Idolised or pitied, why can't disabled people just be?


Living in a dichotomy of superhuman or subhuman comes with huge expectation and burden.

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Image by Left to right: MGM UA Communications, Marvel Comics, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures

By Ally Smith

I do not pretend to speak on behalf of all disabled people; these views are my own.

How many times have you seen a newspaper article about how ‘inspirational’ a disabled person is? How they’ve overcome ‘so much’ and how every single day is a struggle, but they keep on going because they’re strong. I see it all the time. Often, its disabled people being lauded simply for just living their lives and adapting to the way abled society works. It’s the girl who became a model even though she had Down syndrome. It’s the boy who became a barista even though he’s deaf. It’s the seemingly constant stream of videos being shared on Facebook of ‘inspiration porn’. Virtue signaling is not the representation or respect that disabled people deserve.

Or even better, it’s the disabled person who is ‘superhuman’ in one aspect so they are accepted or tolerated by society. Take the real-life example of Kim Peek, the man who inspired the main character in Rain Man. He was called a “walking GPS” and nicknamed “Kimputer” and was the source for the autistic character Raymond Babbitt (despite Peek not having autism – because where’s the fun in being accurate in your portrayal of disability). The cultural impact of the character Rain Man for autistic people cannot be understated at all. The idea that autistic people are ‘impaired’ in every aspect (social, emotional, mental) bar having a single savant trait is dangerous.

When society only celebrates savant disabled people, they are sending the message to non-savant disabled people that they are only a burden. It makes people feel as if there is another thing that’s ‘wrong’. When I got diagnosed I was frustrated as I was at a place in my life where it felt as if this was just another thing I couldn’t do, I couldn’t even be autistic ‘right’.

This portrayal and perception of disabled people can also be seen with characters like Daredevil. Blinded when he was young by radioactive material, the material enhanced his other sense to super-human levels. Of course, this is a superhero film and isn’t meant to be accurate, but that is exactly my point. Other examples are... literally any portrayal of an amputee char-acter who has had a limb replaced with a super cool prosthetic (I’m looking at you, CGI Sofia Boutella in The Kingsman: The Secret Service).

We are celebrated, idolised and elevated when we subscribe to the norms of abled society or provide entertainment. Did you know that since Dustin Hoffman won best actor at the Oscars for his portrayal of an autistic man over half of the winners for best actor have been portrayals of disabled people? And notably, not by disabled actors. Did you also know that only two disabled actors/actresses have won an Oscar? It seems that people like the spectacle of an abled person ‘cripping up’ but don’t actually like disabled people.

When we aren’t ‘superhuman’, we are subhuman, there seems to be no space for disabled people to just be. We’re pitied, looked down upon and seen as burdens to soci-ety. We are separate and always an add on. If you’re abled you may not have noticed this – it’s easy to miss when you’re included by default. It’s the separation in everything: students and disabled students, com-muters and disabled commuters, parents and disabled parents. The argument used to defend this is often that we have different needs, and so should be treated differently and be in our own category. This doesn’t take into account that while the needs may be different, they are no less important. Could you imagine how frustrated an abled person would be if every time they needed to get on a train or bus they had to call ahead in a ‘reasonable amount of time’ so the operators could put a chair up for them to sit on? Would they not ask, why can’t they just keep a number of seats up and free for abled people to use? That would be a fair question to ask.

Putting these needs in a different category or making a completely separate solution also often just creates unnecessary work. Especially at university, so many of the adjustments that are put in place for disabled students (if they actually happen like they’re meant to) would benefit all students. It doesn’t make sense to separate and ostracise disa-bled people at all.

Someone might say to this, “well, if you’re saying you need adjustments then you’re admitting you do struggle and need help, so why is it wrong if I celebrate people that overcome these difficulties?” This is fundamentally missing my point. Disabled people do not exist for you to idolise or pity. We do not exist for you in any way – we exist for ourselves. Acknowledging that often we need adjustments to live in a society not built for us does not mean that we are agreeing that we are somehow less than, we’re just accepting the fact that we live in an abled (and ablest) world. Needing adaptations to a world that’s not built for you is not a bad thing (just really frustrating sometimes). When people post those inspirational videos, they’re not posting them because they actually care or want to change the society we live in to make sure that these ‘success’ stories become the norm for disabled people, they’re posting them because it makes them feel good. Disabled people should be able to exist without the expectation of being an inspiration or a burden.