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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