Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson: Lessons for Disability Advocates, but Which Lessons?


I typically don't comment on pop culture on this blog -- I'll never compete with Perez Hilton, TMZ.com, or People magazine, and I don't want to. But the day after Michael Jackson's death, I came across an article on Twitter with an intriguing title: "What Can We as Advocates of those with Disabilities Learn from the Story of Michael Jackson?" The article was from PediaStaff, a company that recruits and places pediatric therapists, so I was interested in their perspective.

The article, by marketing VP Heidi Kay, suggests that what we can learn from Michael Jackson is that we should have treated him better while he was with us. That instead of criticizing him as a "social misfit," we should have tried to understand him better -- just as we should try to understand and accept children with physical, neurological, emotional, and behavioral challenges. Heidi goes so far as to say, "The story lines of the lives of Michael Jackson, Susan Boyle, and others might have played out differently if the collective 'we' had shown more compassion for them in their hour of need."

That's where I disagree. Yes, some people mocked Michael Jackson for his eccentricities, but the main criticism was reserved for his interactions with children, which were some combination of 1) unusual (no doubt), 2) inappropriate (little doubt), or 3) illegal (not proven). In his own words, from an extensive interview aired as "Living with Michael Jackson":

Martin Bashir: "But is it really appropriate for a 44-year-old man to share a bedroom with a child that is not related to him at all?"

Michael Jackson: "That's a beautiful thing."

Bashir: "Did you ever sleep in the bed with them?"

Jackson: "I have slept in a bed with many children. I slept in a bed with all of them when Macauley Culkin was little: Kieran Culkin would sleep on this side, Macauley Culkin was on this side, his sisters in there...we all would just jam in the bed, you know....Because what's wrong with sharing a love? You don't sleep with your kids? Or some other kid who needs love who didn't have a good childhood?...Why can't you share your bed? The most loving thing to do, is to share your bed with someone."

Like many other people, Heidi defends Jackson by saying he was robbed of his own childhood and that he was cleared of all charges. To some extent, I agree. By many accounts, Michael Jackson was like a child psychologically up until his death at age 50. And apparently he had a special ability to connect with children because he never let go of his childhood. That's not a bad thing. But when you're 30, 40 years old, you're an adult, and sleeping in bed with other people's children is wrong.

And that's the real lesson for advocates of children with disabilities -- because those children are up to 10 times more likely to be sexually abused than their non-disabled peers. So I will respectfully mourn Michael Jackson's death, feel sympathy for his family and friends, and honor his musical legacy -- but I will not endorse his troubling behavior with children just because he has died. What are your thoughts?
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