Can We Talk About that Paralympics Ad?

British Broadcaster Channel 4 (which has the broadcasting rights for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio) recently released their trailer for the games and it’s getting a lot of positive attention.

Here it is

Here’s a version audio described by Australian comedian Adam Hills

I’ve actually been trying to write this piece for several days and have been having difficulty. Not because I don’t know how I feel about this ad but because I don’t know how to articulate it. I’m still not sure that I do. I have found that when I criticize the media representation of disabled people. I am often accused of criticizing the disabled people in that media.

I want to make it clear that this is not what I’m trying to do. I am trying to talk about the implications of how disabled people and their accomplishments are framed and disseminated for a majority nondisabled audience.

I want to like this ad. It has so much that I love. It has an almost entirely disabled cast and so many of them are doing bad ass things to appropriately themed music. If that was all this was, I would probably be sharing it all over social media to the point of annoying everyone connected to me.

There are two things about this ad that just end up making me cringe. The use of the term Superhumans to refer to Paralympians and the song “Yes, I Can”.

The term Superhumans is not new to the Paralympics. The commercial that Channel 4 used for the 2012 London Paralympics is called “Meet the Superhumans”

You can see it here,

There was no audio described version of this ad. Which I guess speaks to a degree of progress in this year’s advertising and general disability awareness.

So why do I dislike the fact that the Paralympians have been labeled Superhumans? It’s not because I don’t think they are phenomenal athletes. They absolutely are. In a way calling them Superhuman detracts from that fact.

It’s ironic how closely the term Superhuman is to the term Super crip.

Super crip is a term used by disability media critics to describe the phenomenon of celebrating disabled people in either a way that lacks meaningful context or in a way that seeks to effectively erase their disabilities except to add emphasis to the extraordinariness of their accomplishments. It’s not just that they’re amazing athletes. It adds a degree of “Can you believe someone like that could do this?”

The 2012 ad is particularly guilty of this with its juxtaposition of scenes signifying how people became disabled (often violently) with images of them succeeding as athletes.

It does from A to B without looking at any of the context of how people get to B or for that matter who CAN get to B. Because athletic success, particularly for disabled people is not just a matter of having the desire to do it.

Which brings me to the repeated refrain of “Yes, I can” from the 2016 ad, which buys fully into the “to believe is to achieve” stereotype. It is not just a group of musicians, dancers, and athletes showcasing their skills. They really sell the myth.

Consider the scene in the career counselor’s office where the counselor tells a wheelchair user “No, you can’t” which is immediately followed but by that young man playing wheelchair rugby while screaming “YES, I CAN”.

The thing is “No, you can’t” is far more than just the words of an individual who has vastly underestimated your potential. It is a systemic reality. It is far more accurately an expression of “No, you can’t because we won’t let you”. Wheelchair Rugby Clubs do do not appear fully formed just because someone has the desire to play.

Getting to be a Channel 4 “Superhuman” is in many ways as much about luck as it is about skill and hard work. The reality is that access to athletic training for disabled people is limited to those who have physical and financial access to it. If there is no training available in your area or even if there is but you can’t afford it, all the desire and willingness to work in the world is not going to get you to the Paralympics.

In many ways the oversimplification of “yes, I can” actually undermines the extent to an athlete’s success. It ignore the work they put in not only training but also in getting access to that training.

It also erases anyone who doesn’t have access to that training because as I mentioned it’s selling “to believe is to achieve” hard.

The video also delves pretty deeply into inspiration porn territory with it’s images of disabled people doing everyday things. Like looking after children or brushing their teeth. Considering that disabled parents still face the threat of losing their children solely because they are disabled and not from any identified inability to provide care, including Canadian Paralympian Charles Wilton. Wilton did eventually get to keep his son but that doesn’t erase the fact that it was considered acceptable to plan to remove the child before he was even born or before actually assessing it his parents could care for him.

The erasure of systemic barriers in favour of an “overcoming” disability narrative is  misleading. It not only erases the reality of succeeding as a disabled athlete–the need for specialized adapted training and coaches who are willing to work to make those changes–but it also erases the people who don’t have access to those things and completely ignores the reasons why.

It is a disservice to the real work put in by Paralympians whose work and not just successes deserve to be celebrated.

