Actor Christopher Reeve's address to the 1996 Democratic National Convention was met with enthusiasm by the mainstream press, while the disability press responded with anger and disdain. This paper conducts a rhetorical analysis of text, context and audience reception in order to explore these different interpretations of Reeve's speech. The study is framed by the concept of polysemy, and in particular Leah Ceccarelli's concept of strategic ambiguity and John Fiske's concept of "gaps and fissures" that allow for different meanings to seep through texts. Reeve's speech was not perceived by members of the disability community as providing such openings for their voices to be heard. The negative reception of Reeve's speech was further exacerbated by his lack of credibility with many in that community, his choice of language and metaphor, and even the visual rhetoric of his convention appearance.

On August 26, 1996, former "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve sat before 60,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in his electric wheelchair and gave a quiet but impassioned plea for funding research leading to cures for disabilities. The television cameras panned over faces in the audience that were intent and tearful, and the mainstream press responded to the speech with glowing reviews of how Reeve articulated courage and vision. "Reeve Saves Democratic Party" read the full-page headline in the next day's New York Daily News (Simendinger, 2000). The Los Angeles Times reported that he "brought many delegates to tears as he appealed for more medical research," and noted that the major commercial networks ran eleven minutes overtime to accommodate Reeve's speech and a brief response from Clinton (McManus & Fritz, 1996). Reeve, who was paralyzed in a 1995 riding accident, was hailed for championing disability rights. "The evening was capped by Reeve … (who) also praised the Americans with Disabilities Act," wrote Richard Berke of the New York Times (Berke, 1996).

The Washington Post wrote that "Reeve paid tribute to the human spirit and spoke of balancing scarce resources and human suffering … the actor praised the Americans with Disabilities Act" (Balz, 1996). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer described the speech as one in which

Reeve spoke movingly of families hit with the enormous complications of a loved one's disabilities. The 'Superman' star argued that the country must not only commit itself to easing suffering and financial burdens, but also must find the research dollars to discover cures. With the force of personal example, Reeve gave voice to the themes of compassion and community. (Connelly, 1996)

Robin Leary of The Philadelphia Tribune wrote that "the heart-tugging moment of last night's program … came when actor Christopher Reeve, who is now a quadriplegic … spoke about overcoming adversity, and needs of the disabled" (Leary, 1996). The Wall Street Journal simply summarized his speech as "(calling) for greater support for disabled people" (World-wide, 1996). Even Washington Post's Tom Shale — no champion of the Democrats — conceded that Reeve provided "moving moments" and titled his column, "It Took Superman to Rescue This One" (Shales, 1996).

It was Superman, in fact, who opened Reeve's speech. The man who was "faster than a speeding locomotive" teased Clinton about his train trip to Chicago. "Sir," he said. "I have seen your train go by, and I think I can beat it. I'll even give you a head start" (Reeve, 1996). The convention audience ate it up. Reeve's speech ran ten minutes longer than rehearsed — largely due to sustained applause — but the networks did not cut away (Simendinger).

But if Reeve's "Superman" was seen by the mainstream press as soaring magnificently, he barely got off the ground with the disability press.1 The disability press acknowledged that "Christopher Reeve incorporated some important lines about the ADA and disability rights into his … address," but they attributed these references — which they saw as fleeting — to input by disability activists in the Clinton party (Longmore, 1996). In fact, Reeve did work with vice president Al Gore's main speechwriter,2 who disability advocates say was heavily lobbied to include references to these issues (Longmore, 1996). Whether done to silence his critics or out of genuine interest, Reeve began his speech with the declaration that "we all have value," and added that the Americans with Disabilities Act should be "honored everywhere … [the disabled] need "access not only to buildings, but to every opportunity in society" (Reeve, 1996).

However, these few lines did not impress the burgeoning disability press, which expressed feelings ranging from disappointment to absolute outrage over Reeve's speech. "Christopher Reeve launched the most subtle, pervasive, and invidious attack against disability rights and people with disabilities in recent memory," wrote historian and disability rights author Paul Longmore (Longmore, 1996). Greg Smith, founder of a syndicated disability radio talk show, claimed that, "in twenty minutes, Reeve reinforced all the negative images they have associated with [people with disabilities] for decades" (Brown, 1996). Steven Brown, co-founder of the Institute on Disability Culture, asked, "Why is Christopher Reeve up there for other than to solicit feelings of pity and pathos from an imagined [able-bodied] audience that will contribute to the cause of a party system that even goes so far as to 'claim' its disabled citizens" (Brown, 1996) and one disabled blogger wrote, "We're all horrified because he can undermine the life work of hundreds of advocates in just one speech" (Mail, 1997).

