Quick Hit: Crippledscholar on that Paralympics Ad

In the UK’s trailer for the 2016 Paralympics, “We’re the Superhumans,” a number of disabled musicians perform a cover of Sammy Davis Jr.’s, “Yes I Can” while clips are shown of paralympians training, competing, and doing mundane tasks. Also included are non-athletes. As Dan Brooke, Channel 4’s Director of Marketing and Communications, explains, the trailer “was about broadening what ‘superhuman’ means. We didn’t want to have that word apply to just the thin sliver of people that are world class athletes, but anybody with a disability. Even if it’s just getting around in everyday life, we wanted this to be a celebration of that.”

There’s plenty in the video to like.  I rarely see Paralympics coverage (or people with disabilities in general) on U.S. broadcasting networks, and here I see musicians with visible disabilities, a lead singer using a wheelchair, and video clips of every adaptive sport that I may want to try in the future. But, at its heart, the trailer centers around referring to paralympians as “superhumans”. While that may sound innocuous, I’m grateful to blogger crippledscholar for articulating precisely why it’s dangerous to draw that comparison:

Why do I dislike the fact that the Paralympians have been labeled Superhumans? It’s not because I don’t think they are phenomenal athletes. They absolutely are. In a way calling the [sic] Superhuman detracts from that fact.

It’s ironic how closely the term Superhuman is to the term Super crip.

Super crip is a term used my [sic] disability media critics to describe the phenomenon of celebrating disabled people in either a way that lacks meaningful context or in a way that seeks to effectively erase their disabilities except to add emphasis to the extraordinariness of their accomplishments. It’s not just that they’re amazing athletes. It adds a degree of “Can you believe someone like that could do this?”

In addition to the reasons crippledscholar outlines, I’m also uneasy about the term ‘superhuman’ because, as Matthew Hutson at Slate points out in his piece on race and ‘superhumans’, “Superhumanization, in the end, is just dehumanization in a cape.” Many black athletes have been viewed as superhuman, from Jordan to Bolt to Biles. (A writer even felt the need to point out that Serena Williams isn’t superhuman upon her semi-final loss in the 2015 U.S. Open!) When we call a group of athletes ‘superhuman’, we distance ourselves from that group. As Hutson writes, the term isn’t a compliment so much as another way of othering an already marginalized group.

I’m excited to see so many portrayals of disability in the trailer, but I hope that future representations will eliminate language that perpetuates a harmful stereotype, one that functions only to distance me from the society in which I seek inclusion and access.

Check out crippledscholar’s article in full here.

Header image via Channel 4.

Val was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York (the part that gets cut off of tourist maps), and blogs about life with paralysis and wheelchair-accessible bakeries. In the fall, she will start at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she will study Higher Education with a focus on college access for students with disabilities, in addition to inclusive education. She recently graduated from the University of Cambridge, where she researched early medieval definitions and perceptions of disability, and from Harvard College, where she wrote her senior thesis on medieval tournaments and claimed it wasn’t an excuse to watch “A Knight’s Tale” multiple times.

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