My dear, lifelong friend Steve Gladstone has transcended blindness, and makes an argument that we should all be exposed to disability.
In a particularly thoughtful feature in the American Chronicle, my dear lifelong friend Steve Gladstone, an actor, describes steps that might acculturate future generations to relax around people with disabilities.
Afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive disease that affects the eyes’ rods and cones, Steve’s sight gradually faded until he became fully blind in his mid-20s.
“The able-bodied public still meets a disabled person and they tense up. A wall goes up, the voice changes, and some recoil. There are a lot of assumptions made that I have half a life as a sighted person. The mindset tends to be, ‘If he has a disability, the rest of him must be disabled.’ Same thing with some directors. I show up to an audition for a director and they think, ‘What’s a blind person doing here?’ Other directors overlook the blindness. Some directors like that I’m a blind guy, others don’t want to be bothered by it.”
Just after college and knowing his sight was going, he indulged his hilarious, erudite flamboyance by driving a pink Chrysler Fury III white-walled convertible, a ridiculous aircraft carrier of a car that elicited catcalls from society’s more “style-conscious” elements. By 26, he gave it up without complaint. “South Florida drivers appreciated my decision.”
The period right after that was lousy. Immensely talented, he tried out for and was accepted into the American Shakespeare Company, a plum position. They quickly figured out that he couldn’t really see, though, and that was the end of that. There was no way not to be disappointed.
But he wasn’t deterred and pressed on. For 30 years, with distinctive looks and a resonant voice, he has snagged role after role in commercials and movies, and become something of an icon in the professional theaters that dot Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Last year, he was Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, and Elaine and I drove down to see him. It was a packed theater, and he imbued his Shylock with so much humanity, so much constrained rage at the wrongs that were heaped upon him, that there was audible, open weeping in the audience. We had never experienced anything like it.
This was the real Steve, the articulate intellect capable of conveying the big ideas, and gaining his pleasure from things larger than himself. And that’s what comes through in the article. He doesn’t chastise the rest of us for being so uncomfortable with disability. He understands it. He simply says we need to take steps to desensitize ourselves and that will be better for everyone. It is profoundly true.
“Starting in first grade, they should have a ‘Disabled Jane’ book showing her in a wheelchair. Start at a time when children are most impressionable. In college film classes, the education should continue with students being exposed to the disabled community on a regular basis as part of the curriculum. Show them the numbers. Get their minds filled with inclusion…If students are taught that the landscape includes people who are wheelchair users, blind, amputees, or developmentally disabled, they could show that the disabled do hold jobs. There are blind mothers, deaf law clerks, disabled bus drivers, and many other examples. But the effort to educate has to begin early. By 25, you’re damaged goods in terms of mindset – your morals and ethics are set. There’s little way to change.”
“I’m not that interested that I’m blind. I don’t wear it as a badge. I’m just a regular guy who likes good food, good music, great sex, and the show ‘Boston Legal.’ I have two kids. I just want people to know there’s so much more to me than being blind.”
Elaine and I read the Chronicle article and we looked at each other. We knew he’d find a way to insert the “great sex” part.