Why did the disability press have such a markedly different response from the mainstream press to Reeve's convention speech? One concept that proves useful in understanding the divergent responses to the same speech is polysemy. James Jaskinski writes "in its most rudimentary sense, polysemy simply means multiple meanings" (Jasinski, 2001, p. 440). John Fiske describes polysemy in texts as being marked by "gaps" and "fissures" that allow for different meanings to seep through (Fiske, 1986, p. 398, 402). While most texts — whether speeches, writings, or films — present the possibility of multiple interpretations, there are times that the author of the text deliberately constructs a text so as to allow for such differences in response. These "gaps," then, may be intentional; the strategic product of a rhetor who is deliberately allowing for polysemic readings of the text, particularly where the text is being marketed to a diverse audience. Ceccarelli writes that "in this case, polysemy is a strategy of the author, not the audience, and its power to make a text popular with diverse audiences primarily serves the interests of the 'skillful' producers who are selling the text" (Ceccarelli, 1998, p. 407). In contrast, there are times that the author may fail in his or her attempts to construct a text so as to invite multiple meanings, or it may be that the author is not concerned with appealing to a diversity of audiences. In many cases, author intent is difficult to establish. However, Ceccarelli stresses that research on strategic ambiguity does not depend on understanding author intent, and does not merely conclude whether or not a text is "successful" with a given audience, but closely examines how a particular audience interpreted a text (p. 407, emphasis mine). It is this reading strategy that this paper seeks to employ in understanding why a particular audience — the community of disabled persons as reflected in the disability press — responded in such a markedly different manner to Reeve's otherwise enthusiastically received speech.

Audience response to Reeve's speech was influenced by both text and context. The context included societal events of the time, the involvement — real and perceived — of the subordinate population in the construction of the text, and to some extent, the preexisting credibility of the speaker. Textual factors center around the rhetor's ability or inability to apply strategic ambiguity, and, among many disability writers, the perception was that Reeve was framing his message from an ableist standpoint. This perception was influenced by Reeve's choice of metaphor and his employment of the "cure narrative." This paper examines each of these elements in turn, with the understanding that the involvement of the different populations and the perception of pre-existing credibility went hand in hand with the strategic ambiguity of the rhetor — that is, how willing the rhetor was to let multiple voices and meanings into the text.

Social Context

Reeve's 1996 speech came at a critical time in history for the disabled community. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been passed in 1990, and disability advocates had made some headway into issues such as access and health care. Yet to a great extent, disabled persons were still segregated from certain aspects of society, including the ability to physically access theaters, housing, stores, and places of business. Unemployment and underemployment were rampant, and health care, including attendant care, was a critical and ongoing need, complicated by insufficient government funding (Economics, 2007).

The medical model of disability, which placed the "problem" of disability on the physicality of the individual, was being called in question, and new models of disability, including social models, were being utilized. These social models of disability explored distinctions between given impairment and the deliberate or neglectful act of disablement, and focused on society's accountability for the latter. Terms such as impairment versus disability, and ableism — the belief that certain bodies are superior to others, and the practices which are built upon that belief — were finding their way into academic and disabled community circles, although, unlike in the United Kingdom, disability was portrayed less as social oppression and more as membership in a minority group (Shakespeare, 2002, p. 4). It is not surprising, in fact, that such new terminology was not familiar to Reeve, who devoted most of his attention to medical research.

As for the Democratic National Convention itself, disabled individuals (unless they were invited speakers) reported significant lack of accessibility to the event.3 Even official convention delegate Harriet McBryde Johnson reported lack of access to the convention, as well as a deplorable lack of disabled individuals in attendance (Johnson, 2000). This was despite the fact that a key issue being presented at the convention was disability rights.

In contrast, Reeve, who was solicited to speak at the convention by Al Gore, was treated almost reverentially by the conference audience. "I was delighted to find that there was applause after almost every line," Reeve recalled. "… I came offstage — I think it was already a quarter past 11 — and I went by the media pool, and suddenly there was a sea of television-camera light, and the correspondents all wanted a word" (Simendinger, 2000).

Navigating the "cracks and fissures"

The disability press had chafed against Reeve's agenda almost since day one of his post-injury appearances, and did not expect him to satisfactorily represent them. One disability press writer demanded that Reeve be yanked from the convention's program altogether. "We should all protest this AB [able-bodied] arrogance and warn Bill Clinton that if he does not reverse this outrage [and] cancel Reeve's speech … he will provoke our opposition to his presidency" (Brown, 1996). There is no evidence that this request was taken seriously by the president or by the convention planners. Reeve, in fact, was considered to be of such irreplaceable benefit that his speech contents were kept carefully guarded, much to the frustration of presidential political advisor Dick Morris, who was denied preconvention access to Reeve's speech by Dan Pink, Gore's main speechwriter, who had worked with Reeve on the speech (Frisby, 1996). 4

Advocates within the Clinton administration did, however, contribute "strenuous and commendable labors" within the Democratic party, and were credited with convincing Reeve to incorporate references to certain issues, notably disability rights and the need to support the ADA (Longmore, 1996). Reeve touched on these points early in his speech:

One in five of us has some kind of disability. You may have an aunt with Parkinson's disease. A neighbor with spinal cord injury. A brother with AIDS. And if we're really committed to this idea of family, we've go to do something about it. First of all, our nation cannot tolerate discrimination of any kind. That's why the Americans with Disabilities Act is so important, and must be honored everywhere. It is a civil rights law that is tearing down barriers both in architecture and it attitude. Its purpose — its purpose is to give disabled access not only to buildings but to every opportunity in society. Now, I strongly believe our nation must give its full support to the caregivers who are helping people with disabilities live independent lives. (Reeves, 1996)5

These inclusions of reference to caregiving, access, and the ADA, however, were seen as being achieved despite Reeve's efforts, not because of them. "We should not underestimate this achievement," writes Longmore, "coming as it did at the last minute and against considerable counter pressures. We all should thank our colleagues working quietly but firmly to get these civil-rights claims into Reeve's speech" (1996).

