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Disabled Leader: An Oxymoron? by Victoria Richards

Sept. 2, 2014 - PRLog -- Disabled individuals and women are often portrayed as being passive individuals who are simply the recipients of care and support and, at least in the eyes of some citizens, as being burdens on others. They are portrayed as individuals who slow down the progress or recovery of society, contributing little to the economic growth of the community. Disabled people are portrayed as individuals who can’t perform the basic tasks that make us independent adults, let alone undertake the executive decisions and actions that make up the life of a leader.

These issues have recently been brought to the front of my mind due to a course that I am taking, via the Cousera (https://www.coursera.org/) website, that focuses on Greek and Roman Mythology (https://www.coursera.org/course/mythology). Many of these myths focus on a particular type of character i.e., the hero. These heroes, such as, Odysseus Hercules, and Achilles,[1] stride the global stage, fighting battles and leading their people in times of war and in times of peace. These men are constantly ready to; fight, debate, philosophise, manoeuvre and strategize. They are active and proactive individuals who shape events and perform great deeds. These heroes are portrayed as physically, intellectually and morally superior to those whom they govern. They were considered to be almost godlike. They did not share the vulnerabilities, flaws or impairments of other mortals. In addition, they were always male.

They were not simply warriors, fighting other people’s battles, but they also performed the roles of early monarchs, tribal leaders, clan rulers, and autocrats. In so doing these individuals ruled large swathes of land and tribes of people. These myths painted the role of the leader as physically active, physically strong, almost godlike being so much so that this portrayal grew throughout history actively shaping the ways in which we portray our ideal leader and the things that we expect from that leader.

The idea of the active warrior leader carried into the next stage of Greek history, the Classical period through both the democratic, Athenian tradition and the warlike, Spartan culture. Plato, and his mentor Socrates, believed that the perfect citizen and perfect leader should be a warrior philosopher, schooled in the arts of war, yet a brilliant thinker and skilled rhetorician. On the other hand, children and people, with disabilities were not to be permitted to exist within Socrates’ perfect ‘Republic’ (http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html).  His theories were given practical form within ancient Sparta.  In this city state, all citizens were trained from birth to be warriors. They were expected to be able bodied and physical fit. Disabled children were said be killed at birth, taken out of the community and left to die in the wild.[2]

These views of the perfect leader, and citizen travelled into medieval, and even modern, democratic Europe. The main role of the Monarch, in Medieval society, was to protect the people.That protection was often in the form of constant invasion and ever present war. In addition, these were not the sort of battles that saw the Monarch sitting at home while his men were killed. The Monarch was expected to lead from the front, putting himself in the firing line.  He was supposed to be a brilliant horseman, dazzling tactician, leader, motivator and warrior. This meant that certain groups were excluded from playing the role of monarch simply because of their real or perceived inability, to perform well in war. As women were not considered to be suitable fighters they therefore, were thought by many, to be unfit to rule.[3] In addition, due to his military role and thoughts that linked sin to deformity, the king was supposed to be ‘perfect’, in every way, without flaw or impairment.  We can see this from the fact that when Shakespeare wishes to demonise Richard the Third he gives the King a deformity. The Deformity was seen as the physical sign of his sinfulness.[4] These views did not pass into the past following the advent of democracy but continue up to this day.

If we jump forward to the modern era, we find that,  despite the fact that many of us no longer live in a monarchy and our leaders no longer have to prove themselves in physical battle, we still demand that the person in charge  be fit, healthy, attractive, charismatic, and (generally) male. We get a glimpse of this requirement when we look at the way in which the media treats those politicians who accidently show vulnerability.

At times, politicians have been forced to hide their disability or impairment in order to be considered fit to govern. Two good examples of this are Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Both of these American presidents had impairments. Both had, at times, been forced to hide their Disability. Roosevelt had Polio as a child and continued to suffer from residual symptoms well into adult life. Yet, he often hid his impairment and this hiding continued after his death in debates concerning his statue; should he be portrayed as being in a wheelchair or not? Kennedy too had an impairment of the spine and suffered from Addison's Disease. He was in pain and medicalised throughout his presidency. Yet, his campaigns continually underplayed his impairments and focused on his youth and fitness. He was constantly portrayed on the beach playing beach games, vaulting and playing tennis.

This continues to the present day. For instance, we can see this in the Labour campaign of 1983. In particular, we need to examine a video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jh8ktNsie0I) made during the course of the campaign. The campaign filmed an ad that saw Neil Kinnock, and his wife Glennis walking along a beach.  All very nice;  focusing on the leader and his family in a casual setting, doing the thing that we all do, or would like to do, with a beautiful backdrop. That is until Neil Kinnock fell over. The media had a heyday showing this as a sign of weakness. Many pundits claim that this was one of things that lost Kinnock the election.

From antiquity through to the modern era, human society accepts as leaders the physically strong and fit. Indeed we expect it. Why must we demand total health from our leaders, even in an era which doesn’t require them to be warrior kings? Why can’t we accept, as long as they have good ideas concerning the future of the country, that they can have a cold, suffer pain and maybe have an impairment? This would certainly increase the potential pool of leaders. This could increase the new voices and bring new ideas to the table. Instead, our democracy is held hostage to a past with hierarchies and idealised models of leaders that exclude, most notably, women and people with disabilities.



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