“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.

But…

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.

2 thoughts on ““Yes I can,” Paralympics and the positivity myth

  1. The thing I hate most about it was that it was appropriated by an Australian TV channel wholesale – from what I remember, channel 7. The message was frustrating (see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/20/channel-4-paralympics-advert-disabled-people-not-all-superhuman) but the fact that our broadcasters were too cheap to generate their own advert showing Aussie paralympians (or their own message) just showed that they’d be quick to appropriate anything for social capital but didn’t value or connect with anyone in the Australian ‘supercrip’ community enough to want to drop any money on it. I didn’t see them using British olympians in their Olympic coverage.

    In other news, any idea how your friend from your Oct 2015 POW visit is going with his Permobil F5? (assuming it was an F5 not an F3?) my current M300 has been overheating on me for the last 2 years and despite that it should’ve been under warranty, I’ve had no realistic response from the company other than “we don’t even have a suitable demo chair to lend you while we check it out”.

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