Reeve was not interested in "selling" his text to anyone but the mainstream audience, and in particular those who were in positions of power to determine allocation of research funds. He had agreed to speak at the convention, after all, only on the condition that he was allowed to "use it as a platform to bring out any issues that [he] felt were important" (Simendinger, 2000) and he was more concerned with not offending either political party — both of which he would have to work with to promote research — than he was in offending those in the disability community itself. Thus Reeve himself had considerable influence as to what types of textual "gaps and fissures" would be tolerated or enabled.

Reeve's speech was very constrained in its allowance of gaps that would allow other voices from the disability community to be heard. Reeve did carefully create strategic ambiguity — appeal to diverse audiences — in his speech; he just didn't use it to appeal to the disability community. Instead, he focused on creating moments that would speak to both political parties, to allow this "voice" of collaboration to permeate the fine membrane that separated his Democratic Convention speech from one that could be presented at a Republican convention. Although Reeve reported that he wrote the speech largely on his own, with the help of his wife, he did have input from Gore's main speechwriter, who had the agenda of creating a collaborative, nonpartisan atmosphere for the campaign (Simendinger, 2000). Voices of those in the disabled community were limited, and certainly they were perceived by that community as being deliberately limited. In his speech, Reeve did invoke the disabled "characters" of Gregory Patterson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, although these were considered a curious choice by the disability press: Patterson, like Reeve, had only recently become disabled, and Roosevelt was widely known for hiding his impairment as best he could (Houck, 1997, pp. 20-36).6 Reeve was certainly aware that many people who identify as disabled are born with impairments and do not see themselves as victims of a tragic accident searching for a "cure." He had narrated "Without Pity: A Film about Abilities," a documentary produced for HBO by Michael Mierendorf that included individuals who had lived with impairments all or most of their lives.7 In his speech, however, he chose to share the stage only with people whose stories would advance his purpose — research and cure for spinal cord injury.

Reeve's speech, then, did not create openings for the voices of the disabled community to pass though and this was seen by many in the disability press as disempowering.

Do we believe the messenger?

Another factor in audience reception of Reeve's speech was that of source credibility. Jasinski writes that the strictest Aristotelian interpretation of ethos is that of moral character made manifest within the speech itself, but goes on to state that later scholars broadened the idea of ethos to include source credibility, which include the audience's preexisting perception of the rhetor's intentions, expertness, and trustworthiness (Jasinski, 2001, pp. 229-234). It is this latter concept of ethos that appears to be most useful when considering the mixed response to the speech.

Reeve was seen as an outsider from the disabled community: through his words, his life situation, and his perceived agenda, he was not seen as understanding what it meant to be the average disabled person in Western society (Williams, 1997). Even before he opened his mouth on the DNC stage, Reeve had been disparaged in the disability community and press. His campaign for the "cure" had begun as early as his 20/20 Interview with Barbara Walters, given while he was still at the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute (Goggin & Newell, 2004). From that point to his death in 2004, he spoke on finding the cure for his condition. Reeve's unique situation as a wealthy, formerly able-bodied celebrity who was now presented as a spokesperson of all disabled Americans was as problematic as it was dramatic.

To the mainstream audience,8 Reeve was already established as a "cultural icon, respected, beloved (Longmore,1996). Journalist Barry Crimmins, in his review of the convention, wrote that Reeve's work "as an advocate for state-of-the-art treatment for all afflicted people has dispelled any doubts about the man's grit or character" (Crimmins, 1996). Reeve was tapped as keynote speaker for the convention when polls showed that he was number one on Democrats' list of popular celebrities (Berke, 1996). Reeve clearly carried credibility with the bulk of his audience; in fact, it could be argued that he held particular authority with the mainstream audience. He had been "one of them," after all — an able-bodied individual — who had incurred and lived with a life-changing disability. His fall from grace — from superhero to superdependent — drove home the truth that disability can occur at any time in anyone's life. He had spent a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy researching his issue, and he spoke with articulation and intelligence. Why would the audience doubt his credibility as a spokesperson for the disabled?

But if Reeve carried great credibility with his mainstream audience, the disabled audience — the very community that mainstream listeners assumed he represented — was not impressed. Quite simply, they did not see Reeve as one of them. Reeve's failure to design the speech to counteract this perception only exacerbated his lack of preexisting credibility with that community.

This lack of credibility with the disabled community came about for a number of reasons. One was that from the very start of his disability, Reeve was protected from much of what others in his situation experienced:9 he had the money to hire a personal staff of twelve to help him in every aspect of his daily life; he was not dependent on insurance to pay for his care; he held an esteemed position in society, in part due to his movie star fame and his portrayal in the media as a hero; he "made $50,000 a pop talking about cure … a $3 million advance for an autobiography on 'overcoming' " (Williams, 1997). In a population where a disproportionate number of people are unemployed, the privilege of wealth is seen as huge (Phipps, 2000).10

Another reason that the disability press did not perceive that Reeve identified with them was that Reeve had made it clear that he considered himself only temporarily disabled. Especially in the first years following his accident, Reeve made it very clear that he expected to walk again. "Until Christopher Reeve admits he is 'permanently' one of us," wrote Williams, "He will find it useful, in order to maintain his 'status,' to ignore the rest of us" (Williams, 1997).11 Because he believed his disability to be curable, Reeve focused on research leading to spinal injury treatment, and was thus widely regarded as promoting "cure" at the expense of "care." After initial references to civil rights and the ADA, Reeve spent the rest of the speech talking about research leading to cure:

