Eberts Disability Mindset
Earns Him a
By Mike Ervin
Roger Eberts Ninth Overlooked Film Festival (aka
Ebertfest) was coming up fast in 2007. Of course, Ebert appears at
the festival in his boyhood hometown of Urbana, Ill., every year. It
wouldnt be Ebertfest without Ebert.
But some people close to him were advising him not to go.
This would be his first major public appearance since his surgery to remove a
portion of his cancerous lower left jaw. As Ebert wrote in an entry in his blog
Roger Eberts Journal that April, Im told that
paparazzi will take unflattering pictures, people will be unkind, etc. Frankly,
my dear, I dont give a damn.
Ebert wrote that he could no longer speak and that his
mouth droops open. I was told photos of me in this condition would
attract the gossip papers, he wrote. So what? I have been very
sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my
typing fingers ... We spend too much time hiding illness. There is an
assumption that I must always look the same. I hope to look better than I look
now. But Im not going to miss my Festival.
Being sick is no fun. But you can have fun while
youre sick. I wouldnt miss the Festival for anything!
Four years and three unsuccessful surgeries later,
Eberts speech still hasnt been restored, and he has given up trying
to get it back. Three strikes and you're out, he wrote in an e-mail
interview for this profile. After every surgery, more was missing. I'm
holding on to what I have! Also, there's the ordeal of rehabilitation: I had to
learn to walk again every time, because of muscle atrophy during enforced
post-surgical bed rest.
And so Ebert carries on with enthusiasm. He communicates
using a speech application on his Mac computer or simply by writing notes. He
continues to write eloquently and prolifically in the Chicago Sun-Times
and in his blog, not just about movies but a world of topics.
Hes also back on television every week on
Ebert Presents at the Movies," which he produces, along with his wife,
Chaz. The show is now airing on 320 public television stations nationwide. In
the familiar format of his movie review shows with the late Gene Siskel, two
film critics exchange critiques, and Ebert contributes a video-recorded review
that he has written but someone else has narrated. And then Ebert appears on
camera to give the film his trademark thumbs up or thumbs
No doubt some have discouraged him from appearing on the
I refuse to hide, he wrote. What you see
is what you get. Chaz and I are producing it, dammit. Why shouldn't I
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of 18
books can no longer consume food or drink by mouth, so he eats through a tube.
He employs a full-time, live-in personal assistant named Millie who, he says,
changes my dressing, cleans my mouth and throat, feeds me, prepares and
juices fruits and vegetables to supplement my canned nutrition, and goes with
me when I drive, because if you can't speak it can be tricky if you run into
Even though Ebert is a wealthy man, one of the harsh
realities of living with a disability, he has experienced, is the heavy price
tag it carries.
My medical expenses were astronomical, and I was
lucky to have two good work-related insurance plans, one of which I maxed out.
I was lucky also to have a good income for many years, and indeed today I still
work for the Sun-Times. My major expenses right now are my caregiver, my
medicine and my nutrition. One thing that shocks me is how hospitals price so
many meds and other products that are clearly available for much less on the
Internet, and how insurance companies won't reimburse you if you obtain such
products outside approved channels. My g-tubes, for example, are
ridiculously cheaper on Amazon.
Siskel died in 1999 of a brain tumor, and through it all
he was very closed and private, preferring not to discuss his situation
publicly. But Ebert continues to be wide open and up front about the turn his
life has taken. People will talk anyway, he wrote. I'd rather
be part of the conversation.
He writes about his new life with humor, as in his recent
blog entry Leading With my Chin, about his new chin prosthesis:
After surgery, I studiously avoided looking at myself in a mirror. In my
mind my face was still whole. This was not the case, and one day in the
hospital Dr. David J. Reisberg came to visit. He was a professor of
craniofacial medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and a
specialist in facial reconstruction.
I suggested a false beard which I would wear
suspended from hooks over my ears, like a kid playing Abe Lincoln in the school
play. It's not like I think I'm fooling anyone, I said.
Ebert isnt afraid to mourn. His blog entry Nil
by Mouth is about not being able to enjoy food or drink. When we
drive around town, he wrote, I never look at a trendy new
restaurant and wish I could eat there. I peer into little storefront places,
diners, ethnic places, and then I feel envy. After a movie well drive
past a Formica restaurant with only two tables occupied, and Ill wish I
could be at one of them, having ordered something familiar and reading a
What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the
two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. Theyre
the first way we experience places far from home -- Where we sit to regard the
passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good
together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done -- probably most of
our recreational talking. Thats what I miss. Because I cant speak
thats another turn of the blade. I can sit at a table and vicariously
enjoy the conversation, which is why I enjoy pals like my friend McHugh so
much, because he rarely notices if anyone else isnt speaking.
Prior to becoming disabled, Ebert says his
disability consciousness was higher than most nondisabled people.
Thats partially attributable to his 25-year friendship with Marca Bristo,
president of Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago. I observed her as I
got to know her, and saw what a full life she was leading and what an effect
she had on society.
But back when Ebert was a sophomore at the University of
Illinois in the 1960s, he accompanied a group of wheelchair athletes on a
six-week tour of South Africa. I was one of the able-bodied assistants,
living, working, traveling and rooming with the wheelchair guys and
girls. U of I, a leader in accessibility at the time, had a very active
wheelchair sports program.
A disabled RAF pilot in South Africa found out about
the program and wheeled his chair from one end of the country to the other to
raise funds. A team of athletes was to give demonstrations. This was in a
country where most 'plegics were simply parked in bed. I heard a lot, saw a
lot, learned a lot.
All these encounters helped ease Eberts transition
into the world of disability. Being a writer with a large loyal following has
also given him a positive focal point in his new life. He wrote about that in
Nil by Mouth: The food and drink I can do without easily. The
jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Sentences
beginning with the words, Remember that time? I ran in crowds where
anyone was likely to break out in a poetry recitation at any time. Me too. But
not me anymore. So yes, its sad. Maybe thats why I enjoy this blog.
You dont realize it, but were at dinner right now.
Ebert isnt trying to be an activist. Hes just
trying to tell the truth, he says. But his honest writing and insistence on
continuing to lead a public life on his terms are acts of affirmation and
defiance that add great credence to the notion of disability pride. Ebert is
putting his disability to good use.
The best thing that has happened is that it forced
me to slow down and contemplate life itself. It has forced a third act upon
Mike Ervin is a writer and member of ADAPT, a group
that works for the civil rights of people with disabilities.