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.