Now, one of the smartest things we could do about disability is to invest in research that will protect us from diseases, and lead to cures. This country already has a long history of doing it. When we put our minds to a problem, we find solutions. But our scientists can do more. We've got to give them the chance. And that means more funding for research. Right now, for example, about a quarter million Americans have a spinal cord injury, and our government spends about $8.7 billion a year just maintaining these members of our family. But we only spend $40 million a year on research that would actually improve the quality of their lives and get them off public assistance or even cure them. (Reeves, 1996)

This in turn was interpreted as coming from an ableist standpoint, promulgating the medical model of disability as an affliction that must be prevented, cured, or pitied (Peace, 2002).12 Again, even though Reeve opened his speech with a call to support the Americans with Disabilities Act and to support caregivers, this was seen as a token gesture by many in the disability community, including those who believed that Reeve only included the reference because he was pressured by disabled activists in the Democratic Party. It is apparent by remarks such as those of Stephen Brown, who called for Reeve's expulsion as DNC speaker, that the disability press found little in Reeve to commend, even before the convention.13

There are two complications to this understanding of Reeve's lack of ethos, or credibility, with the disabled population. First, Reeve himself denied being a spokesperson for all people with disabilities.

"I wasn't elected, nor was I appointed," Reeve said in a 1998 interview.14 "I never went out and said that I would take on the mantle of representing all people with disabilities. I can't do that and nobody can." When pressed to respond to the idea that he had been "launched into a position as spokesperson for people with disabilities," Reeve remained resolute: "To ask me to represent all people with disabilities is unfair and impossible … I am not the spokesperson of people with disabilities" (Cooper, n.d., emphasis mine).15

It would also be simplistic to conclude that everyone who considered themselves disabled reacted to Reeve in the same way.16 Even those with spinal cord injuries, Reeve's specific focus, were of mixed mind when it came to Reeve. "Reeve has done more for us in five years than others [have] done in decades," claimed one blogger on the Christopher Reeve Homepage Guestbook. "Seven years I have spent in a wheelchair. My life has meaning because of this guy … He does not HAVE to fight for us. But he does." Retorted another blogger on the same site, "He does not speak for every single [spinal cord injured] person and I don't want him to speak for me."

"The disabled who carp at Reeve — and they are legion — are missing the point," added a disabled reviewer of Reeve's autobiography. "They want him to be our star radical crip, to take a stand on the erosion of the ADA; to picket, chain himself … to busses … but that's not his cup of tea; he's chosen another road. He wants to fix his body — and he's willing to devote his time and money to The Cure. And that's OK by me" (Review, 2003).

Furthermore, the very nature of what society labels as "disability" is mercurial; in fact, what is labeled "impairment" or "disability" within populations who themselves identify as disabled is fluid and evolutionary. Therefore, the very idea that Reeve could be a "spokesman for disabled people" may be arguably portrayed as difficult if not impossible. But it is the nature of the mainstream press, as we have seen, to lump all "disabled people" together in one group so that Reeve could, in fact, be described as an "advocate for the disabled" (Simendinger, 2000), and as a "powerful spokesman for all people with disabilities" (Discovery, 2000) and "a loved one's disabilities" (Connelly, 1996). Interestingly, the passage of time appears to have brought a more narrowed accolade from the mainstream press: rather than be portrayed as spokesman for a nebulous group of "the disabled," Reeve is specifically described as a spokesperson for spinal cord injury (Eaton, 2003), for "better benefits for people with long-term disabilities" (Marchione, 2004) and as chairing a foundation which is "dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis and other diseases of the brain and central nervous system" (Washington, 2000).

Reeve's credibility — or lack of it — depended, then, not only on the text of his speech but also with his "source credibility," or the personal credibility he brought with him as an individual (Jasinsky, 2001). Reeve failed to satisfy many within the disabled community that he was "one of them," and his success with the mainstream audience — whose press portrayed Reeve as speaking for the entire disabled community — only served to further antagonize those who did not see him as their spokesman. Further complicating the issue was Reeve's unsuccessful early attempts to disclaim himself as a universal spokesman for all disability, the paradox of defining "disability" in the first place, and the discordant responses to Reeve from those who identified as disabled.

Reeve's use of language

Language has long been recognized as having he power to create as well as reflect societal attitudes toward disability (Abberly, 1987, Barnes, 1992; Mitchell, 1997; Scott, 2006; Shakespeare 2002, Wilson, 2001). Reeve employed language in several distinctive ways in this address; first, in the use of metaphor with his allusion to FDR's symbolic act of "lifting a nation," and also with his use of the metaphor of "family" to describe American citizens. Finally, he employed what is described as the "cure narrative" to frame his appeal for disability care and research.

