ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The disability of actor Michael J. Fox has become an issue in the election. Fox made a television commercial in support of Senate candidates who support embryonic stem-cell research. In this version, the effect of his Parkinson's Disease is painfully obvious. His body shakes and rocks as he expresses his support for Democratic candidate Claire McCaskill.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Mr. MICHAEL J. FOX (Actor): They say all politics is local, but that's not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans, Americans like me.
SIEGEL: Well, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said that Fox was making his symptoms appear worse by going off his medications or acting. Limbaugh later said on his show if this was not an act, then I apologize. He went on to say, though, that Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited.
Commentator Lennard Davis teaches disability studies, and he says Rush Limbaugh is part of a long line of people who say that the disabled should hide their differences. That kind of thinking, he says, is going out of style.
LENNARD DAVIS: The disability pride movement has turned things around from the bad old days when passing for normal was the goal. When I was growing up, being deaf as my parents were was seen as an affliction. But now, deaf people are proud of what makes them who they are. The era of passing for normal is over.
But Rush Limbaugh wants Michael J. Fox to hide his symptoms behind medications. If Fox appears with his disability, Limbaugh says this is exploitation. After all, we're used to seeing Fox on screen appearing normal. Reportedly, in a recent appearance on Boston Legal, the show had to be taped around his illness so that he could control the tremors for limited periods of time.
So let's get this straight. When he's having tremors, he's actually being a real person. When he's not, he's just acting. The problem is that the American public isn't used to seeing our celebrities with disabilities. Christopher Reeve took a bold turn and re-made Rear Window with himself playing the part that Jimmy Stewart originally did in a wheelchair. But for most actors, developing a disability is the end of a career.
In America, we love celebrities and the more perfect they look, the better. It's not just about skin tone and good hair. By worshipping celebrities, we want to ignore the fact that humans age, are mortal and are imperfect.
Michael J. Fox is violating our idea of celebrity by showing us his disability. Wouldn't we all be better off if we allowed our actors and ourselves to show signs of humanity, whether those are wrinkles, tremors or psychological problems? And speaking of the latter, does anyone remember Limbaugh's own disability? He suffers from addictive behavior. As I recall, he went pretty public with that when he was facing criminal charges.
The real act of exploitation isn't Fox letter people see his disability, it's Limbaugh exploiting Fox's disability just when we should be talking about the real issue - stem cell research.
SIEGEL: Lennard Davis is the author of The Disability Studies Reader and Bending Over Backwards: Essays on Disability and the Body.