this elevator would hurry up, but..."
[User Picture]From: witchsistah
2009-04-05 12:09 am (UTC)

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How troubling is it that the only human of color (there's also Worf, but he's an Alien of Color) in the "everyday crew" was born in the African Confederation? I mean, yes, there is the recognition that "There's more to planet Earth than America and Europe." But is there also the subtext that "Americans and Europeans are White, and Blacks come from Africa"?


Uhura is also from the African Confederation. I'm feeling that in Roddenberry's mind Africa is Darkieland where all the culluds come from. It was only with DS9 that trope was broken with Sisko being from New Orleans. Nigrahs in AMERICA?!? Whoodah thunk it?!

It's not odd that they'd treat a disability the same as they treat non-Whiteness/humaness in Trek as something to save its unfortunate victims from. The latter, they "solve" by granting folk honorary Whiteness and humanity and the other, well, technology solves all. I wonder how Trek society (that is the society portrayed in Star Trek, not modern day fandom) would react to someone refusing technological gadgets, much less painful ones, to "fix" them. What if Geordi saw being blind as no more a problem than being a darkie from Darkieland?
[User Picture]From: capriuni
2009-04-05 02:04 am (UTC)

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I wonder how Trek society (that is the society portrayed in Star Trek, not modern day fandom) would react to someone refusing technological gadgets, much less painful ones, to "fix" them. What if Geordi saw being blind as no more a problem than being a darkie from Darkieland?

Hmm. Good question. And then, there's another question: would there have been much, or any, difference in attitude toward Disability in the civilian, versus military, society? Was submitting to a technological "fix" the price Geordi had to pay in order to attend the Academy, and follow in his parents' footsteps?

There is the (often) unspoken cultural attitude that disabled people have a moral responsibility to do everything in their power to "fix" their disabilities and "fit in" with the 'normal people'. If they don't do this, they are a social pariah for choosing to be a burden on "the rest of us". But I can easily imagine that this pressure to conform would be much stronger inside a military culture than in the civilian world. And Star Trek shows us a world seen almost exclusively through a military lens.
[User Picture]From: fridgepunk
2009-04-05 09:01 pm (UTC)

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I could see some justification for Africa being the one true home of all black people - the current african union has a set of principles that roughly correspond to the isreali right of return for people who are descended from the african diasporia, so I could see there being a decrease in the number of black people outside of africa in much the same way you don't have that many jews in russia any more.

Of course I doubt any actual thought went into making Geordi african beyond the colour of the actor's skin - this is after all the show that showed a version of france that consisted entirely of one vineyard and had a planet that was presumably populated by evacuees of some future holocaust that was aimed at the employees of over the top irish theme pubs.
[User Picture]From: spiralsheep
2009-04-05 10:23 pm (UTC)

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Do you think Geordi La Forge's name is supposed to imply he's from a traditionally francophone part of the "African Confederation" or is it a possible name for an African-American from, for example, certain parts of the American South that was given to the character without too much thought by the character designer(s)?

(Both those sets of naming conventions are outside my knowledge and experience so I've always wondered.)
[User Picture]From: l0stmyrel1g10n
2009-04-05 02:40 am (UTC)

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they very, very briefly touched on this matter in "Hide and Q", when Riker offers Geordi natural vision and Geordi refuses. it's been a while since i've seen the episode though.

yes, Geordi and Uhura are from Africa, Sulu and Harry Kim are from Asia. it certainly would be nice to see a non-Asian character whose family was from Asia, or a non-Latino/a from Latin America...you know, mix it up a little, as the world's population is bound to be in any idealistic future.
[User Picture]From: witchsistah
2009-04-05 02:42 am (UTC)

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How about Blacks, Asians and Latinos from traditionally WESTERN regions, like, you know, where millions of us are actually FROM?
[User Picture]From: kynn
2009-04-05 02:43 am (UTC)

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They gave us a Mexican named Khan Noonian Singh and a Brit named Jean-Luc Picard... :)
[User Picture]From: baka_kit
2009-04-05 05:36 pm (UTC)

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I thought Sulu was from San Francisco. (I vaguely recall hearing about a deleted scene from The Voyage Home where he met his several-times-great grandfather as a kid.)
[User Picture]From: kynn
2009-04-05 02:41 am (UTC)

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Also note that it says by "overcoming" his disability (i.e. using the VISOR), Geordi was able to do well at being an engineer.