It also promotes social complacency by putting all of the onus for success on disabled people and letting nondisabled people of the hook for the perpetuation of an inaccessible world that actively limits rather than supports our success.

I want to see more bad ass disabled people doing bad ass things but I want those stories to contain context which holds society accountable for why there aren’t more bad ass disabled people being allowed to do bad ass things.

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18 responses to “Can We Talk About that Paralympics Ad?

  1. Thanks for taking a stab at this commercial. It is vastly superior to the 2012 ad but remains extremely problematic for the reasons you state. I have been unable to comment because I am so torn. I love adaptive sports and am a middle aged weekend warrior. Yet I have many problems with adaptive sport programs nation wide that rely on the charity model of disability. Typically programs have one or two employees, poorly paid, often young women, who are exploited and manage hundreds of volunteers. And this says nothing of the fact most people with a disability can not even afford to get to adaptive sport programs. Sadly, adaptive sports, especially elite level of competition undermines much of the disability rights movement. Inspiration porn abounds and hence parts of the ad are great and parts are dreadful. In short, like you I remain conflicted.

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  2. Pingback: #YesICan or Can I? | The Hippy Geek

  3. This is great. I agree with you on this. But I want to add another important erasure in this ad. The “Yes I can” crap also reeks of the same mentality we hear in that hideous trope: “The only disability is a bad attitude.” Here’s the thing. NO I CAN’T! My disability — severe, chronic back pain caused by child abuse — is invisible. I never ever get praised for all I manage to accomplish. Instead, I am constantly ridiculed for not doing more. Virtually no-one believes me when I say there are things I simply cannot do. They become hostile when I say, “I can’t.”

    It seems like able-bodied people want the disabled not to be disabled. They want us always to say, “Yes I can” and wow them with our accomplishments. Let’s face it: there are things we can’t do because we’re disabled, and that’s okay! We still have value, meaning, and purpose. I want it to be perfectly acceptable for disabled people to say, “No I can’t.” (Or even, God forbid, “No, I don’t want to.”

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  4. Thanks for articulating this better than I could. I also wanted to add that the ad focuses very heavily on missing limbs and wheelchair users. Most of the disabled people I know aren’t missing any limbs and a lot don’t use wheelchairs. It feels like it’s presenting easy to understand images of disability rather than more complex disabilities or less traditionally attractive people – other than missing a limb or being in a wheelchair, most of the people featured in the ad fit into societies idea of beauty

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  5. Sometimes when I talk about my Dad, I focus on the triumphs, sometimes the struggles. If the conversation is long enough, it might be both. Every billboard can’t be a novel. While you are right that attention needs to be paid to the fact that accessibility to accessibility is a major problem, it is not the responsibility of every disabled person celebrating their accomplishments to bring attention to that fact. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the message presented in this commercial. I just think there is a lot of room for more messages.

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    • The thing is those athlete’s may have appeared in this ad (and as I said in the piece, I’m not here to dishonour them or their skill) but they did not write, produce or do the concept work for this ad. This post isn’t a commentary on Paralympians. It’s a commentary on a basically ubiquitous way that media (which is overwhelmingly nondisabled) presents disability & accomplishment in entirely unrealistic ways that neither fully honour the people it is intended to and which actually reinforces systems that harm those not directly included.

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  6. People do associate disabilities with violence and trauma and yes they can be acquired that way but I didn’t get any of mind that way. I was born with NVLD, not sure how I got CFS, IH and OCD.

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  7. Hey, thanks for writing this. You brought up some really interesting and valid points. Would it be okay if I shared this on Facebook? I am a part of a group called the Disability Blog Network based in Austin, Texas and we are a network of bloggers with and without disabilities who offer support to aspiring bloggers with disabilities, promote each other’s blogs, and share the work of other compelling bloggers. Please let me know. Thanks!

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  8. Hi, thanks for writing this. I’ve been thinking about this ad on and off since it came out, and I appreciate your thoughts.

