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The vision thing

February 9, 2009 |  1:09 pm

blindness, Stevie Wonder, Gordon Brown, David Paterson, Saturday Night Live, SNL, Fred Armisen When we were kids my mother often would set a topic for dinner-table discussion. One of the most memorable questions was: Which physical handicap would be the worst?  For my brother Martin, who couldn't, and still can't, sit still,  it would be paralysis of the legs.   Another sibling's most dreaded disability was deafness. For me, the bookish brother, the worst-case scenario was blindness. Fifteen years ago I spent an anxious weekend after a young emergency-room doctor diagnosed my sudden vision problem (straight lines looked curved) as macular degeneration,  which can make it difficult if not impossible to read. The next week a retinologist assured me that the initial diagnosis was wrong and that my problem was much less dire and would, for the most part, go away. (For all the ophthalmology junkies out there, the condition was central serous retinopathy.)

This is all by way of establishing my credentials as someone who would never minimize the hardships of being blind. Yet I confess to laughing at a long-ago "Saturday Night Live" ad parody in which that night's host, Stevie Wonder, played shutterbug as the announcer intoned: "The Kannon AE-1. So advanced, so simple, even Stevie Wonder can use it." Wonder was a good sport, obviously. Gov. David Paterson of New York -- not so much.

The governor, who is legally blind, wasn't amused by a latter-day SNL in which Fred Armisen portayed him, "imitating his wandering eye, gravelly voice and blunt, self-effacing demeanor." (The quote is from an article in The New York Post headlined: "Paterson in a Blind Rage Over SNL Skit.") Paterson's spokesman huffed: "The governor engages in humor all the time, and he can certainly take a joke. However, this particular 'Saturday Night Live' skit unfortunately chose to ridicule people with physical disabilities and imply that disabled people are incapable of having jobs with serious responsibilities."

The same, I suppose, could be said for Jeremy Clarkson, the British TV personality who has apologized for calling Prime Minister Gordon Brown "a one-eyed Scottish idiot." Brown, who lost sight in one eye in a rugby accident as a teenager, may have been spared Cyclops jokes until now, but he's accustomed to  being kidded about his ethnicity. George W. Bush once introduced Brown this way: "He's a Scotsman, you know, kind of -- he's not the dour Scotsman that you described or the awkward Scotsman. He's actually a humorous Scotsman...." In the uproar over Clarkson's gaffe, the voice of reason belonged to David Blunkett, a former British Cabinet member who is blind. Said Blunkett:  "I believe that Gordon Brown is such a big and mature person that he would wish to treat [Clarkson's remarks] as the passing babble and banter of a media personality whose success depends on maintaining his profile, rather than his own reputation for decency and common sense."

Clarkson was engaging in an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink political attack, Armisen was having fun with Paterson's persona the way Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin's. But neither was suggesting that "disabled people are incapable of having jobs with serious responsibilities." Bad taste is not bigotry. Those who equate the two may have eyes, but they do not see.

Image of David Armisen portraying Gov. David Paterson courtesy of Hulu.com and NBC.

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