As the Rio 2016 Paralympics continue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, international attention of varying degree is being given to this second round of Olympic sport galore, involving persons who have disabilities.
The first Paralympic games were held in 1960 in Rome, Italy. Although athletes who were war veterans with physical disabilities already participated in Olympic games before then, this was the first time the inclusion criteria was more varied. Today the games welcome athletes from different walks of life, with impairments that can be physical, visual or intellectual in nature.
To kick off the 2016 Paralympics, Channel 4 featured an ad that was widely shared through social media. The ad, called "We're the Superhumans" shows people with different impairments showcasing different abilities: from an athlete being able to drive a sports car with one foot to two athletes on wheelchair playing fencing. Throughout the ad, a song accompanying the images speaks of a person moving from "gee, I'm afraid to go on" to "got the feeling I can do anything. Yes, I can!"
The ad has a nice musical swing to it and portrays quite a different, more "upbeat," approach to having a disability when compared to older media portrayals of disability, which consistently focused on tear-jerking stories that elicited pity. However, might the "Superhumans" concept be problematic, too?
Throughout history people with disabilities have often been seen as less than human or as angels. They have been perceived as lacking reason or as having a strange bodily form, therefore not as fully developed as the "general population," but they were also perceived as being innocent and pure, mirroring other-worldly characteristics. Now this popular Rio ad presents athletes with disabilities as the Superhumans. Might it be fitting, in 2016, to present people with disabilities as simply...human - neither less, nor super, nor ultra, nor beyond human?
Having lived and worked in community with persons with intellectual disabilities over the years, it has been interesting to notice how through relationship with them the labels of who is disabled and who isn't disabled began to lose prominence; people can have different impairments and face various social barriers, and at the same time we are truly all unique, with abilities and inabilities, with specific needs and characteristics - what does normal mean?
During the Middle Ages, people with disabilities were on display at village fairs as objects of amusement and were used to entertain the rich class. In recent years, the discipline of Postcolonial Studies has analyzed how what is considered "foreign" by those in power has often been marginalized to the restrictive category of the "exotic."
To this day, disability might be considered foreign and exotic by many, even if research and experience has revealed that most people will experience disability at some point in their life, particularly as they age. Possibly discovering that after all, like the athletes in Rio, we are all simply - not super - human.