    It’s interesting to consider the ad as sitting at the intersection of media depictions of sports and disability simultaneously. Ordinarily, the lionisation of people with disabilities falls into the ‘inspiration porn’ category, but in some ways this ad can’t be understood so simply because the other side of it’s content – sport – is ordinarily so filled with ridiculous exultation in the media. There’s a long history to the myth of ‘amateruism’ in the Olympics, and I think much of it is meant to imply that ‘anyone’ can succeed (which is absurd in itself). The depictions of Paralympians are unrealistic, but the whole Olympic movement is sort of divorced from reality, and always has been. I wonder if this myth of the exulted anybody puts a different spin on the depictions of everyday activities by Paralympians.

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  9. hmmm are we missing the point they portraying all has super humans yet there are many left without support without help but now they shown the people that you are super human ops when they come for your car your dla or pip even esa you shown the world you are super human giving them the credence they want nothing is easy but allowing them to see disabled this way will bring repercussions from the torys

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  10. Pingback: #SUPERHUMANS ? | auxmarchesdupalais

  11. In 1981 I was selected to represent Great Britain in swimming for the International Stoke Mandeville Games (which later became Paralympics). I withdrew when I found out the an Apartheid South African team was participating. I then got involved in disability politics and a campaign call Disabled People against Apartheid (see https://goo.gl/PxPRKx)

    More recently I have become interested in the politics of disability sport again, to see whether it had changed from what I saw as the patronising and autocratic set up that I found in 1981. I have found that there is still a lot bubbling under the surface with regards to elite disability sports and I will be speaking at a session of the Gtr Manchester Coaltion of DIsabled People next Equality Forum on 18 August (see https://www.facebook.com/events/659557890863957), where I hope to show the Superhumans video and discuss various issues relating to the Paralympics – cyborgification, the costs of the technology (a custom built racing wheelchair can
    cost over £3000), the implied hierarchy of disabilities (with wheelchair athletes at the top) and the dubious objectivity of classification systems which themselves epitomise the medical model of disability.

    The Superhumans video certainly has great production values and gives a sense of exhilaration, but it left me feeling uneasy and wanting to look at it in more detail As others have mentioned, the emphasis is beauty and technology, featuring predominantly wheelchair users (8%) and people with missing limbs (0.1%). The percentages refer to the proportion of disabled people in those categories (source: Pamela Ralph, TED talk). I still swim at the same place as the GB Paralympic swimming squad (Manchester Aquatics Centre) and often think of asking them for their views including political views, but I never see them as they have their own 50m pool in the basement that is out of bounds to the rest of us!

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  12. Pingback: Quick Hit: Crippledscholar on that Paralympics Ad

  13. I appreciate you writing this because I don’t feel full clarity on the topic myself.

    I do see the rationale behind all of your points and I wouldn’t say any of them are wrong. The argument itself is pointed and I always enjoy your writing 🙂

    THAT being said – I do think we all push for every piece of disability media to be more. Because we are so strapped for realistic portrayal of cripples every little piece we get we’re like THIS ISN’T ENOUGH (I am saying this is my own reaction too btw).

    But this ad I felt, was just enough. I don’t think the average life part was intended by the director as inspo porn (consciously or not). It played more heavily into the “from everyday person to world class athlete” for me, as a wheelchair user. And I think inspo porn would have been more pointedly like “look, this piece of shit disabled person can do it – so I can too!”

    Most importantly, it felt intended for a disabled audience. And not in a patronizing way.

    Also per the tact and design of the sets – GOD THAT WAS COOL. I’ve never seen a piece of film presenting disability in such a not-out-of-the-ordinary manner.

    The Olympics / Paralympics committee is decidedly apolitical. And I think that lends a certain edge of the accessibility to the topic.

    Certainly this video isn’t like “the end of” the disability justice movement at all. Could it have gone further? Yah, fer sure. But I felt in it’s context, it was just enough.

    And I actually am now wondering about your thoughts on this subject, bc I think this is where I lack the most clarity; Is there a way to celebrate disabled athletes without shitting on disabled people that are “superhuman”?

    PS that 2012 ad was bullshit.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Agreed absolutely. My problem with the trailers is that they tell about people who were told “You will never do this”, and then went on to do it anyway with the help of physiotherapy and other such interventions whilst completely ignoring the far more inspirational stories of non-disabled athletes who got to the Olympics despite growing up in households that had no spare cash for extra-curricular activities and being educated under a National Curriculum that had no room for sports.

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  15. Pingback: Paralympics links! | Adventures of a Part Time Wheeler

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