Reeve made an appeal to authority in his allusion to Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, but his attempt met with mixed success in the two presses, in part due to how the audience interpreted the metaphor used. "President Roosevelt," said Reeve, "showed us that a man who could barely lift himself out of a wheelchair could still lift a nation out of despair" (Reeve, 1996). The reference "met with prolonged applause" (Berke, 1996) and became a popular pull quote or sound bite in the mainstream press.17 In contrast, the disability press thought it odd — disturbing, really — that Reeve would refer to a man who did everything he could to hide his disability (Brown, 1996). Mario Cuomo had also used this appeal to authority in his 1983 address to the DNC, but put it this way, "[Roosevelt] lifted himself from his wheelchair to lift a nation from its knees" (Cuomo, 1983). In Cuomo's version, the image was one of a strong man completing a physical act: Roosevelt lifted himself from his wheelchair and lifted a nation up from its knees. In Reeve's version, Roosevelt is defined in part by his limitations: he is a man who can "barely lift himself out of a wheelchair," and there is no allusion to the metaphorical physical accomplishment of lifting an anthropomorphized nation up from its knees, but rather he metaphorically lifts the spirits, or delights the nation, an emotional rather than physical feat.

Reeve also used the metaphor of "family" in his description of America. The family metaphor is not uncommon in political circles, but Reeve's use of the term was unusual in that he deliberately framed "family" to mean all Americans, and specifically both political parties; a tactic that fit in well with the Clinton team's platform of collaboration (Simendinger, 2000) and stands in contrast to the use of "family" to valorize a particular party, such as can be seen in Mario Cuomo's speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Reeve's intent was to frame his audience as one interdependent family, and within that framework, to request care giving and research to benefit the disabled members of that family. Within the first three minutes of his speech, Reeve used the word "family" five times. He consistently used first person plural pronouns such as "we," "us," and "our." In his opening, Reeve referred to the term "family values," which has at times been used to fragment, not unify, the audience.

The last few years we've heard a lot about something called family values. And like many of you, I've struggled to figure out what that means. And since my accident I found a definition that seems to make sense. I think it means that we're all family. And that we all have value. Now if that's true, if America really is a family, then we have to recognize that many members of our family are hurting. (Reeves, 1996)

Reeve was met with applause after he claimed that we were "all family," but the most immediate and enthusiastic applause and cheering followed his conclusion that "we all have value." (Berke, 1996). Although Reeve had appropriated the Republican term "family values," he did so in a way that sought to bring the two parties together, rather than alienate either one. This line from the speech was widely reprinted in major newspapers,18 with no apparent offense taken by those who might interpret it as a jab at the Republicans.

Reeve continued in the framing of his appeal as one of family duty, using the examples of disabled persons as our "aunt," "neighbor," or "brother." While acknowledging the need to "balance our budget," — a task every household can identify with — he added, "But we have also got to take care of our family." While his mainstream depicted this use of "family" as admirable and inclusive, some within the disabled community read the metaphor differently. English professor David Mitchell, writing for the Electric Edge, argued that :

When Christopher Reeve invoked people with disabilities as those in need of being 'valued' as part of the 'American family,' his appeal was saying that disability automatically excludes one from holding a definitive social value; that disabled people could not affirm their own value without the approval of non-disabled citizens and institutions. (Mitchell, 1997)

Brown saw Reeve's speech as solicitous; calling the noble, able-bodied members of the "family" to "pity and pathos" (Brown, 1996).

In addition to using a metaphor that could be interpreted as patronizing or exclusive by the disabled community, Reeve framed his appeal for research funding on what is known as the "cure narrative," which disability advocates argue is based on an ableist framework which places those with disabilities in a demeaning position as individuals whose lives — unless they are cured of their "affliction" — are somehow of less value than the lives of the able-bodied.

Longmore, who had called for Reeve to be stricken from the speaker's roster, compared Reeve's approach to a Jerry Lewis telethon. "Christopher Reeve is much prettier to watch, and far slicker than Jerry Lewis has ever been," he wrote. "And Reeve does not talk about 'his kids.' Instead he has changed the focus to adults, like himself, who have become disabled and sick, and need to be fixed and cured. Symbolically, Superman laid his hands on all Americans and testified for us to be healed" (Longmore, as cited in Brown, 1996).

It is this use of language, the narrative of disability as that which should be cured, that was perhaps the most problematic for the disabled audience. Where the able-bodied — one could argue hegemonic — audience took the words "hurting," "merely being alive," "suffering," "needy," "pain," and "afflictions" to fairly describe the experience of being disabled, the disabled press saw them as disempowering and as diminishing the value of lives lived with a disability. In fact, Reeve's reference to "quality of life" was especially ill-advised, as the term had been used to argue for euthanasia for severely disabled individuals; its inclusion into Reeve's speech can be seen as akin to George W. Bush's error in describing his attempts to introduce democracy in the Middle East as a "crusade."

Where the mainstream audience celebrated the idea of pouring millions of dollars into the hope of a "cure," the disabled press saw both a pragmatic and a philosophical problem: pragmatically, seeking a cure meant diverting precious dollars away from the vast majority of disabled people to a handful of miracle seekers; philosophically, the very idea of "cure" was based on the idea of disability as disease or "frontier" to be conquered. "The cure narrative," writes David Mitchell, is "a story of uneasy obliteration, for it always ends in the 'loss' of the object upon which it depends. Either the disability is eradicated and surrenders … or it resists conforming to the narrative of its rehabilitation and the evidence of that refusal must itself be obliterated." In this, Mitchell argues, disability is the last "frontier": one that must be conquered or obliterated, despite its native occupants' protests that there is nothing wrong with it the way it is. And like the frontier of space, to which Reeve alluded in his speech, the frontier of disability can also be seen as "inexhaustible," placed in the future, a "perpetual lure" that seduces attention away from what need to be done for disabled people in the here and now." (Mitchell, 1997).

