Tonight, when Avatar creator and director James Cameron takes the stage to accept an Oscar -- as I am certain he will at least once -- he has the opportunity to start a much needed public conversation on disabilities. This conversation has the ability to both educate and spur inclusion and innovation. For those who don't know, Avatar is the story of a paraplegic marine (played by Sam Worthington) who is sent on a mission to Pandora, a lush sci-fi Eden. In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Cameron noted, "there has been almost zero" chatter about "the fact you have ... a major action movie where the main character is disabled."
Of course, Cameron is right. There has been very little chatter -- beyond the blogs targeting the disabled population. As a society, we have a de facto "don't ask, don't tell" disability policy. As children we are taught that it is impolite to look at, ask questions or acknowledge a person's disability for fear we will hurt their feelings or make them feel uncomfortable. So, we don't talk or look -- at all. That silence and avoidance is worse than any hurt feelings or discomfort; it sidelines people with disabilities from social, economic and artistic opportunities.
Admittedly, I have taken advantage of this de facto "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Stricken with childhood polio, I developed strategies to minimize movements, to focus attention on what I had to say and away from my disability. It usually takes people more than one meeting to realize that I have a limp; that stairs are my nemesis; that if you walk too closely on my right side, my leg might hit you as its swings out, compensating for damaged muscles that cannot raise, bend or flex my knee in a straight line.
But, this silence has hindered myself and society from educating a broader audience on the challenges of being disabled. It has hindered us from inclusion. It has hindered us from investing in innovative solutions. And, it has relegated many of us to a different class: willing but unable to find meaningful work, socially overlooked, or physically barred from activities or places. It is why the disabled have lower rates of participation in the workforce, higher levels of unemployment, poverty and depression.
Which brings me back to James Cameron and Avatar. Cameron first had the idea for Avatar almost a decade ago but the technology wasn't available to make the film as he envisioned. He could have shelved the project permanently but he didn't. Instead, he talked about it, he asked questions and he sought answers. And, he invested in the innovations that enabled his film to come to life. Now imagine if we did that for people with disabilities. If we started the conversation. If we identified the challenges and issues. If we invested in innovative solutions. What could we accomplish?
Years ago, Aimee Mullins, a paralympic athlete, model and actress challenged the design world to marry science and art to create beautiful, functional prosthetic legs. And, they responded. She now has 12 sets of legs. Stunning, functional legs. Legs that may never have been developed if people didn't ask and Aimee didn't talk about her disability or her needs.
So, Mr. Cameron, do something about the lack of chatter. Start it. You have the stage. Break our own version of "don't ask, don't tell." Share your story of creating a solution. Encourage the audience and your Hollywood counterparts to be part of the conversation. Talk to us. Look at us. Ask questions. And, then, let's innovate, invest and include.