Sunday night, May 1, I was watching TV with my folks. More specifically, we were watching "Extreme Makeover Home Edition." This particular show featured the Dolan family: dad James, blinded in a November shooting at a St. Petersburg Radio Shack; mom Chrissy; and children Charlie, Haley, and J.T. (ages 12, 6 and 3, respectively). Also living in the house were Chrissy's brother and sister-in-law.
As the team of Ty Pennington, Constance Ramos, Preston Sharp, Michael Moloney, Paul DiMeo, Tracy Hutson, Eduardo Xol, Ed Sanders, and Paige Hemmis toured the house and learned about each individual's likes and dislikes, I was hooked. As the Dolans rode away in the limousine toward the plane taking them to their vacation destination (Puerto Rico), the team was busy designing a house that would take into account each person's needs. The Dolans' old house, a 1960s ranch style, was 1,500 square feet, but in a matter of hours was nothing but rubble.
The crew, plus an army of volunteers from Lexington Homes, worked around the clock for seven days to build a new house. They called in an accessibility specialist (himself blind) to help adapt the home so that Dolan would be better able to navigate through it. Each child would have his or her own bedroom, along with a bedroom for the parents, a bedroom for the aunt and uncle, and the usual rooms one finds in a house. The design team also put a golf course in the backyard (after consulting with a group of blind golfers). This new house has more than 3,500 square feet inside.
I especially enjoyed watching the crew work on the kids' rooms Charlie's robot room was amazing. I hadn't been aware that robots could do so much. Haley's puzzle room reminded me in some ways of my bedroom when I was a kid. J.T.'s jungle room, complete with monkeys, a lion, an elephant, and other animals, plus all the noises at the push of a button, made me wish for something similar for my church's vacation Bible school this August. (Unfortunately, I know the status of the budget; the giraffe will be cardboard, as will the accompanying acacia tree.)
Dolan had been working two jobs to pay for the fixing of his house when he was shot on November 18. The show was filmed in early March. At that point, Dolan had only been blind for four months. That's what got to me as I sat and watched.
When I came in to work Monday, the phones started ringing. The e-mail lists started firing up with people complaining about how disgusted they felt about the show.
I didn't understand. What on earth was wrong with giving the family a new house with some adaptations for Dolan? OK, maybe it tended toward overkill with the voice-activated technology. But how often have you heard people ask for technology that will make it easier for them to use a computer, access the Internet, cook using a stove or a microwave, etc.? And how often have you heard blind people ask to be treated like everybody else?
I felt sick after reading all the complaints on ACB-L. But I found myself agreeing with James Hollins' message, which said: "First, people, if you watch the show regularly, you would know that they are never trying to give the public information about a certain disability. ... The show takes the homes of families that have been struck with some sort of situation beyond [their] control, and gives them one less thing to worry about. So he got all of this stuff that the rest of us do not have in our homes. ... if someone offered me half the stuff that he got, I would not turn it down. ..."
So is that the problem? Jealousy? Or is it that it didn't meet his actual needs? As I understand it, Dolan had only recently started attending some sort of rehabilitation or adjustment to blindness classes. It's probable that neither he nor the producers and crew members knew about the wide variety of technology available, from speech synthesizers to braille keyboard displays, microtape-recorder-sized personal data assistants to Type 'n Speak devices. Should we fault them for their ignorance? While it was not a true representation of how the average blind person goes through life, it was a gift, and a good effort at making a difference for this family.
The phones didn't ring and the e-mail lists didn't light up like this when the Extreme Makeover Home Edition crew rebuilt the house for the deaf couple with two sons, one of whom was blind and autistic. The crew included a large variety of adaptive technology in that house, too. One crucial piece of technology was a tracking system consisting of an antenna-like device and a pager-like device. The pager was designed to be tucked in a pocket or slipped on a belt loop of the child's clothing; the antenna would home in on the signal emitted by the pager. This way, the family could track down the child when he got away from the house or from them. While it might not necessarily have been a true representation of the lives of the average deaf couple with children, it reflected their lives -- and their sons' -- quite well.
Though the show is primarily intended for entertainment, it does send a message to its viewers. As I understand it, the message that most people got from this particular show was that "blind people are helpless." You and I know that's not true. But the public does not. What we need to do is educate the public about the capabilities of blind people. And we can't do it just by sitting around. If you were disgusted with the program, call or write to ABC, Inc., 500 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91521-4551; phone (818) 460-7477. Be sure to address it to Extreme Makeover Home Edition.
Personally, I enjoyed the show. It showed me just how much good could come when people worked together. What would happen if we in ACB worked that intensely on voting accessibility, pedestrian safety, Rehabilitation Act reauthorization, information access, and Randolph-Sheppard issues?
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