The narrative of "cure" is itself dependent upon the medical model of disability, or the framing of disability as disease.19 Reeve's reference to the need for a "cure" that would "actually improve the quality of their (disabled people's) lives," suggests that disability equates with affliction, and his analogy of regenerating nerve cells with putting a man on the moon was seen as curious hyperbole, a rhetoric which "established a perpetual future tense in which we see the 'conquering' of disabilities as the foundation of a progressive national myth … the 'cure narrative' … a frontier that will never be exhausted" (Mitchell, 1997). Indeed, this use of the medical model was even seen as "located within the broader backlash against disability rights. It provides an avenue of escape that allows U.S. society and the government to pretend they are doing something for disabled people" (Longmore, 1996).

Reeve's use of language, then, was not interpreted as empowering the disabled community. He failed to select examples of what could be heard as other voices breaking through the cure narrative — using instead examples of people for whom disability was experienced as a tragic injury or a source of shame. Most importantly, his use of the cure narrative, and of disability as something that can be conquered, was problematic.

Visuals and images in Reeve's Speech

Reeve's speech on the DNC stage had strong visual elements as well. Rarely did a mainstream newspaper describe Reeve's speech without noting what he looked like; that he was in a wheelchair, or using a breathing device, or dramatically placed on stage. The Washington Post described Reeve as "strapped in his own wheelchair, his figure bathed in a spotlight (Balz, 1996)". As Reeve spoke, writes Berke, "The elaborate lectern lowered mechanically, revealing his full, motionless figure in his high-technology wheelchair" (Berke, 1996). By this time in the convention, writes Crimmins, "the audience was in full-blown sympathy … their hearts were open and accessible. And they were about to be caressed with a gentleness and dignity that is rare at political conventions. Christopher Reeve, an actor who was in a tragic accident and is now confined to a wheelchair, was the evening's final speaker" (Crimmins,1996).

But if the metaphoric figure of Reeve on the convention stage — the erstwhile Superman, now in a power wheelchair and on a respirator — was seen as inspirational by the mainstream press; the same presentation was seen as emotionally manipulative by some in the disability press. Disabled convention delegate Harriet Johnson saw it as a deliberate — although not scripted — emotional perspective, where the lights were dimmed, and Reeve was introduced:

Onto the stage he rolls and then sits, gleaming under a dramatic spotlight. The crowd is on its feet, wild with welcome, with excitement, with awe. Yes. They're awed by the sight of this man sitting, smiling, looking around. He hasn't said a word and they're going crazy. It's real. There's no prompting from DNC staffers. I'm in the middle of 60,000 drop-jawed souls witness to a late 20th-century Pentecost. Physically, Reeve is way above the 60,000, isolated by that spotlight. Symbolically, he's the object of devotion, not a member of the fellowship. As Reeve and the crowd are having their communion, I feel completely out of it. (Johnson, 1996)

Johnson, then, sees the visual rhetoric of Reeve as reflective of his position in society and of his message: he is "way above the 60,000, isolated" in the way that the disability press has described him as out of touch with the real-life experience of being disabled. He is an object of admiration, not of pity — unlike many in the disabled population. How can this be? Researchers of disability portrayal in popular culture argue that representations of disability can be broken down into archetypes, including disability as evil, as a supernatural mark, as a call for pity (charity), and as an amusement (Klages, 1999 and Longmore, 1999). Colin Barnes lists twelve stereotypes, including that of "Super Cripple" — the person who achieves amazing things despite his disability (Barnes, 1992). Reeve can be seen as that "Super Cripple" — in fact, the disability press called him "Super Crip" — and therefore above being treated as a Tiny Tim, an object of pity (Goggin & Newell, 2004). This is particularly interesting because the disabled population, as a whole, did not see themselves as rising above that stereotype, in part thanks to attitudes that they saw Reeve as helping perpetrate. But Reeve himself was above it all; he had been elevated — literally — above them, yet he was portrayed as speaking for them.

Johnson goes on to describe Reeve as a "ventriloquist's dummy … Charlie McCarthy … the face is commonly considered animated, but I see something … wooden" (Johnson, 1996). When interviewed by television news, Johnson was more circumspect. "Christopher Reeve is going through a tremendous transformation," she said. "It doesn't make him a disability spokesman. He's still learning. He wants to be cured, but for us it's more important to live our lives, just the way we are. He doesn't speak for us" (Johnson, 1996).20

Longmore, referring to Reeve's reference to the ADA and to caregiving, also based his interpretation in part on the visual elements. "Mr. Reeve clearly found the words he was compelled to utter distasteful to him, delivering them grim-faced and grudgingly. He only warmed up in his speech when he got to the subject of cure. He will continue to be a problem for disability-rights activists" (Longmore, 1996). But if Reeve is a ventriloquist's dummy, who is making his mouth move? He is "being used" by research advocates, writes Johnson. This view — almost a conspiracy theory — that Reeve was approached in the early days of his paralysis by spinal research advocates sensing an ideal poster boy — was not uncommon in the disability rights movement. Peace writes that Reeve was "hopelessly naïve and surrounded by all the wrong people," (Peace, 2002) and disability blogger Michael Volkman minced no words in his agreement. "Some greedy goody-two-shoes got to him early, took advantage of his vulnerable emotional state, and is using his celebrity for financial gain at our [disabled people] expense. He has been set up. He is being used. I'd bet his time is carefully controlled so that none of us could get near him" (Volkman, 1997).

