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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Shaping our perceptions: updated

It's always interesting to me, when reading news and magazine articles, how headlines are used to shape our perceptions - and how often those headlines misrepresent the articles they're written for.  Here's an example I found today.

Obese woman wins right for better parking spot.

Going by this headline alone, you could understandably assume that this woman somehow fought for, and got, a better parking spot simply because she was fat.

But what does the article say?

The first hint that things are not as they seem is right in the first sentence.

MONTREAL (CP) — A morbidly obese Quebec woman with various health problems has won her legal fight for a better parking spot.

Now, she's not just obese, but morbidly obese... with various health problems added almost as an afterthought.

What else is there?
The 57-year-old resident of Sainte-Marie, Que., weighs 389 lbs., suffers from diabetes, needs a wheelchair, and gets help breathing from an oxygen tank.

She had tried to switch parking spaces with another condo dweller, but the neighbour refused and the condo association left the two to sort it out themselves.
 Now we have two things.

One, she's in a wheelchair.

Two, her neighbour refused to switch parking spots with her.

Now imagine if there had been this, more accurate, headline.  How would this change your perception?

Wheelchair bound woman wins right for better parking spot.
Think about it for a moment.  This woman's weight is irrelevant.  Her diabetes and the fact that she needs an oxygen tank to breath is also irrelevant.  When it comes to a parking spot, there's only one relevant fact.

She is in a frickin' wheelchair!

Full stop.

Nothing else is of issue.

Ah, but a neighbour refusing to switch spots with a wheelchair bound woman would be discriminatory.  Refusing to switch spots with a woman that wants it because she's obese... well, who wouldn't refuse such a trite request?

There's another perception that's implied by the phrasing of this headline.  Because this woman is first described as obese, it is implied that her weight is the reason she's in a wheelchair, diabetic, and breathing from an oxygen tank.  It also suggests that someone who is so OMGFATZ!!! can't possibly also be mobile (though she still manages to operate a vehicle, or she wouldn't need the parking spot in the first place).  Never mind that people just as heavy, and heavier, are not rended immobile by their weight and manage just fine, thankyouverymuch.

On the other hand, if she had first been described as being in a wheelchair, one might instead assume that her weight and other health problems are complications of whatever put her in the wheelchair in the first place.  Either way, why she's in the chair doesn't matter.  The only thing that matters is that she is in a frickin' wheelchair!  Seriously.  The rest doesn't even need to be mentioned.

(As an aside, when we first moved to our current home, one of our new neighbours was in a wheelchair, needed oxygen, was diabetic and, yes, obese.  She had considerable mobility problems.  She was also active on many committees, and a great neighbour.  None of her health problems, and certainly not her weight, kept her from being an active contributor to our community.  I wish some of our able bodied neighbours would match even half of what this woman managed!  Note I am speaking of her in the past tense. Sadly, about a month after we met her, she somehow fell out of her chair while alone at home, knocking the oxygen tubes loose.  Unable to reach her help alarm, she died.  The outpouring of grief from our new neighbours was a testament to how greatly loved and appreciated she was by our community.)

The Quebec Human Rights Association seems to get it, though.

The rights tribunal ruled that the condo association discriminated against the handicapped Myrand, and it ordered the association to pay $10,000 in damages.
Congratulations on your win, Marise!


Lorne Gunter has weighed in on this story, from a different point of view.

Human rights' next fronteir: Your parking lot.

First off, I agree with Gunter, to a point.  For there to be a human rights tribunal over a parking spot is ridiculous.  It should never have gone that far.  He also gives out a few more details in the story (apparently, Myrand is in a "handicap scooter," not a wheelchair.  Which means that she's got some mobility, but still can't walk.  She would still need an accessible spot.

The person who had the spot, on the other hand, claimed she needed it because she's 60, has a bum shoulder, and works late.

Hmmm...  bad shoulder... can't walk...Which do YOU think is more of an issue?

His other point is that it's not the condo association's place to take parking spots from one person and give them to another.

I would need some clarification on this.  As I understand it, people own their condos (or rent from independant owners), but parking lots are co-owned and assigned, similar to our own co-op parking situation.  Individuals don't own their parking spots, and if necessary, the condo association can indeed change them around, if there were reason to.  If I'm wrong, someone please correct me.

Unfotunately, Gunter still makes it about Myrand's weight.

Clearly, it's bad manners to wonder aloud whether someone who has allowed herself to become morbidly obese is now trying to use that condition to inch her vehicle closer to the entrance and save herself a few steps at the expense of a neighbour.

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