“Yes I can,” Paralympics and the positivity myth

It has taken me some time to decide whether or not to comment on BBC4 “Superhuman – Yes I can” advertisement for the Paralympics, because I know that any critique I make will be misunderstood. But it’s airing on the Gruen transfer last night has tipped my hand.

So let me say upfront that it’s a brilliant advertisement, the Paralympics are much more interesting than the Olympics, and I do appreciate the value of disability getting the attention that it does in this advertisement. More often than not, disabled people are represented by able-bodied actors in film and television, so it’s great to see the real bodies of disabled people on the screen.


Like almost every other public mention of disability nowadays, the add buys in to the positivity myth. I’ve written on this topic a number of times before (here), but in sum, the positivity myth insists that a positive attitude will enable a person to overcome every barrier they face in life. While it might be a motivating sentiment, it’s just not true.

Indeed, the great insight of disability advocates has been that disability is not primarily a medical or psychological problem – it’s not about individual capacity or attitude. On the contrary, disability is a social problem. People are disabled when the built environment keeps them out of public and private spaces, when transport systems prevent them from being able to travel, when cultural attitudes such as disgust and paternalism result in social alienation and exclusion.

“Okay,” you might ask, “what’s that got to do with BBC4’s ‘yes I can’?”

The problem is that people think the advertisement is about disability, but it’s not. The vast majority of disabled people cannot do the things shown in this advertisement. Of course we celebrate all of the achievements represented on screen, but the statement “gee I’m afraid to go on has turned into yes I can” is downright insulting; and gets to the heart of the problem of the positivity myth. I’ve never met a disabled person who is afraid to go on, but I’ve met some who can’t go on because in one way or another the world in which they live in has said “we want nothing to do with you.” And no positive attitude can solve this.

The advertisement is entitled “the Superhumans,” which is an advance on being called “freaks.” But the truth is, that disabled people aren’t superhuman. On the contrary, disability is about what it is to be human, at one and the same time strong and weak, confident and fearful, successful and failing – occasionally triumphing, but most of the time wanting the same thing as everybody else; to be treated neither as freakish or superhuman, but as a family member, friend, and colleague.

Having said this, I still like the advertisement. I’m glad it was made, and I’m glad it’s being circulated, because disability is normally a marginal topic that is now given prominence, and people with a wide range of disabilities are being celebrated rather than pitied. Further, I don’t think it falls into the trap of inspiration porn, because it’s not saying to nondisabled people “if this cripple can do this, what’s your excuse?” Rather, it’s celebrating the hard work and the achievements of people who warrant our applause – not because they are disabled, but because their accomplishments are impressive.

Perhaps I be happier if the video had a different title and a different set of lyrics. I look forward to seeing what they do in four years time.

Paralympic medal count an indictment on USA social/disability services?

As a keen Australian viewer of the Paralympic games, I have been struck by the poor performance of the USA team. As of today, the medal count for the Paralympic games is as follows:

London Paralympics (Day nine) 2012
Rank country Gold Silver Bronze total
1 China 83 65 58 206
2 Great Britain 32 40 41 113
3 Russia 32 35 25 92
4 Ukraine 30 19 25 74
5 Australia 29 20 26 75
6 United States 27 25 33 85
7 Germany 18 23 19 60
8 Brazil 15 12 6 33
9 Poland 12 11 7 30
10 Netherlands 9 9 17 35

Compare this to the 2012 Olympics (able-bodied):

London (able bodied) Olympics 2012
Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 46 29 29 104
2 China 38 27 22 87
3 Great Britain 29 17 19 65
4 Russia 24 25 33 82
5 South Korea 13 8 7 28
6 Germany 11 19 14 44
7 France 11 11 12 34
8 Italy 8 9 11 28
9 Hungary 8 4 5 17
10 Australia 7 16 12 35

The issue is not only the move from first to sixth place. There are around 23 million Aussies, compared to approximately 312,000,000 Americans. In this light, the fact that Australians are beating (or anywhere near) the Americans in the Paralympic medal count raises important questions that have to be asked by American people. Did you know, for example, that the Australian wheelchair basketball teams, both men and women, beat the American wheelchair basketballers – a sport in which (stupidly high paid able-bodied) Americans are unbeatable?

Now, to be honest, I could care less about sporting medals. The issue is not “gold”, but what the relative success/failure of the Paralympic teams says about the disability support services that ground the performance of each country.

The truth is that I know very little about American social/disability support services. From the outside, however, it seems to be the case that the USA does not provide the same level of support for disabled people as is provided in other Western nations (it is also worth noting the Chinese Paralympic success). Now it may be that my analysis is in some way incorrect or incomplete. But if a community (or country) is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then this is it least suggestive of an issue that needs serious reflection.

Okay – bring on the hate mail!