99% of his identity as a character was wrapped up in his VISOR. They didn't even have a consistent job for him at first, until he became chief engineer by default! And then they credit that to the disability/VISOR. His ethnicity, his family, his personal history, his home, his career, his love life, all secondary to his VISOR.

Poor Geordi.
[User Picture]From: witchsistah
2009-04-05 02:47 am (UTC)

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Geordi didn't have a love life. DATA had more of a love life. WESLEY had more of a love life! Even Harry Kim got an offer for nookie from 7 of 9.
[User Picture]From: capriuni
2009-04-05 06:54 pm (UTC)

There was one thing I was wondering:

(Link)

How much of the "official bio" presented on the site actually got referred to on-screen, and how much was it the writers fanwanking brainstorming a backstory around the table in the first stages of a script's development, to be drawn on, "just in case"?

'Cause to Levar Burton's credit, he never did play La Forge as either the handicapped martyr to be pitied, or as the super!crip...
[User Picture]From: spooforbrains
2009-04-05 09:57 pm (UTC)

Re: There was one thing I was wondering:

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And having subscribed to the Star Trek Fact Files magazine in the 90s, I came quickly to realise that anything written about star trek outside of the show is generally utter shite that makes very little sense. Even that stuff done by Okuda.
[User Picture]From: spiralsheep
2009-04-05 10:08 pm (UTC)

Re: There was one thing I was wondering:

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I only watched ST:TNG intermittently but I saw all of the first three on your list (and I was a repeated theme):

(B) A life-long disability that could only be "overcome" by the gift of technology.
(I) Living with the painful treatment is better than living with the pain-free disability
(N) "Overcoming" the disability and living with the pain is symbolic of a greater and deeper spiritual strength, and/or intelligence
[User Picture]From: spiralsheep
2009-04-05 10:03 pm (UTC)

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Great post. (And I'm still wondering about any connection between Hal Mellanby in Blake's 7 and Geordi La Forge in Star Trek. ::uses Hal's daughter icon::)

How troubling is it that the only human of color (there's also Worf, but he's an Alien of Color) in the "everyday crew" was born in the African Confederation? I mean, yes, there is the recognition that "There's more to planet Earth than America and Europe." But is there also the subtext that "Americans and Europeans are White, and Blacks come from Africa"?

I think it's more troubling that he's the only PoC in the bridge crew but, yes, that onlyness then tokenises every potentially stereotypical characteristic he has as both a PoC (and the same applies to him being The Disabled One).
[User Picture]From: capriuni
2009-04-05 10:35 pm (UTC)

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And doubling his status as Other (Disabled and Dark) actually increases his strangness exponentially, almost giving him mythical status, like the Tooth Fairy, or a werewolf, as if a disabled person of color couldn't possibly exist in the real world....

And the writers certainly didn't have to worry about offending any real Trek fans who are PoC and PwD (persons with disabilities), 'cause everyone knows they don't exist...

(Gender and sexual orientation differences are, as far as I remember, completely non-existant in Rodenberry's Trek universe, except among the rarest of alien species)
[/sarcasm]

Edited at 2009-04-05 10:40 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2009-04-07 12:55 pm (UTC)

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And just to reinforce the irony...Levar Burton had terrible trouble acting the scenes on ST:TNG because - the visor over his eyes completely blocked his vision. He kept falling over things because he couldn't see a thing!

