24 Jan Developing 21st Century Understandings of Disabilities: Dehumanisation & Superhumans
Happy 2019! It’s the tail end of January and, amongst various resolutions, Dry January and Veganuary attempts, people are starting to think into the near future about understanding and acceptance. Almost 1/5th into the 21st Century, technology, politics, culture, tastes and public opinions on minoritised groups are changing. In this post I’ll be looking at the rapidly changing understandings of disability, coming from corporations and disabled people themselves.
Part of the process of disabled people becoming more accepted and understood as ‘human’ sometimes requires people to re-conceptualise what makes a human and their body ‘whole’ or ‘complete’. This can come in the form of legal and societal judgments of what parts of the body allow people to complete a range of actions that able-bodied people may view as ‘basic functioning’, such as being ‘fit for work’. This issue is fraught. For, in a world that is largely unaccommodating to those with (especially physical) disabilities, it is difficult to dissemble the structures that presume the ‘norm’ to be able – this could be the majority of tube stations not providing step-free access, the lack of hearing loop systems in public buildings, or, healthcare services regarding necessary procedures for people with disabilities as luxuries that they must pay for (that is, if one lives in a country that even offers free healthcare).
A brief case study of recent British media serves as a useful example of the issues surrounding the general population’s view of disability. Let’s take a look at how the BBC’s approach to advertising in the run-up to the 2012 Paralympic Games revealed some of the dangers of overzealously attempting to rebrand disabled people without taking into account their everyday lives. The official tagline that accompanied the Games, hoping to empower and glorify the athletes involved was ‘We are The Superhumans’. Deeming these professional athletes ‘superhuman’ proved to be a double-edged sword in terms of the responses it received. On one hand it importantly recognises the heroism and extreme focus, training and accomplishment that the Paralympians have been through, especially taking note of the discouragement that they may have faced for wanting to pursue such a physically demanding career with their disabilities. The pioneering world of disabled sport is a wonder, exhibiting the rapid development of technology and the expectations that disabled people and, moreover, the world, can hold for themselves and each other. With each subsequent Games, the sports and classifications of ability broaden, accounting for athletes with a mixture of physical and neurological conditions that impair ease of movement. Yet, on the other hand, many disabled people took issue with the assertion of their ‘Superhumanity’ and, therefore, other-than-human status. Nina Muehlemann writes, in Disabled Arts Online, that the advert is ‘targeted towards nondisabled people who need to discover the Paralympics’. Whilst this aim to engage people in the achievements of disabled athletes is undoubtedly positive, the advert troublingly positions disability as ‘a horrible consequence of tragic events (car accidents, war, pregnancy complications)’. Setting disability in such an ableist and negative light only serves to highlight that, according to this representation of the Paralympics, ‘disabled people who are not Paralympians were not deemed worth mentioning, and there was no sense of a disabled community’. Similarly, Penny Pepper writes about the frustrating reminder of inequality that the continued Superhuman campaign has had for ‘ordinary’ disabled people. Unlike the expensive funding and resources that the (deserving) athletes attain, ‘[w]e’re on the receiving end of social workers who are poorly trained and ill-equipped to understand the complexity of our needs, whether it’s basic things like assistance to use the toilet, or those tasks that allow for a functioning relationship with friends, family, within a community and sometimes with work. I teeter on this brink, pushed through assessment and assessment, in a limbo of anxious unknowing.
At a time when awareness of disabled people in all fields and varieties of living situations can be made globally increased through social media, it is vital that we suitably develop our understandings of disability, rather than fall back to the exceptionalist stereotypes of the ‘Superhuman and the Scrounger’. Whilst disability rights are being ignored and funding and care are being cut in the UK, as well as globally, we should lobby for the rights of others. Or perhaps, to start, look a little closer to home. Begin by listening to the needs that disabled people identify for themselves, ones that may allow them independence, dignity, comfort and freedom on their own terms. It is important to remember that disabilities are not always visible and that the tools that aid disabled people (be they wheelchairs, medication or prosthetics) can act as means of gaining physical independence, relief from pain or symptoms, a means of blending in, standing out, or navigating their own lives more easily. In the words of Penny Pepper, let disabled people be ‘ordinary, let us be every day and let us at least have rights. Rights to independent living.’
by Jo Chick