Nan Davis is a perky Ohioan who has been attempting to learn to walk with computer-energized muscles. Her young life has been marred by two tragedies.
The first was her personal tragedy: an automobile accident on the night of her 1978 high school graduation that left her a paraplegic.
The second, in the view of disabled activists, is a national tragedy: the media glorification of Davis' efforts to walk.
As the photogenic star subject of a Wright State University research project, Davis has been featured three times on CBS' "60 Minutes" and once on PBS' "Nova." She also has made the talk-show rounds, including an appearance with Phil Donahue, and her story was dramatized in a recent CBS movie, "First Steps."
A principal result of all this prime-time hoopla has been the enormous support for a costly and destructive social myth that the most serious problem of a disabled person is the fact that he or she is functionally impaired.
Our folklore, of course, is filled with inspirational "super-crips." We exalt a Helen Keller, or a one-legged skier, for having "overcome" his or her handicap. But by and large, conventional wisdom has it that functional impairment consigns one to a role of helpless dependency.
The tacit theme of the publicity -- tacit, because the notion is so commonly accepted that it ordinarily goes without saying -- is that Davis' life can become meaningful only when and if she can walk again. The theme was established early in the CBS movie when a friend of Davis tentatively raised the subject of marriage. Her reply: "I'm not getting married until I can walk down the aisle."
The scriptwriters obviously believed that this determination demonstrates a certain grit and courage. But it also reflects an attitude that threatens to bankrupt our nation.
Approximately $1 of every $12 in the federal budget is spent on or for the nation's 36 million disabled persons. Unless conditions change, that fiscal load can do nothing but grow as medical science increases the survival rate of disabled infants, accident victims and the elderly in general.
That is why leaders of groups representing the disabled have found some sympathetic listeners among Republican officials, including Vice President George Bush. Bush recently invited 64 disabled leaders of the National Council of Independent Living Programs to a White House meeting at which he expressed personal admiration for their work.
The ultimate aim of the handicapped leaders is, after all, one close to the conservative heart: to move as many of their constituents as possible off welfare rolls and into productive work. But society's stereotypical thinking about disability -- the kind of thinking that glorifies computerized "walking" -- remains a major obstacle.
To be sure, computer technology holds considerable promise for the handicapped. Some years ahead, it might provide a mode of mobility that for some will prove preferable (or a sometime alternative) to the traditional wheelchair or crutches. But that time is probably decades away, according to Robert W. Mann, professor of biomedical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Meanwhile, as pointed out in "First Steps," there are incidental benefits. For example, electrical stimulation can help maintain the tone of a paraplegic's muscles and bones. According to the docudrama, Davis happily viewed the muscle-tone effect as a means of restoring the sexiness to her withering legs.
But technology alone will never bring Davis what she apparently wants most -- acceptance as an equal by an able-bodied society. Nor will it assure her that like her able-bodied classmates, she will be able to use the academic degree she was so dramatically awarded in the movie. And the crowning irony is that the main barrier to Davis' achievement of those goals is the social stereotype that she herself is helping to perpetuate.
One wheelchair user who understood the depth of the social bias against disability was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to "FDR's Splendid Deception," an important new biography of the nation's most illustrious paraplegic, Roosevelt managed, through effective public relations, to confine the fact of his handicap to the dim recesses of American consciousness.
White House photographers, for example, were regularly warned against taking pictures of the president being lifted into or out of his car. Violators had their cameras seized and film exposed by alert Secret Service agents.
Roosevelt was well aware of the vast economic waste inherent in the prejudice. Public funds spent on rehabilitation, he said, would be repaid "many times" through the increased productivity of handicapped persons.
He apparently perceived, though, that while the sight of disability might provoke superficial expressions of concern, the more profound and lasting reaction is pure distaste.
FDR presumably knew, too, that this revulsion is all the more powerful for its irrationality. He was living proof that physical imperfections tell us little or nothing of the essence of an individual.
He must have realized that many persons are more incapacitated without their eyeglasses (in the crucial sense of being unable to perform productive work) than he would have been without his wheelchair. Yet, while he obviously believed it political suicide to be pictured in the wheelchair, he wore his pince-nez spectacles with an air of grandeur. They were, indeed, an integral part of his famed charm -- an example (ski injury casts are another) of a curious phenomenon wryly dubbed by handicapped persons as "disability cool."
Handicapped people long for the day when a designer wheelchair (with racing stripes, perhaps?) will also qualify as "cool."