As Paralympian and Olympian Oscar Pistorius faces charges of premeditated murder, the media is filled with predictable hand-wringing about the knock-on effects for public perception of disability. This is, after all, a man who lead us to “redefine. . .disability” (The Mirror, The Australian). A man who “changed our perceptions of disability” (The Scotsman). A man who is “revered for overcoming his disability” (CBC).
I don’t doubt that Pistorius held a lofty position in the public psyche. And I don’t doubt that the shocking events of recent days will damage the public perception of disabled people. Nothing reinforces otherness quite like highly public murderous rampages. It’s not a question of what will happen. It’s a question of what should happen.
A worried commenter on a current events blog brought up what must be a common theme for many. She works in an after-school program for disabled children and opined “I always tell my kids ‘If Oscar can do it, you can do it! What do I tell them now?’”
I’m not sure what you should tell them now, because I’m not sure I can get into the headspace where it would’ve made sense to tell them “If Oscar can do it, you can do it!” in the first place. Oscar Pistorius is (or perhaps was) a track athlete, and a very good one. Most disabled kids aren’t going to grow up to be track athletes. Most disabled kids don’t want to grow up to be track athletes. I’m fairly sure that most non-disabled kids aren’t sitting in their after-school programs being told “If Usain Bolt can do it, you can do it!” What an odd thing that would be to say them.
But here we come to the crux of the issue: Oscar Pistorius wasn’t merely an athlete, he was a hero. He was a hero for the disabled and the non-disabled alike. We were all supposed to love him and, more importantly, to be inspired by him. As Justice Malala writes in The Guardian:
To be without legs, and to become the epitome of excellence in the very field where you are not supposed to excel: that is the stuff of legends. That is why many of us here, when talking about Pistorius, take on the hyperbole of sportswriters. We like an impossible story.
And we loved him for it. We adored him.
This image of the heroic overcomer is familiar. And it’s something that increased media coverage of the Paralympics – with all its focus on “human interest stories” – intensifies, much to the chagrin of some disabled people. Usain Bolt is a track athlete, and he’s allowed to simply be a track athlete. Oscar Pistorius was supposed to be an inspiration, a beacon of hope for future generations of disabled people, a testament that any adversity can be overcome through sheer determination.
That’s what we’re comfortable with, when it comes to disabled people. That’s what we like our stories to look like. Disabled people can be inspirational, or they can be pitiful. They can’t just be normal, everyday people. The man without legs who heroically overcame all odds to be a track star – we like that story. (We like it so much that we’ll conveniently cover up the previous domestic violence arrest, the public temper tantrums, the drunken boat crash, all to preserve the story we want.) The man without legs who desperately needs your charitable contribution to afford a new prosthesis so he can walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding – we like that story too. The man without legs who became an accountant but is facing some access barriers at work – we’re pretty uninterested in that story.
We want disability to be a story of the individual – of individual need or individual bravery. But for most disabled people, disability isn’t the story of the individual. Barriers to access are primarily social – they’re not a matter of individuals lacking guts or bravado. And no amount of individual charity will solve the social inequality that disabled people face each and every day. The longer we focus on the heroic individual achiever, the longer the everyday social ills are obscured.
Oscar Pistorius didn’t redefine conceptions of disability. He was (and may continue to be, depending on the verdict of his trial) an incredibly talented athlete, as are many other disabled people. But he fit very neatly into our accepted paradigms of disability. He was an inspiration, because that’s what we expect disabled people to be. And that doesn’t change anything.