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Disability 101 Part II: The disappearing act

Embracing the stereotype of the Disabled person who has found happiness because she has overcome disability, like the Super Bowl commercial featuring Amy Purdy, means ignoring the fact that many people with different physical and mental experiences live normal, flourishing lives.
Underwriting support from:

Centers for Independent Living and our own local organization

To catch a glimpse of real Disabled life one need only to survey the history and programming of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) movement in the United States. Since the 1960s Disabled people have been promoting the idea of independent living as an alternative to long care, or nursing home “sentences." According to the National Council on Independent Living, “(CILs) are community-based, cross-disability, non-profit organizations that are designed and operated by people with disabilities.” These Centers offer “peer support, information and referral, individual and systems advocacy, and independent living skills training.” In other words, CILs are cultural networks promoted by Disabled people across the country in order to live flourishing lives with disabilities.

Our own local CIL, Disability Advocates of Kent County, has been serving and working with Disabled people since 1981. Made up of disabled and non disabled employees, Disability Advocates “believes that all persons have a right to live as independently as possible, have worth, dignity and the capacity to contribute,… And have the right to make choices and to have a voice.” The services and programs offered by Disability Advocates contribute greatly to all members of our community, and should be applauded for the ways in which they help us except disability as a normal part of the human condition.

This article is written by Dr. Chris Smit, director of DisArt Festival 2015. In it he continues his discussion of disability in our city with this second installment of Disability 101. Each installment will help readers grapple with the cultural and philosophical questions that surround physical and mental difference.

A recent Super Bowl advertisement by Toyota follows the adventurous life of the Paralympian Amy Purdy, a double amputee who uses a variety of prosthetics on and off the playing field. Purdy is an elegant, confident and sophisticated hybrid of body and machine. She is the postmodern body predicted in Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” re-envisioning the lives of women by employing the metaphors and technologies of the machine.  

I think we all understand the “importance” of a Super Bowl advertisement. We’ve been online, investigating how much they cost (this year, $4.5 million for a 30-second commercial slot), how many people will see them (this year, 114.5 million viewers), and which ones we should prefer over others (Michigan State University advertising professors have been providing this service for almost two decades).

Beyond the numbers and the trends, however, lies the true value of these commercials: Super Bowl advertisements offer a clear glimpse into mass imagination. Although no direct relationship can be proven between the content of advertisements and that of our thought processes, there is no doubt ample evidence to suggest that we live in a commercial culture, one that is deeply influenced by the things we purchase and our  motivations for doing so.

It’s tempting to view this commercial, seen by millions, as a victory for disability awareness. However, we must realize that this type of advertisement is really only publicity for the triumphant disabled body. And herein lies the problem with this and similar media: disability doesn’t always look like Amy Purdy. In fact, it rarely does. This commercial displays a repaired disabled body, one that has transcended the physical realities of impairments. In other words, these types of media help us to ignore disability rather than get to know it.

These types of representations are quite common in American media, what Paul K. Longmore called “super-crip” narratives. Stories like these present the Disabled person as victorious because of their ability to overcome what others see as obvious deficiencies. And on the surface, this probably doesn’t seem so awful. Certainly, some Disabled people have done extraordinary thing- why not celebrate them? To answer this question we must remember the way popular culture works. Movies and television don’t offer audiences nuanced images. Rather, popular media can only offer extremes of the human condition. And although some of us have been tricked by reality television, most of us are aware that the characters we view in detective shows, family dramas or sitcoms are only thinly drawn. They are not us. Instead, they are stereotypes of us. 

When disability enters the public imagination, we must be diligent in our awareness of stereotypes and misconceptions. Because we don’t yet know how to talk about disability as a culture, we are still quite gullible when it comes to media representations of the disabled body. So, when Amy Purdy pops up as a super-crip, the risk is that her particular story of disability becomes universal. We are tricked into believing that every Disabled person can, and should, rise above the realities of life and become an icon of independence and self worth. And if this message sticks, even subconsciously, we continue to make disability the sole responsibility of an individual rather than of an entire community. Furthermore, the super-crip stereotype does what all stereotypes do…it obliterates any awareness of real people, including Disabled people who live through their disabilities rather than in spite of them.

The obvious sister ad to the Toyota Purdy commercial is the Microsoft Super Bowl commercial that depicts the life of six-year-old Braylon O’ Neill who was born without the necessary bones in his legs. Prosthetics and technology have helped O’Neill grasp what the ad suggests is a “normal" life, full of opportunities and advantages. In a country that is obsessed with physical fitness and perfection, disability can often become a foil to the expectations of a consumer culture pushing towards universal healthiness. O’Neill’s disability is a severely unwanted condition, one that can be, must be, solved by technology and computer programming.

What we are really looking at here is a disability disappearing act. Purdy and O’Neill don’t actually exist in the world of these commercials as Disabled people. Instead, they have sidestepped the perceived horrors of living with a disability by employing medicine, technology, and industry, all of which have been erasing disabilities since the Industrial Revolution. But of course we all know that this last statement is completely false. Disability remains present in countless lives across the globe. And rather than look that fact in the face, we push past such a reality and instead consume “safe” disability narratives that make us feel comfortable or inspired.

This real experience of disability should not be tucked away within some darkened corner of culture. Disability is not a tragedy. Believing that would be a mistake with disastrous effects for all of us who hope to build community. The lesson here is quite simple: disability is not only something that needs fixing, but rather an identity that many folks wear well. Embracing the stereotype of the Disabled person who has found happiness because she has overcome disability means ignoring the fact that many people with different physical and mental experiences live normal, flourishing lives embracing their conditions.

As a city getting ready for DisArt Festival 2015 we have an extraordinary possibility to be exposed to multiple experiences of disability. Each of the galleries, theaters and lecture halls of DisArt will amplify the voices of real Disabled people. These stories will be heroic, tragic, happy, sad, inspiring and unnerving. In other words, they will be the voices of the Disabled person who lives next door to you, who shares your bus ride home, who works at your grocery store, who might actually be you some day. In the end, we don’t need Disability Heroes. Instead, we need a reappearance of the every day Disabled person. 

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