I was interested in the deaf man Riva with his Chorus. I believe that's a slightly more positive portrayal.
[User Picture]From: jesse_the_k
2009-04-09 06:25 pm (UTC)

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Indeed, Riva's ep was one of the few TNGs I watched, mostly because I had seen Howie Seago's work in other venues. Perhaps because the show's producers must have had to work with interpreters, since Seago's very Deaf, they effectively handwaved his needing two interpreters.
[User Picture]From: katsaris
2009-04-07 03:29 pm (UTC)

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How troubling is it that the only human of color (there's also Worf, but he's an Alien of Color) in the "everyday crew" was born in the African Confederation? I mean, yes, there is the recognition that "There's more to planet Earth than America and Europe." But is there also the subtext that "Americans and Europeans are White, and Blacks come from Africa"?

I think that your American privilege is showing very VERY loudly. For us non-Americans, it is very REFRESHING that not everyone comes from the United States. That there existed the occasional non-English name. It was very refreshing that the black person actually came from the place where most black people actually come from - AFRICA.

TOS and TNG were progressive in that way. The black people were Africans: just as would have been most likely the case in a truly random worldwide selection of black people.

TNG even improved on the non-American basis, by having the captain be a non-American too.

But in DS9 the trend was reversed. No more "Uhura" or "Geordi" we get the all-American "Ben" and "Jake" instead. In Enterprise, we get "Trevor" or something (I never watched Enterprise).

Also:
In TOS, the Asian person was named Hikaru.
In VOY, the Asian person was named Harry.

That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the increase of American privilege in Star Trek over the decades. A racially-balanced but ALL-AMERICAN future, no longer a panhuman affair.
[User Picture]From: capriuni
2009-04-07 06:20 pm (UTC)

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Ah. Point taken.

The thing that bothers me most about "The African Confederation" is not that it's Outside Our America, but that it is turns the continent of Africa into a single, single-faceted place.

Kirk is from "Iowa"

Riker is from "Alaska" (and we know that because... he has a beard ?? [hello prospector stereotype!])

Geordi is from "Africa." I'd be much more comfortable with him as as an example of diversity if he were from "Senegal," or "Mozambique," or if there were other "African" characters in the cast, each from different African nations.
[User Picture]From: acrimonyastraea
2009-04-07 03:30 pm (UTC)

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And of course Geordi was expected to adapt to a context in which his disability would hinder his ability to function. Touchscreens with no texture! Which we've also starting moving toward with very little thought toward people who can't see the screen. (I did read a fascinating post about some efforts to make touch screens useable for people who are blind.) They couldn't possibly imagine that things would be designed with people of varying abilities in mind.

Geordi has very little choice if he wants to be in Starfleet, but that's treated as normal. That the burden is on people with disabilities to adapt wasn't even questioned.
[User Picture]From: capriuni
2009-04-07 06:31 pm (UTC)

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That the burden is on people with disabilities to adapt wasn't even questioned.

Absolutely, and it just reinforces the (cultural) meme that the only thing disabled people want is to be "normal" -- that it's a gift that we "allow" them to adapt...

Though as I noted above, in a reply to witchsistah, part of me wonders if that's not simply an aspect of the fact that the Trek universe only shows us the military as a metaphor for all society (which is one of the reasons I'm only a lukewarm Trek fan). There has never been a military complex in history that actually embraced individualism over group discipline.
[User Picture]From: pingback_bot
2010-09-01 08:56 pm (UTC)

Random post is random:

(Link)

User capriuni referenced to your post from Random post is random: saying: [...] So, since it had been quiet for over a week, I went ahead and made that post about Geordi La Forge [...]
[User Picture]From: capriuni
2010-09-01 09:16 pm (UTC)

Re: Random post is random:

(Link)

um, whut? I'm getting notifications of my own replies that I made over a year ago...

Whut?

*is baffled* as to why this is a useful feature...