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.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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