Megan DePutter on people with disabilities as heroes: “Rarely is it that someone is portrayed as a full, complex human being, with strengths and weaknesses, and with a sexuality to boot.”
During my summer vacation, I spent a couple of days to spend in London, England. The Paralympics were still going on at that time, and there was an abundance of advertising for the games. Apparently there were some changes this year. Advertising was really ramped up and for the first time, tickets were being sold, not just given away.
Perhaps you’ve seen the video advertising the games. Take a look. Even if you’ve watched it before, ask yourself, “What does this say about people with disabilities?”
In the incredibly ableist society in which we live, differently-abled people are frequently excluded entirely from the media. When they are present in the media – such as in news stories - they are often portrayed as either victims to be pitied, or as noble heroes, who have managed to rise above the hardships life has thrown them. Very rarely do we see people who have disabilities portrayed as full, complex, individual human beings.
One exception to this is the documentary Murderball, which featured a subculture of paraplegics who play wheel-chair rugby. What made this movie different was that it showcased people with disabilities who were tough, rough, strong, competitive and aggressive - characteristics which deviate from the victim/hero dichotomy.
There is an interesting scene in Murderball where the men talk about their sex lives – a rare digression from popular media portrayals of people with disabilities who have essentially been stripped of their sexuality. Through exclusion, people with disabilities are made to appear asexual. However, you can see this challenged through the “American Able” series in which the artist challenges the exclusion of disabled women’s sexuality in American Apparel ads and other forms of media, calling into question who “the everyday woman” really is.
Back to the Paralympics. I enjoyed the Paralympics commercial, and appreciated that it portrayed the athletes as athletes – powerful, talented, tough competitors. Great – the ad blew one stereotype out of the water. What I didn’t like was that the commercial relied on the other stereotype – the hero. The ad was clearly piggybacking on recent trends around films of comic book characters, such as Spiderman, the Hulk, Ironman and the Watchmen. But calling the athletes superhuman suggests that they are, well, not human. I don’t have to tell you that people with disabilities are human, but we wouldn’t know this from media that eliminates the diversity that characterizes our humanness. Lumping people with disabilities into a group that is literally not human does not help challenge stereotypes which homogenize people and strip them of their individuality.
I share these thoughts on this blog not just because HIV is classified as a “disability” in Canada, but because you often see dichotomized portrayals of people living with HIV in the media – as deviant criminals (as in mass-media cases of non-disclosure) or heroes (like Jamar from the Voice). Rarely is it that someone is portrayed as a full, complex human being, with strengths and weaknesses, and with a sexuality to boot.
Admiring someone for super-human strength or courage sounds nice, but isn’t it just a fancy way of dividing and segregating people? Just because someone has a disability and is able to overcome that challenge does not make them less or more human. It just makes them human. We are all faced with different challenges in our lives that we are able to overcome because we have an incredibly human will to continue living and breathing and participating in this life. The stories shared on this blog attest to that.