Quick Hit: On Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend and disability

Over at Tiger Beatdown, s.e. smith has an excellent piece on Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend and the media narratives around disability.

The media and the Internet are abuzz with the shooting death of law graduate and anti-domestic violence advocate Reeva Steenkamp in South Africa last week, an event made all the more prurient to many media consumers by the fact that the accused, her boyfriend, is a Paralympic and Olympic athlete with an international reputation. As the commentary spews on, over and over again I see the statement that he was a role model, icon, or hero, and I am driven to ask this: whose hero was he?

I am told he was a hero to the disability community before his ‘fall from grace,’ as though shooting your girlfriend multiple times in the head and neck after a history of domestic violence with her and other women is a ‘fall,’ rather than a ghastly crime for which you should be severely punished. This presumes that the disability community is a collective entity that thinks and moves in lockstep, which isn’t the case; for some disabled people, Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend undoubtedly was a role model, but to others, he was just an athlete. A very talented athlete performing at the peak of his game, because very few people qualify for the Olympics and Paralympics, but just an athlete. Full social integration to me means that disabled people are measured by their accomplishments and deed, not their disabilities.

I suspect that Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend was more of an icon for the nondisabled community than for the disabled community, because of what he represented. His very mainstream success; adapting to prostheses, becoming an extremely talented and driven runner, working with custom ‘blades’ that were his distinctive trademark, were what made him appeal to nondisabled people. His success as an ‘inspirational’ or ‘heroic’ icon lay precisely in his ability to pass, to conform as closely as possible to nondisabled norms, to become, in essence, one of them. He was safe, comforting, and familiar, presenting a framework of disability that suggested all disabled people aspired to be like nondisabled people, and could if they just tried hard enough.

Smith goes on to point out that in response to the “revelation that disabled people can actually be abusive assholes too,” the nondisabled community has revoked Pistorius’s “honorary nondisabled person status” and “put him back in the corner with the other cripples.” In all of this, of course, Steenkamp herself is relegated to being a secondary player in the story of her own murder.

Read the rest of the piece here.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/cadedebois/ Cade DeBois

    Wow, I’m more than a little put off but this. I’m disabled–I have autism and PTSD/depresion that I’ve struggled with since my childhood. That article by Smith is beyond obnoxious. She/he presumes to know what Pistorious represented to disabled people like myself but clearly does not. Pistorious represented to many disabled people not so much the mainstream, able-body ideals as Smith smugly suggests may have meant more to non-disabled people than to us (holy fucking hell), but the things that non-disabled people never have to think about becuase of their own fucking privilege, namely Pistorious got to speak WITH HIS OWN VOICE and NON-DISABLED PEOPLE ACTUALLY LISTENED TO HIM. No surrogate talking with him standing mutely near by, maybe a step or two beyond–just him. No one like Smith here coming to the mic to tell everyone what we disabled people think and feel and experience. His voice, his words. On worldwide TV, no less. And now we don’t have him as that non-disabled-people-friendly example of a Disabled Person You Normal People Will Listen To anymore to prove to you that we DO have our own voices and you CAN listen to us, and it fucking hurts. Let us deal with that without trying to suggest we’re wrong to feel that because of choices and actions at are Pistorious’ alone, because no one has that right.

    How the media poratrays this is one thing but Smith’s privileged, snotty presumptions, thinking she/he can speak for us like this without having any clue what we are really thinking or feeling, is exactly the kind of crap that makes disabled people want to scream “STFU already!” to non-disabled people.

    Oh and plenty of non-disabled people already think we disabled people are dangerous and scary and don’t want to be around us. Why are you acting like they don’t? Never spent much time listening to disabled people, then? Jesus. What bullshit.

  • scottishtanningsecrets

    Congratulations to s.e. smith for the great piece. I have been struggling a bit myself with this story because disability representations and violence against women are both issues that matter to me. I will admit is was a bit sad to see a disabled “hero” knocked off the pedestal, and simultaneously a relief to see someone who had perpetrated violence against women face legal punishment.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ritafantastic/ Rita Carlin

    I learned this very lesson as a high schooler–that “disabled” does not mean “nice”. I was not popular, and so one of the people I spent time with was a kid from my neighborhood who had been hit by a car when he was 8 or so. The accident left him moving and speaking in a herky-jerky way. It was difficult to understand him, but after spending some time talking with him I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that he seemed like kind of a jerk. When I mentioned this to my mother, she told me that the guy had been kind of a jerk before the accident, that some people were just jerks.

    On the other hand, I have more recently met a man who experienced a very similar accident at a similar age (although the trauma from his accident was worse–one arm doesn’t really move and one leg is shorter than the other, and his speech is even slower and more garbled). He turned out to be a truly delightful person, with an intense spirituality and very deep thoughts.

    Interestingly–maybe because I peruse a lot of feminist blogs and news sites–I know Reeva Steenkamp’s name, but I don’t know the name of her athlete “blade runner” boyfriend off the top of my head–Oscar something? So good work, feminist blogosphere!

  • http://feministing.com/members/bellecloche/ Emily Sanford

    An ultimately good piece, but – “Full social integration to me means that disabled people are measured by their accomplishments and deed, not their disabilities.”

    I’ve seen more or less the same line in repeated in articles since Pistorius’s arrest and I’m not really comfortable with it. It sounds like yet another iteration of the conservative belief in meritocracy – “I don’t see race/gender/sexuality/disability: I judge you as individual!” – that refuses to take the possible influence of institutionalized chauvinism and denied privilege into consideration.

    I addressed it in more depth, a propos Pistorius, here: