Sunday, September 17, 2006

SOUND OFF: WHEELCHAIR WALKERS

The book publisher Houghton Mifflin came under fire recently when a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal revealed that some of its textbooks had included photographs of children in wheelchairs who were actually child models who could walk. (Aiming for Diversity, Textbooks Overshoot - WSJ.com)

It's common for models to be hired to pose as something they're not in order to advertise a product or illustrate a point, but critics charge that Houghton Mifflin, in its effort to be politically correct by including wheelchair-bound children, should have hired models who actually used chairs in real life.

What do you think? Is it wrong for textbook publishers to use pictures of models who aren't what they appear to be? Is there a difference between a model pretending to be, say, a doctor and one pretending to be a disabled person? Or is this a case of too much fuss being made about an otherwise praiseworthy effort to show a diverse group of children?

Send your thoughts to rightthing@nytimes.com or post them by clicking on "comments" below. Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of http://jeffreyseglin.blogspot.com/, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just as those individuals who record professional books on tape have to be members of the Actor's Guild, I would assume that individuals hired to model textbook photographs have to be from a union. If models who actually used wheelchairs were available, the agency contracted to provide the textbook photographs may have used them. The bottom line is money--it was probably more cost effective to use models that were available and photograph them in wheelchairs rather than search far and wide for models who actually used wheelchairs.

Anonymous said...

Stock photos are largely works of fiction, and there is no reason why publishers should be compelled to use true-to-life models.

Being politically correct has nothing to do with doing the right thing.

Wendy Hagmaier

Anonymous said...

Since when are models/actors required to look, think, or believe in the roles or situations they are paid to represent? Also, printing a textbook is a business, not a charitable cause, and therefore subject to keeping costs and overall price to the consumer low.

Anonymous said...

While I don't necessarily think it is unethical for the publisher to use models, I think from a PR standpoint it is a huge missed opportunity. Why not picture "real" kids? It would provide a huge boost in self-esteem to disabled kids and a lesson in acceptance to able kids.

Anonymous said...

I think too much is being made about nothing. A model is paid to bring an idea to life, similar to an actor. Whether they pursue an activity in their "real" lives is not and should not be relevant to how they are portrayed in
a publication.

The publisher should be praised for its effort to show a diverse group of children.

Thanks for an always interesting column!

Karrin Hopper
Trabuco Canyon, CA
OC Register

Anonymous said...

I just had to laugh when I read your column about wheelchair walkers and the "uproar" about the manufacturers using models who are not actually disabled. In my opinion, too many people are too worried about everything being politically correct and so many people waste so much time trying to make sure everybody is being politically correct that not too much gets done. Do these critics who charge Houghton Mifflin have no life? Do they really have nothing better to do than research a picture and find out if the models are really disabled? I see magazine advertisements for beauty products that claim "look 30 years old when you are 40 years old by using our cream..." and there is a picture of a model who I can guarantee you is nowhere even close to 30 years but the advertisers wants to sell their product. I know the model probably does not actually use that product or whatever it is the model is selling. Instructional videos use actors as doctors everyday, should there be an uproar? No. Give me a break. So your question "Is it wrong for textbook publishers to use pictures of models who aren't what they appear to be?" My answer is no, it's not wrong and it happens all the time. It's wrong for people to make such a big deal out of something that is no big deal. I am surprised that the Wall Street Journal would publish such a ridiculous article anyway. I thought the Wall Street Journal was supposed to be a respectable newspaper?

Thank you,
Laura Oliver
Aliso Viejo, CA

Sara Liechty said...

If the child is a walker or a wheelchair user in real life, you can use either one for a book to show child diverisity!

Cynthia Dines, Carmichael, CA said...

I feel there's a big difference when comparing what one does versus what disability a person has, in discussing this issue. I can chose to be a doctor, but if I'm born with a disability or become disabled through an accident, most likely, I didn't chose that.

To the reader of the book, the idea that a person with a disability is included is, in the end, probably a more important factor than if the person is actually disabled.

However, morally, I disagree with the publisher's decision. It represents what is common in the corporate world - that money, not people - is the bottom line. Even to the point of excluding certain groups of people. Isn't using a child without a disability to represent a child with a disability in advertising, the same thing as using white actors in movies and T.V. to portray Native Americans, African Americans, and other people of color?

I can't fault a publisher with choosing the most cost-effective method of developing and marketing a product. But I can admire and be more likely to support a business that consciously makes a decision to include people of all abilities in their advertising. And that's the power of the consumer.

One other thing - the intent of the business in their decision to include a person with a disability wouldn't matter much. If they are doing it as a "sympathy" move, which they feel will increase their market performance, that's just fine. The focus is not on them, but on the person in the advertisement, in this case the book.

Anonymous said...

Someone said the textbook publishers should use "real kids." How Funny! One of my children IS that non-handicapped child in the textbook. And I assure you, he is a "real kid." Do you think just because a kid is good at showing up on time, sitting, and doing what he is told that he isn't "real?" If so, when they photograph "real kids" will they turn into robots?

Jeffrey Seglin said...

To the poster whose child is the child in the Houghton-Mifflin photos:

Could you get in touch with me at jseglin@post.harvard.edu?

Best,

Jeffrey Seglin

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