When it was announced that Grammy Award-winning R & B superstar Luther Vandross would grant his first sit-down interview to talk show grand dame Oprah Winfrey, which aired on most US television stations on May 6, I was eager to watch.
How has the velvet voice singer coped with the challenges which he has been forced to deal with in the past year, since his catastrophic stroke left him hanging on to life? What is life like for him today? Will he be able to sing or will his acclaimed voice be silenced forever?
These were just some of the questions to which I wanted answers. Winfrey, being the veteran journalist, did not disappoint, asking these and other pertinent questions to Vandross and taking her average viewer into Vandross’s new world at a rehabilitation center where he is undergoing intensive physical and occupational therapy.
Yet, I was disappointed.
It was moving to watch the once robust singer struggle to speak, walk, or see and I was empathetic to his plight. I echoed Winfrey’s admiration for his courage and bravery to let us into his new world especially given the sexy nature of much of his material and the fact that rehab is by no means in keeping with that carefully crafted image.
At times my eyes began to fill with tears as I watched. It was sad. But, I could not help but feel that Oprah presented the Luther interview as if he was one of the few people with disabilities who must struggle to perform the most basic activities of daily living.
The sad reality is that he is only one of millions. In fact, WebMd estimates that about 700,000 people each year suffer a stroke and about 5 million others are stroke survivors in the United States alone.
That does not diminish the tremendous inner strength that each individual must find in order to deal with their new reality, but a little context would have been nice.
Many in Winfrey’s studio audience were moved to tears as they watched, and it is sad and cause for grieving, but what I saw was Oprah fall into the same trap that so many others reporters reporting on newly disabled celebrities fall into, again leaving out the context in the story.
Making it all about the celebrity, be it, Christopher Reeve, Luther Vandross or Michael J. Fox, rather than the plight of the disabled community as a whole.
Why is that?
Is it that these celebrities, by virtue of their fame, are more important than then the rest of the disabled community? Or is it that all of a sudden the non-disabled world must now stare in the face of something that they can no longer deny is a reality for millions?
Or maybe it is a combination of the two.
Whatever the reason, or reasons, the fact is that it is done over and over again by media types, many of whom are so uncomfortable with disability that they speak to those they are interviewing with louder more deliberate speaking voices, to ensure that the disabled person is able to
understand the questions, being posed to them.
The danger of Oprah and other journalists having that approach to interviewing someone with a disability is that, unfortunately, many people who are newly disabled, like Vandross, spend the majority of their time fighting to come back to where they were before stroke or injury.
While that is a commendable and worthwhile goal, many get so caught up in their own issues that they fail to acknowledge, some of the huge problems that many people with disabilities must face in their struggle to
survive and thrive in spite of their disabilities.
Like absence of proper health care coverage for people with disabilities, many of whom do not have the luxury of a hefty bank account to fall back on; or the staggering number of people with disabilities who remain unemployed or underemployed.
Estimates are that that number stands at 70 percent. The jury is still out on Luther Vandross’s long-term prognosis and therefore, it is impossible to say if he will ultimately use his celebrity tatus to shed some much-needed light on some of the disability issues with which he must now deal, on some level, as a result of his stroke.
Here is hoping for a full recovery and that he will use his golden voice as a celebrity to be a voice for so many other people with disabilities who are in worse situations, and who are virtually voiceless.
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