However, even before the accident that led to his injury, Reeve was known for being a widely involved activist, working for such causes as Amnesty International, Save the Children, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as environmental issues (Biography, n.d). Within months he was interviewing with Barbara Walters, arguing passionately for spinal cord injury research, a cause he described in his biography Still Me as being fully his own. Regardless, he was not perceived as a free agent by disability writers such as Johnson.

Visual elements, then, were influential in shaping interpretations of Reeve's message. For the mainstream audience, he was seen as inspirational, and his position in a wheelchair and on a breathing device were evidence that he was a credible representative of the disabled community. That community, however, saw the visual of Reeve as soliciting pity for those of lesser caste in society, as visually symbolic of his isolation from the general disabled population, and as a "ventriloquist's dummy" being used by an outside agency with an unwelcome agenda.


On the surface, several factors went into the disability press's marked dissension from the mainstream press's glowing reception of Reeve's speech. One was the credibility of Reeve himself; he was perceived to be so privileged as to lack understanding of what life was like for the average disabled person, and he balked, in fact, at considering himself a permanently disabled person. One year after his injury, his primary focus was clearly not on living as a disabled person, but on cure. Thus, many who identified as disabled neither identified with him nor understood him to identify with them. He lacked the credibility to serve as their representative.

Reeve's use of language, including his metaphors of "family" and his employment of the "cure narrative" further served to alienate the disabled audience. The disabled press interpreted the family metaphor as one of exclusion, not inclusion, and the "cure narrative," based on the medical model of disability, was anathema to this community. To the mainstream audience, these metaphors were seen as inclusive and inspiring. "These performances surely played well with most viewers, but in terms of the disability constituency they were a serious political mistake," concluded Longmore (Longmore, 1996). In the mainstream American media, however, there was not widespread use of terms such as ableism, or the differentiation between the ideas of "impairment" and "disability." Because Reeve was primarily involved with medical researchers, he may not have been acquainted with such ideas, even if he was predisposed to adopt them.

Most importantly, Reeve's speech — whether by happenstance or design — did not provide the disabled community with the "gaps and fissures" that would allow voices to be heard from the disability community. Reeve was seen as the unilateral rhetor in the speech itself. Reeve could not fairly be asked to give up his position of economic privilege, nor was he blamed for being established as a celebrity, but it was this lack of collaboration with the disabled community, this lack of providing for multiple voices within his text — multiple rhetors — that served as a point of great frustration and antagonism within the disabled community. Reeve's publicly perceived position as representative of all disabled people set the stakes high for every word that issued from his mouth.

But there were factors beneath the surface that further complicated Reeve's ability to appeal to different audiences. The convention speech would come to reflect Reeve's paradoxical, lifelong attempt to acknowledge differing views among disabled people, while maintaining his commitment to research in spinal cord injury. 21 The same man who could claim, "There is nothing wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with being disabled and society must learn to get rid of its prejudice," (An evening, 1999) could less than a year later appear in a Superbowl ad — much maligned in the disability press — that portrayed a computer-generated Reeve rising from his wheelchair and walking across the stage to shake the hand of a medical researcher (Williams, 2000). The need to address care was essential, but the vision of cure was seductive.

Finally, Reeve was both privileged and imprisoned by his symbolic link to Superman. He had argued that he could not take up the "mantle" of representing all people with all disabilities, (Cooper, 1998) but in many ways, that was precisely the role that the mainstream press assigned to him. The cape of Superman had turned into the mantle of Super Crip (Scott, 2006), and until the time of his death, Reeve himself could not fully discard it. Disabled commentator Leonard Kriegel argues that it had been "only natural" for Reeve to be "sought out, urged to become a spokesman for those whose lives had been permanently altered by illness or accident. The fall that made him a cripple made the world's most powerful body an object of pity, transforming the Man of Steel into a creature so frail that it was dependent on machines to breathe and electric chairs to move" (2006). This fall from grace was a powerful image to those (temporarily) able-bodied people who realized that Reeve's story could be their own. But to those who saw their bodies and lives as disabled primarily by society, Reeve's ability to rhetorically construct the image of disability and to possibly divert resources was a frightening "superpower" indeed. "Struggling to identify gaps and fissures in Reeve's message, and ultimately failing, the disabled press persisted in its efforts to influence Reeve's agenda. "We must break through to him somehow," declared disability press writer Michael Volkman. "He must learn how many of us there are. He must be made to see all of us" (Volkman, 1997).

In the end, both the mainstream press and the disability press could be described as falling prey to the fallacy that one individual can be a spokesperson for all disabled people; that one person can represent "disability" when the very concept of disability is a fluid and dynamic one. Over his lifespan, Reeve did begin to "see all of us [disabled people]" and subsequently modified his rhetoric to include more references to the need for care and to disability as a social construction, yet he would never waiver from his primary commitment to research. The mixed reception to his convention speech was in itself a microcosm of the diversity of voices within the disability community, and of the need for accountability which that community continues to demand of those who use language in a position of power.


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  1. The term "disability press" here refers to publications, both online and hard copy, which are produced by people who identify as disabled and which are written for people who identify as disabled, not excluding participation and readership of people who do not so identify. Many of these publications are electronically published, in part for accessibility, but may have a hard copy correlate.

