Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Michael Mullins Sings National Anthem at Fenway Park - Tough Questions

All right, people, prepare yourselves. I'm feeling cranky, and I may sound a little cold-hearted in this post. I don't mean to come across that way, and I do apologize if that's the case...but, frankly, I'm okay with it. It's just my viewpoint, and (as always), you're welcome to take it for what it's worth. But I read a news story the other day about Michael Mullins, a man with Down's Syndrome who recently sang the American national anthem at a baseball game at Boston's Fenway Park, and it rubbed me in all the wrong ways.

Not because I think it's wrong that someone with Down Syndrome sang the national anthem at a professional baseball game. Why would it be? Particularly since Michael Mullins does have  a very nice voice. It's been his dream for almost a decade, apparently, to sing the national anthem before a Red Sox Game at Fenway. He's been actively campaigning with Fenway staff for the last four years for the chance to do it.

Here's my issue: Plenty of people who since very nicely would also love the chance to sing the national anthem at a Fenway game, and wouldn't get anywhere near the top of the list of the people being considered for that privilege, even after four decades of campaigning for it. I suspect that Michael Mullins got the chance more because he's disabled than because of the quality of his voice.

Voice quality was probably a factor. Just not likely the deciding one.

That's problematic to me.

Did Michael Mullins Agree to "Raise Awareness"?

The video of Michael Mullins singing was uploaded with the following caption:
This video literally captures a dream coming true as Mike raises awareness for adults with disabilities while showcasing his amazing singing ability. Please share this video to raise more awareness and promote an amazing dream coming true.

I've got dreams, too. I'd love work with Jon Stewart as a writer for "The Daily Show". But not because me having that job raises stroke awareness, or because there's a perception that because I'm disabled, that makes whatever writing gifts I do have especially amazing. Or because, as a disabled person, my life must be so difficult that I'm more deserving of a chance than other folks than having that dream come true. All things considered, even my post-stroke life's been pretty cushy. If we're going to start out "Your dream's coming true" cards to people on the basis of how great the challenges are that they face in life, plenty of people (disabled and non-disabled) should be in line for one ahead of me.

I'd rather get the job on my own steam, thanks.

I know nothing about Michael Mullins. I imagine that his life's been difficult in some ways...perhaps many ways. Maybe he's been had some of those raw deals that make me wonder how people go on - I have no idea.  And maybe he agreed that singing at Fenway would be a great chance to raise awareness about disabilities, and didn't mind that the opportunity came along with the obligation to be an "automatic activist".  It's possible. The media paints a story, however, of him just being happy to sing, not one of wanting to be an ambassador for the disabled community.

The Importance of Treating Michael Mullins Like an Adult

What really made me uncomfortable about this story was that it struck me as a "Make-A-Wish" story - a story of a child getting an opportunity that they wouldn't normally, being to live out a dream, as respite from the harsh and ongoing realities associated with life-threatening illness. We know that these kids wouldn't normally be selected for the opportunity in question, but it's their dream, and the kids have been through a lot, and who's going to begrudge a child the fulfillment of a dream when he or she may not make it adulthood and have a chance to make that dream come true on his or her own steam?   I understand (and have always supported) the Make-A-Wish foundation's mission.

But Michael Mullins isn't dying, and he's an adult. As an intellectually disabled adult, there's a high likelihood that he often gets treated like a child - we see flashes of that in the way that both Fenway and the media talked about him - but he's an adult nonetheless. If this story wasn't about a disabled person, I'd bet that the majority of comments on the articles that I looked at (for example, here and here) would be along the lines of, "What makes him/her so special?" instead of, "Fabulous job!" and "Had to skip through so I wouldn't start crying at work."

I did consider that Michael Mullins was singing the National Anthem for a game that had been designated to promote awareness for a disability or a disability agency, in which case it would make some sense that they'd choose a disabled person for the job. I used to attend the annual Community Living Blue Jays Game at the Roger's Dome each year, and a disabled person sang the anthem. Fair enough. That makes sense to me. But that's not the case here, as far as I can see.

And I can't recall that the singer at those games was ever introduced as "inspirational", or a list of their supports being rhymed off into their introduction:
And here to perform our national anthem is an inspirational young man. He is a member of the Michael Lisnow Respite Center, which provides emotional and physical support for people with disabilities and their families. Put your hands together for Michael Mullins."

Regular readers know how I feel about the word "inspirational" and disabled people. And while there's nothing wrong with attending a respite center (and the announcer may have been following a convention of putting the singer's name at the end of the introduction), his disability had to be the focus, even before his name?  There was nothing else that they could have emphasized, like the fact that he's been singing the national anthem at local community and sporting events in Hopkinton (where he lives) for years?

As for my gripe with the media, it was about a quote in this article, where Michael Mullins is describing his family's reaction to the news that he'd be singing at Fenway.
My brother started crying," he said. (Mullins wouldn’t admit to it, but the staff at the center said he was a little teary eyed as well.)

If Michael Mullins wouldn't admit to it, he probably didn't want people to know, reporter Jonathon Phelps. Was it really respectful, in this context, to print what the staff said about his reaction when he wouldn't admit to it himself?

Like I said, we need to treat to Michael Mullins like the adult that he is.

Michael Mullins - Things to Consider

For the record, I don't blame Michael Mullins one bit for taking this opportunity when it was offered to him. This was his dream. As far as he was concerned, he and staff at the respite house had been working toward it for years - talking to Fenway, organizing the Facebook petition, practicing. And I don't for a moment think that the staff or Michael Mullins' family meant any harm - they were simply trying to make a dream come true for a young man.

But I think that the staff in particular needs to ask themselves what he's taken from this experience, and what the community's taken from it.

Did it advance the causes of equality and community inclusion?

Or did it "other" a disabled man (and potentially disabled people generally, by extension) even more so than he already was?

I know what I'd say. But, as I said, I'm feeling cranky.

All that being said, however - Michael did give a lovely performance, and you should check it out:

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