The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #57244   Message #900875
Posted By: Mark Cohen
28-Feb-03 - 11:44 PM
Thread Name: songs about disabilities
Subject: RE: songs about disabilities
I thought people would be interested in the PM discussion Sharyn and I have been having, based on her comment about my song, Walkin' On My Wheels. For the record, we've known one another since about 1983 or so, though we haven't been in touch in around 15 years, until bumping into each other again here on the 'Cat. (As you'll see if you read through, she gave me permission to post her messages.)

Hi Mark,

I've been offended by this song since the very first time I heard it. First, deconstruct the chorus:

"Walking on my wheels" : using a wheelchair is not walking and people who use them know the difference. Some people
who use wheelchairs can walk and would never refer to one activity as the other, even mataphorically.

"People let me tell you just how good it feels." Get real. It doesn't
feel good to use a wheelchair -- it's tiring and people get sore from remaining in the same positions if they can't shift
themselves and even if they can. And using a wheelchair is still stigmatizing, even if it helps someone gain mobility

"I can go anywhere if I've got my chair." Oh really. Except in hallways, unreconstructed restrooms, staircases, dance floors,

"Watch me now, I'm walking..." Many disabled persons do not wish to call attention to their disability, since we get plenty of
attention for that and often not much for other aspects of our lives.

You get my drift, I'm sure.I'm sure you meant well, but I would never sing the song or want any of the disabled kids I work
with to hear it: they are regular kids and like regular kid stuff. It's much more valuable to them to see disabled persons
functioning in jobs, making art, singing thmselves than to hear yet another temporarily-able-bodied person's imaginary take
on disability. Have you ever heard of "Stick to the things you know?" as a writing guideline?

I'm probably sounding a bit more pugnacious than I am (email is a deceptive medium) and as far as I am concerned we are
as much friends as we ever were. This is a bit of a hot issue for me. And I highly recommend Zola's book

Thanks for writing



Thanks for responding. I do understand your points, and I admit I hadn't thought of the song in that way.

On the other hand, there may another way to look at it, which is the way it was intended. (I'm sure you recognize this, but I'll spell it out anyway.) The "purpose" of the song, as much as a piece of music can have a purpose, is to help people who come in contact with a child in a wheelchair to see a child, who happens to use a wheelchair to get around, rather than a piece of furniture that includes something that looks like a human being but somehow isn't. That's why there's the verse that says, "Can you come over...we can use the computer or just tell jokes." (That verse also brings up the issue of accessibility.) I felt that the first step was to get people past the stage of the substitute teacher, who "thought I couldn't think just because I couldn't walk."

I know that using a wheelchair isn't "really" walking, and I don't expect anybody else to think it's really walking. But I remember growing up as a child seeing wheelchairs (and, by extension, the people who used them) as frightening and even threatening, and I know that's a very common reaction. So the message, "This is just how I get around because my legs don't work" is, I think, an important one for children (and adults) to hear. And, frankly, "Locomoting on my Wheels" doesn't scan nearly as well.

I don't mean to be flip, and I do understand your concerns. To a large extent, I agree with them. Nevertheless, the decision to write the song as I did was essentially an "artistic" one, trying to balance the various messages with the desire to come up with a song that people would enjoy hearing and singing. I guess what I'd like to know--and it's a poor reflection on me, I know, that I've never tried to find out--is how kids who use wheelchairs feel about the song. Do you know?

If you've noticed the thread on the song about the suicide prevention hotline, you'll see that I'm taking what is in some way a similar position to yours. That is, "I know people like the song, but I wish you wouldn't sing it because it offends me." Oh, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles. (And we won't even start on THAT song...!)

Mark (still mostly TAB, but aging enough to be grateful every day…)

PS What would you think about posting these messages on the thread? There might be a lot for people to think about...especially in your message.

Thanks for writing back, Mark.

I guess that I don't think trying to provide something to fill a gap is a good enough reason to speak for a group of
marginalized people who get misrepresented and spoken for a lot -- e.g. the story on the disability songs thread where
someone asks "What will s/he have?"

I do work with a group of kids with various disabilities, including some in wheelchairs, and I haven't sung your song to them,
anticipating from them the same kinds of objections I have to it (some of them are pretty sophisticated).

I agree, you did address the issue of accessibility in one verse -- and I noticed this -- but I think the repeated line "I can go
anywhere if I've got my chair" undercuts it. I assume that you were trying to make a really positive statement. This is part of
the problem. In my experience, the kids who get really excited about wheelchairs are able-bodied kids who want to play in
them (we sometimes do wheelchair races or obstacle courses at work): for them, chairs are a novelty and they know they
can get up later and go play football.

The verse I like best of your song is the one about wheelchair basketball: I worked for a couple years with a ten-year-old
girl with CP and she was really happy the day we figured out a system for including her in softball games. I pitched (and had
a pinch runner since I had an ankle injury that wouldn't let me run) and she batted and threw and had someone to catch for
her and someone to push her around the bases. She loved it and for awhile we played everyday.

I sent you a private message so as not to vet your song in public. I had already registered a few public comments on the
subject. Please feel free to make any of this public that you wish if you think it will be useful.

An aside: when I wrote my own song "Wallflower Waltz" about a love affair I was trying to resuscitate someone wrote a
review of the recording and mistook the song for a disability epic. Other people have insisted that it was literally about
dancing and changed words to make it fit. So I do know that what you or I write and what others see in it is not the same
thing at all.

If you are interested, you might consider helping some disabled kids write their own songs about their lives and see what you
get: we'd both learn from that I am sure.



Lots to think about here.