I read an article by Lucy Catchpole last week: I love Channel 4’s Paralympics advert. But we can’t all be superhumans and it made me laugh. Do click across and read it, it’s worth the time.
I hadn’t seen the advert when I first read Lucy’s article but now I have and, wow, as a person disabled through illness, I feel somewhat daunted by the bar Channel 4, and the able-bodied who love the ad, seem to be setting me. As Lucy remarks so pertinently about the ad’s message:
Actually, positive is an understatement: it’s been more like a collective gush of joy, with able-bodied people who never tweet about disability showing an extraordinary level of enthusiasm for the advert.
Okay, nothing wrong with that, as long as we acknowledge the existence of talent, circumstance and ability as being differentiating factors between one person’s life and another’s. And, the problem is we, as individuals and the general public, don’t, or rather, we don’t when it comes to disability.
Seeing the achievements of all the skilled and talented people in the ad, both Channel 4 and those watching seem to think we all of us – every disabled person – ‘can’ do these things as well.
Putting it in my perspective, this is the equivalent of asking any able-bodied person to run as fast as Usain Bolt, play tennis like Andy Murray, drum like Jaco Pastorius, sing like Jonas Kaufmann and so on. But, we don’t expect this of the able-bodied, do we?
No, we accept there are people with exceptional skill-sets that we admire but who can do things we cannot. And that’s okay. So, let’s apply the principle to people with disabilities, huh? We have our unique personal skill-sets too.
Still, even if we’re not all being asked to compete or perform, nothing to stop every disabled person getting out there to sing, dance, swim, run (even on wheels), compose, play instruments, is there?
Well, opportunity, maybe. That would be the generic access to opportunity that applies to everyone. Why aren’t there more Andy Murray’s? Because few have access to tennis courts, tennis clubs and coaches. Why are so many Oxbridge students from private schools? State school aspiration levels. Why do so many musicians come from musical families? Awareness of opportunity.
On top of the inherent ‘luck’ factors in opportunity, for many people with disabilities, aspiration to, and expectations of, life opportunity are kept artificially low – limited by deemed possibility rather than encouraged by hopeful expectation. There is a long way to go before we have the same quality of life expectations for all in our society.
And, for that to happen, we, as many of us living with our illness and/or disability know well, need support. We aren’t all the same and, as a person with significant mobility and physical function deficits – some of them variable, I look at this ad and the amazing people in it and my first thought is: ‘They must have a serious support network around them.’
I know this because, with the extensive physical deficits that I have, it’s impossible to function without a vast network of family, carers, personal assistants, equipment, medical support and financing. If you are like me, you cannot get out of bed, washed or dressed without help let alone get out of the house to get education, training, develop skills and live life like everyone else.
In this situation, ‘yes, we can’ becomes a nonsense as society simply doesn’t provide most people with disabilities enough support for more than the basics of daily living so, on top of a special skill set, opportunity and aspiration, we need specialist help and equipment.
And then, we need access. Even with skills, opportunity, aspiration, support, equipment, to say ‘yes, we can’ still requires us to negotiate extensive physical barriers barring us from participating in the full life of our able companions. Publicly funded buildings and enterprises are pretty accessible these days – though even hospitals often lack essential facilities for the heavily dependent – but access to private venues, including domestic houses, is far from guaranteed. I’d say less than 25% of my friends and families homes are easily accessible and maybe upto 50% of other premises and that’s not even covering lack of transport and other access problems. There’s not much ‘yes, we can’ about those statistics.
And finally, there’s attitude. There are so many people who remain unable to view anyone who is ‘different’ as being like them with a twist. Kindly, I’d call this prejudice based on preconceived, and largely incorrect, suppositions which may be dispelled with more knowledge and familiarity. Whilst most of us try to be reasonable in the face of such unthinking prejudice, dealing with it as best we’ve learnt over the years, it is dispiriting and discouraging, and frankly, it would be great to live without it.
I think I’ve wound down now – skill set, opportunity, aspiration, support, equipment, access, equality … Yes, with all of those, many of us can but still, not all. Some of us spend more time than we like to think about, certainly more than we like to talk about, in hospitals, having treatment, seeing doctors, being sick, stuck in bed, losing faculty and function – feel free to add your own special illness induced nuance here.
For some of us, life is not opening up but closing down.
But I’m not complaining about that. It’s just how it is and comes to us all, for some, sooner not later. Doesn’t mean we can’t be positive. Doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy living the life we have.
Does mean that the slogan, ‘yes, we can’, seems to add insult to our lives in a vague and uncomfortable way.
Honestly, I feel like I’m carping in writing this. I do admire the people featured in Channel 4’s advert tremendously and want to wholeheartedly celebrate their achievements and the Rio Olympics. I love the idea of them all as role models like anyone else with talent and skills might be.
I just wish the Channel 4 slogan was more talent specific than ‘Yes, we can’ with happy music and smiles, didn’t imply anyone with a disability doing normal stuff is ‘superhuman’ and that anyone who isn’t is a party pooping negativist.
Because, no, actually, we’re not all the same just because we live with a disability and no, many of us, for all sorts of reasons, cannot.
But we’re still smiling and, relatively, happy too, like, you know, everyone else who’s watching the Olympics on the telly, wishing they were Usain Bolt.