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'Superhuman' and the Rest of Us: Paralympics, Disability and the Problem With the Media

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

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

I do not in any way want to take away from the amazing athletes who participate in the Paralympic games. Seeing the range of things disabled people now have access to is wonderful, and I only hope funding continues to offer support and accessibility to give people the opportunity to participate in anything they want. Disability should never stop someone from achieving or pursuing something they want to do. Although, we all know 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 often presented. It’s either unbearably terrible “misery porn” or, the other extreme, disability “inspiration porn.”

As someone with an invisible illness, I’m constantly battling to be believed. Two things about this 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 bodied? 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-fetishization of disability that happens during the Paralympics is 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 the sports these athletes do are entirely out of my league. 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 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. 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 a lot of people can’t do the things 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. Even if it just means we’re getting out of bed and having a shower.

Image via YouTube/Channel 4 (UK Paralympic Broadcaster)

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