Disability and the Individual Achiever

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.

18 thoughts on “Disability and the Individual Achiever

  1. Why educate children to “achieve” something?

    Why not educate them to be lead happy lives and to make others happy?

    What’s so great about someone who runs faster than anyone else?

  2. I love your post! ” Disabled people can be inspirational, or they can be pitiful. They can’t just be normal, everyday people.” so very true…

  3. Definitely an interesting read but I’m not too sure how much I agree. What defines normal for persons with disability? What’s normal for them and what’s normal for you or I will be completely different.

    I’m not entirely sure where you were going with this either. Is it a dig at Oscar? Is it a dig at the public perception and roles in society towards persons with disabilities? Is it all of the above? There are plenty of people in the public eye that have disabilities and have been successful. Persons that are not just athletes. For example, that lady with autism who did well in the beauty pageant. Or the young man with Down Syndrome that acts in that tv show about pregnant teens.
    Society in general places people in high regard that have no business being there. Because Oscar became an icon for persons with disabilities or became a beacon for what they can do, does not mean there are not other more respectable people to admire. It also does not define and should not define what is normal. We are individuals because if the 7 billion people on the planet there are 7 billion versions of normal.

  4. Drew, I’m not sure I fully grasp your comment, but I’ll say a few things in response. First, you assume – incorrectly, as it turns out – that the person who wrote the post (me) is non-disabled. As to whether to post is a dig at Pistorius – no, it isn’t. Whatever else he may be responsible for, he’s not (or at least not primarily) responsible for public perception of him.

    The post is a complaint about public perception of disability. And, more specifically, it’s a big giant eye roll at two combined claims we’ve been hearing a lot in recent days: that Pistorius “redefined” disability, and that his “fall from grace” is a tragedy, particularly for disabled people.

    Pisotorius was a talented athlete. But he didn’t redefine anything. The narrative about him slotted nicely into our very comfortable, very well-worn stereotypes about the disabled. The fact that he was somehow supposed to be a hero for disabled people – that disabled people were all supposed to look up to him and be inspired by him – is obnoxious and insulting.

    Of course recent events are a tragedy. They’re a tragedy for Reeva Steenkamp, and for her family. It’s tragic when – as happens all to often – women are killed by their partners.

    But they aren’t a tragedy for disabled people, because though Pistorius was very good at running, he didn’t actually “redefine” or change anything to do with disability.

  5. This is an outstanding essay. Bravo! It perfectly frames the fact that disability is first and foremost a social malady. I realized this via the work of my mentor Bob Murphy at Columbia University. His book the Body Silent profoundly changed my life and many others. The problem is not the disabled body but rather society’s refusal to negotiate difference. The Oscar Pistorius hero worship is the perfect example of skewed disability is portrayed in mainstream media outlets.

  6. My son has Asperger’s Syndrome. He looks normal in the sense of peoples idea of normal. He speaks very well and remember what he he wants to remember very well. He has an associates degree in computer science. He’s been out of school for two years and had a job at Walmart for three months and quit because the manager kept telling him that he needed to move faster or she’d have to fire him. He gets distracted by his thoughts of trains and computer games. He is disgraphic( he understands what he’s reading but he can’t seem to get it down on paper right). He keeps asking me what it’s like to be normal. I told him that none of us are normal. We all have obstacles and how we handle the obstacles determines how weget along and some people are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

  7. I read the piece and thought the author had some good points but I do disagree with what he/she said regarding Usain Bolt saying he’s ” 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.” And also when they said ” 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.”

    I don’t know about the rest of the world but in Jamaica Usain Bolt is used as a symbol of overcoming adversity as are many Jamaican athletes. Jamaican children (of all levels of physical abilities) are encouraged by these athletes to say that even if you come from a poor or rural or inner city background you can make it. I think that when you become a public figure whether you want to or not you do become a spokesperson/inspiration of sorts for others “like” you. It is a reality. Usain Bolt is not allowed to be “just a track star” in Jamaica. His every move is watched monitored and criticized if he doesn’t live up to the expectations placed on him as a role model for Jamaican youngsters. I don’t agree that this should be the case but it is.

    I’m sure a lot of black children don’t necessarily want to become president of the United States but that does not stop Barack Obama from being a source of inspiration to them not necessarily to be president but to be whatever they want to be. Similarily I don’t think many young girls want to be Secretary of State but seeing Hillary Clinton in that position may make them rethink some of the limitations society may have placed on females.The teacher who used Oscar Pistorius as an example of being able to “do it” I don’t think she was saying that the kids could become track stars or assuming that they wanted to be.

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