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Superhuman and the rest of us: the Paralympics, disability and problems with the media

I just saw the amazing new Channel 4 advert that has been released for the Paralympic games. It’s a great piece of filmmaking and beautifully choreographed. Check it out below.

As much as I am so happy to see disabled people portrayed in such a positive and innovative light (aka like normal people doing normal people thing…shock horror…) my heart also sunk.

In this blog post I do not in any way want to take away from the amazing athletes that participate in the Paralympic games. Seeing the range of things that disabled people now have access to is wonderful, and I only hope that funding continues to offer support and accessibility to give people the opportunity to participate in anything they want to. Disability should never stop someone from achieving or pursuing something that they want to do. Although we all know that there’s still a very, very long way to go.

The problem I have is with the media. This happens every time we have a Paralympic games and it also happens in a much more general way when we think about how disability is presented. It’s either unbearably terrible “misery porn” or taking it to the other extreme the of disability “inspiration porn”.

As someone with an invisible illness, I’m constantly battling to be believed and there are two things about this that frustrates me:

1) When we talk about disability in the media it is often about the “traditional” understanding of disability. This makes it difficult for people with invisible disabilities to be believed and understood because it is still not socially acceptable. How can you be disabled when you look able bodies? I will add the caveat here that it’s a lot easier to present visible disabilities in an advert because, well, it’s kind of obvious why.

2) The problem with this near-fetishisation of disability that happens during the Paralympics is that we don’t look at these athletes as what they are, exceptional athletes, but as models on which society expects all disabled people to model themselves.

The nature of my disabilities means that the majority of sports that they do are entirely out of my league. My pain levels and dislocations mean that the the repercussions are just not worth it for me. In fact, getting out of bed most days is a pretty big achievement. But we are told to look at these amazing people and “if we just tried harder” or “worked more” or “believed in ourselves” we could achieve just as much. But, and I really don’t mean to sound pessimistic, it’s just not possible for all people all the time.

We wouldn’t go up to a perfectly healthy able-bodied acquaintance and tell them that if they worked hard enough they could be the next Mo Farrah or Michael Phelps. Sometimes people like to send me links about people who are sick and have done amazing things. Most of the time I see that and it often makes me feel like I’m underachieving, even though I push my body way more than I know I should (and am making myself more unwell in the process). That being said, I know that a lot of people can’t do the things that I do. It’s all relative.

So yes, let’s celebrate these exceptional athletes. Let’s cheer them on in Rio and marvel at their skills, strength, determination and talent. The Paralympics gives an unprecedented opportunity to look at the way we treat disabled people in society and the opportunities available to them – but let’s be more mindful about how we look at and talk about these issues. We may not all be Rio-level “superhuman’ but we’re all fighting in our own way. Even if it doesn’t take us to Brazil and it just means we’re getting out of bed and having a shower.

This post also appeared on The Mighty.

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4 Comments on Superhuman and the rest of us: the Paralympics, disability and problems with the media

  1. Silvia Logan
    July 15, 2016 at 6:08 am (2 years ago)

    Natasha, I agree with you a 100%. People with disabilities should not be treated differently just because they have physical and mental disabilities. They should be treated as equals and be accepted what they are as people. People with disabilities can be more intelligent and talented than people without disabilities. One should never be prejudiced against them.

  2. Cassie
    July 17, 2016 at 6:51 pm (2 years ago)

    I think what bothered me the most about that was the conflation of disabled people doing frankly fantastic things (like being Olympic level competitors) and disabled people doing things like playing the piano, eating breakfast etc.

    And then I said something about it to my, ablebodied, mother and got a ‘but it’s so progressive, isn’t it good to see disabled people doing things on TV’, And that upset me, because my mum’s seen me on the days I can’t get out of bed or when I have to cancel plans because I woke up that morning and couldn’t walk or when I slept for over 24 hours straight. The days when getting up and having breakfast would be a victory worthy of advertisement. And when she can’t see how equating ‘disabled person eating breakfast in a non-traditional way’ with ‘disabled person able to compete at Olympic level’ and labelling them both superhuman. All the while ignoring a significant portion of the disabled community. And she wondered why I was pissed off.

    • Natasha Lipman
      August 10, 2016 at 9:47 am (2 years ago)

      Yes, definitely that’s a really valid point that I totally missed on first watch – thank you!


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