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Those in the disability realm are in a unique situation- arguably a challenge- when it comes to highlighting their cause or issue: how to reach and influence the general public in today’s hyperactive and focus-deprived social media environment without resorting to Inspiration Porn.
Coined by the late Australian disability rights activist Stella Young, the term describes when people with disabilities are called inspirational or portrayed inspirationally solely or in part on the basis of their disability. Essentially, it reduces the value and capability of a person to what they are instead of who they are. As Team USA Paralympian Amy Purdy pointed out in a recent blog about her first experience with being “inspirational” following the loss of her legs, it is incredibly frustrating to be the center of someone’s pity party for performing daily and mundane activity.
Unfortunately, these potential pitfalls are not limited to everyday tasks and their often most well-meaning culprits are not exclusive to the ignorant or the insensitive. The 2016 Summer Paralympics are ending this coming Sunday. Now that 22 athletes brought home the Gold already (73 medals total), let’s take one final look at how Team USA has been promoting the Games through their Facebook page. The below video is titled: We Compete With The Same Passion.
The title of the video itself is an indication of the issues we see during the 46-second reel. The comparative nature of using the words “With The Same” is highly problematic. Why would athletes with disabilities not compete with same passion as able-bodied athletes? What about disability prevents or inhibits that from happening? Why would a rational person believe Paralympians are less committed to their sport or less determined to win because of it? A good litmus test to recognize whether something is treading toward Inspiration Porn is if you substitute people with disabilities with any other demographic: i.e. African Americans Compete With The Same Passion; Women Compete With The Same Passion… Sounds racist and sexist, right? Because it is. Just as it is ableist and demeaning in the case of people with disabilities.
The opening line of the promo is, “It’s not just our rivals we must overcome.” While I think that phrase in of itself is absolutely fine- people deal with different disabilities at different times of their lives, which inevitably have varying obstacles in a world that is largely inaccessible, including in sport- the context which it is used gives the impression that they are “less than.”
Many athletes, even at the professional level, have experienced career-altering physical trauma, yet any emphasis on their overcoming deals with recovery and adaptation, not their mere presence on the playing surface. It becomes more difficult to accept the neutrality of those words when, moments later, an athlete tells the viewer, “And in our hearts there is a refusal to let perception define ability.” So I’ve been quite critical of this video so far. And I maintain that their focus emphasizes disability over athleticism, but since we’re speaking of perception it’s worth asking who the intended audience of this video is. It’s the general audience, which includes people with and without disabilities. And part of me can’t help but wonder whether this emphasis on disability doesn’t stem from the assumption that able-bodied people often perceive people with disabilities as unable to do things, which is why they felt such a need to up the narrative of “look I have a disability, but I’m still able to do this.”
“We will inspire you” is said at the 34-second mark. Again- with Amy Purdy. Why is this inspiring? Athletes compete in sports. It is what athletes do. It is in their very nature… We do not congratulate the sun when it rises and sets. This is not a war on the word “inspiration” or any variable of it, but rather its application. The inspiration lies in what it took for these athletes to get to Rio- the training, the discipline, the sacrifice. All of these features are incredibly inspiring because of the overwhelming commitment required, and in that case, it is more than okay to talk about disability. Many Paralympic athletes did not always have a disability and needed to evolve to new circumstances before and during their athletic training in order to reach this pinnacle. That is the true inspiration, but it is not the one that is highlighted in this video.
Interestingly, this is in stark contrast to the use of inspiration on the official International Paralympic Committee website. In the section detailing the Paralympic Values, Inspiration is described in the following manner: As role models, Para athletes maximise their abilities, thus empowering and exciting others to participate in sport. That is an awesome definition. Why? Because if I removed the “Para” before “athletes,” the meaning and emphasis of the statement remains exactly the same. It maintains its focus on the who and not the what. And that is what Team USA should be doing, too.
We are one week into the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games and sadly a much of the story has been focused on events not dealing with competing athletes. Two weeks prior to the Opening Ceremony, estimated ticket sales were at a staggering 290,000. That was only 12% of the available 2.5 million tickets! Additionally, NBC’s record 66 hours of Paralympic coverage (an increase of 5.5 hours from the last Games), is only .009% of what was provided for the Olympics. 7,000 less athletes, 6,689 fewer hours of coverage. Doesn’t exactly scream equality. However, there has also been plenty to celebrate. The Opening Ceremony was a beautiful spectacle that climaxed with Amy Purdy’s dance performance with a robot, and four visually impaired Paralympians beat the Olympic gold time in the 1,500 meter run- emphatically showing the world that disability and inability are hardly the same.
The Paralympics and those calling the shots in the host city and operating media outlets have a lot of catching up to do in making these Games the corresponding international competition it deserves to be, but every four years we have seen the however light winds of change propel it forward and closer to that goal. At the end of the day, that is still called progress.