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  2. Reeve was personally called by Al Gore to speak at the convention after surveys showed that he was one of the most admired celebrities in the pool. Reeve balked at first, concerned that his audience would see research as a partisan issue. "I remember being very concerned that biomedical research not be perceived as the exclusive domain of either party," he recalled. "The imperative we have to ease human suffering — that's not a political issue. I look back on it with a lot of pride because many of my speeches are given without notes, and I remember taking about two weeks to write it with input from Gore's main speechwriter. Then my wife, Dana, and I together spent a good 10 days really reviewing the choice of every word. We wanted to make it a speech of inclusion, about all of us taking care of all of us." See Simendinger.

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  3. "Significant" because not only was accessible transportation to the convention hard to come by, and running late, but there were serious safety concerns for fragile persons or persons in wheelchairs on the convention floor (Johnson, 2000).

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  4. Frisby reports that Morris demanded to see Reeve's speech a few days before the convention, and, when refused, first by Pink and later by Pink's boss, president's chief of staff Ron Klain, was "outraged that an important convention message' had slipped beyond his control, [and he] unleashed a barrage of curses." Frisby postulates that Morris was being excluded from the discussion because of his hard line on attacking the GOP, which was diametrically opposite to Clinton's interpartisan approach as reflected in Reeve's speech.

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  5. Citations from Reeve's speech in this paper are taken from Christopher Reeve, 1996 National Convention Address. Retrieved November 10, 2006, from http://www.americanrhetoric.com, which includes an audio MP3 recording of the speech.

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  6. Davis W. Houck claims that Franklin Roosevelt's acceptance speech to the 1932 Democratic National Convention was structured to "deny his disability" (Houck, 1997). Writes Pat Williams, "He [Reeve] is our current most famous gimp. He's like Roosevelt was, except then nobody who liked him would admit he was a gimp. Times change" (Williams, 1997).

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  7. The documentary aired soon after the Democratic National Convention, in October 1996.

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  8. For simplicity, I use the term "mainstream" audience here to mean those listeners who do not identify themselves primarily as disabled; these listeners constitute the majority by Reeve's own estimate, four out of five.

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  9. British disability activist Peter Mansell, who also has a spinal cord injury, claimed that Reeve should have used his celebrity to "do something genuinely useful. He could go to a theatre and be slung out because of fire regulations. He could go to Waterloo station and discover how many taxi drivers suddenly become visually impaired because setting up ramps for a wheelchair-user is too much effort" (Phipps, 2000). Wrote Tom Shakespeare, "Ordinary disabled people pointed to his huge financial resources, the team of personal assistants, and the elaborate equipment he had access to" (Shakespeare, 2004).

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  10. See also "Economics and People with disabilities," The Center for an Accessible Society, http://www.accessiblesociey.org.

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  11. See also the obituary on Reeve, wherein columnist Tom Shakespeare wrote, "Reeve could sometimes be dismissive of disabled people who did not share his obsession with walking again." (Shakespeare, 2000).

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  12. "No single individual has spent so much and done so little for others in a similar situation," writes William J. Peace. "And no one has ever been as oblivious to the fact that all of the ramps, elevators, and lifts he uses were fought for by the people he is actively alienating" (Peace, 2002).

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  13. Reeve had began speaking for a cure within the first year of his injury. His appeals were primarily to medical associations, and thus picked up on by the disability press.

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  14. This interview took place about three years after Reeve's injury, which occurred in June 1995. However, no date is available for this archived issue of Ability magazine.

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  15. It is true that Reeve was caught in a tension between acting as a spokesperson of all people with disabilities and focusing on his original goal of spinal cord research and cure. In an interview given the same year as this quotation, he responded to the accusation that he was "not really representing the entire community" by replying that he was the Vice Chairman of the National Organization on Disability, which he said "covers the whole spectrum of the disabled" (Christopher Reeve on disability shows plugs N.O.D., talks cure, Ragged Edge July/August, 1998. Retrieved December 1, 2006 from http://www.ragged-edge-mag.com/0798/a798ft2.htm.)

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  16. Ability Magazine writer Chet Cooper observes that "in the world of disability, there are those who were born with a disability or acquired one at a very early age in life and there are those who find themselves learning to live with a disability later. Statistically, people in this second category tend to direct their focus toward finding a cure" (The Practice: Interviews with David Kelley, Christopher Reeve, Camryn Manheim, Michael Badalucco and Carolyn McCormick, Ability Magazine, retrieved January 22, 2008 from http://www.abilitymagazine.com/Kelley/interview.html)

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  17. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Washington Post and CNN are a few of the major media that chose to feature this quotation from Reeve in their articles and news clips on the convention. See corresponding citations.

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  18. These newspapers include the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Boston Phoenix, and Chicago Tribune. See separate entries for these publications.

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  19. In addition to Shakespeare, Linton, Barnes, and Longmore are all scholars who discuss the medical vs. social model paradigms in their work.

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  20. Johnson contrasted the use of Christopher Reeve with disabled advocate Justin Dart, whom she praises as a true representative of the disability rights movement. Dart's speech at the DNC, however, was scheduled in early afternoon, so "American's prime-time image of disability will remain Christopher Reeve."

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  21. Reeve saw his mission as being in "two parts, and that is something that has been very hard but me to learn, but I call it acceptance and denial, and in a weird way they work together" (Evening 1999).

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