Saturday, July 16, 2016

'Superhumans' ad takes the fragility out of disability

By Louise Kinross

My husband loved this 'We're The Superhumans' ad about the British Paralympics team as well as everyday folks with disability. It was produced by UK broadcaster Channel 4.

I wanted to like it, I really did. But while I got caught up in the Broadway style show and the catchy "Yes I can" cover, something about the "I can do anything" lyrics, when paired with elite athletes as well as regular folks with disabilities, who just happen to be independent, didn't sit right with me. 

Most of the adults and children in the ad have amputations and they've adapted by using a different limb or a prosthesis.

This is how a story in Advertising Age described it: "Paralympians make high jumps, score goals, lift barbells and shoot arrows while everyday folks pump gas, take notes, eat cereals, fly airplanes -- just as easily as their counterparts who happen to have arms and legs would." 

Is that statement true?

Is it "as easy" to do competitive sports and everyday activities with a disability as without one? Isn't that a ludicrous over-generalization? And just how are we defining "disability?"

One of the everyday Superhumans featured is Jessica Cox, the first armless pilot who flies with her feet on the controls (she's an American, by the way).  She's able to fly the plane with her feet because her physical disability is singular -- she was born without arms. What if she also had low or high muscle tone that limited use of her feet, or chronic pain, or an intellectual disability? Would flying be so "easy" then? 

What kind of expectations does this ad set for all people with disabilities, including those with multiple disabilities? The ad suggests that disabled people can do anything AND that they can do it on their own. All of the everyday Superhumans act independently. Most have amputations, and we see how they play a guitar, steer a car, drive a plane, care for a child and pump gas with their feet. 

What about people who have conditions that affect many parts of the body and their ability to function? What about people who require help with bathing, dressing, toileting, moving in their wheelchair or communicating? What about people who require round-the-clock care? How do they fit into this "I can do anything" realm? 

They don't. That's why they don't appear in the ad.

"Being a Superhuman is a state of mind," says the ad's creative director. "It's time to stop focusing on disability and focus on superability instead." 

What? Is a physical environment designed for bipeds and not wheelchairs or walkers a "state of mind" on the part of the disabled person? Are unconscious biases against disabled children detected during implicit association testing in adults a "state of mind" in the children? What about North American health protocols (I imagine they're the same in Europe) that bar children and adults with disabilities from admission to intensive care during a pandemic? 

Disabled people have historically been stereotyped as "less than" human. This ad, pairing some of Britain's finest athletes with everyday disabled folk who are independent, suggests they are Superhuman. 

Will people with disabilities ever be allowed to just be human, in its full spectrum, which includes different degrees of interdependence and dependence over a lifetime?


Just as SOME abled bodied people can be great athlete's so can disabled people. Just as SOME abled people can be great scientists, academics, financiers etc so can SOME disabled people. Not all can do everything but this ad shows that just as many disabled people CAN be like the abled that's the way I see it.

I have CP. I use a wheelchair all the time and most people who don't know me well assume that all that's wrong with me is my legs don't work. But it's not, that's not what CP is. There is a lot I can do and I've done many things that people have told me I never would. But there are things that are out of my reach because of fatigue or spasticity or because my poor spatial awareness means I can't drive. And it's my experience that the adaptive sport I do struggles to fully accommodate someone with a systemic disability like I have - most have SCIs or amputations.

I think personally I'd have less of a problem with the "superhumans" tag line if was applied to the regular olympics as well as the paralympics. Because that level of sporting skill is pretty super to me regardless of other ability.

I totally understand where you are coming from. I have Psoriatic arthritis and a few other autoimmune issues and am also bipolar. Some days, just microwaving 4 ready meals so my kids can eat a meal is a massive achievement. When one of my conditions is at its best, people suddenly expect me to start being "normal" and look really confused at the suggestion that I very very rarely have a day when both my conditions allow me to function as I did 18 years ago. Averagely abled people tend to not see, nor want to understand disability and what a differently abled person goes through.....because to do that, to ponder it for more than a split second, makes them realise that if it can happen to other people it could possibly happen to them. So like a child that starts to question their own mortality for the first time, people just put it to the back of their minds until they have no choice but to deal with it in their own lives.