Search This Blog

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Disability in Advertising and Adaptive Sports

Regular readers of this blog will know I am enamored with adaptive sports--specifically skiing and kayaking. The reason I became interested in adaptive sports was basic: after thirty years of of pushing a wheelchair my shoulders began to hurt on a regular basis. A trip to the medical library to browse rehabilitation journals revealed what I already knew: the vast majority of people who are paralyzed for decades experience chronic shoulder pain. Based on my reading, I conclude the only known way to relieve chronic pain was to strengthen the entire shoulder or stop pushing a wheelchair. This knowledge combined with my niece who is a program director at Vermont Adaptive led me to learn how to kayak and ski. I love both activities. Since I began kayaking and skiing I have not experienced any pain in my shoulders because my overall strength has improved. I have also met some wonderful people, specifically the volunteers at Vermont Adaptive and many kayakers who paddle the Hudson River.

My skiing and kayaking have made me pay careful attention to the social ramifications of adaptive sports. I am extremely wary of being stereotyped--that is being perceived as possessing super human traits such as intense fortitude and perseverance often associated with athletically active disabled people. I assure you I do not possess any such traits. I am your average and boring middle aged man--a fact my teenage son often reminds me of. This concern was recently echoed by Simi Linton in her blog Disability Culture Watch. Linton is a New York City based disability rights activist, gifted scholar, and one of my favorite authors (her recent memoir, My Body Politic, is a wonderful book). In a recent blog entry Linton noted that advertisers have begun to use disabled athletes to sell products. She specifically refers to Sara Reinersten, a disabled triathlete and the star of Murderball, Mark Zupan who are used to sell a variety of products.

Advertisers are doing exactly what they are paid to do: using anything and anyone they can to influence people to buy a product. I know this all too well as this is exactly what my father did his entire business career. I have no problem with this. But Linton makes an astute observation, do the images used by advertisers "set up a false divide between those deemed robust and those the general public has been schooled to read as un-robust disabled people. The images buy into notions of fitness that privilege certain bodies. I think the advertisers think they are doing something progressive and liberal, but, instead, may be reiterating stereotypes of physical prowess, albeit with a slightly wider pool of acceptability".

Linton's words are sobering to me. Does society think less of non athletic or physically inactive disabled people? I do not think society has such a nuanced understanding of disability. Based on using a wheelchair for the last thirty years, it is my belief that society, that is the average able bodied person, thinks of one thing when they see a disabled person: limits. What a person cannot do rather than what can be done. Adaptive sports turns this thinking upside down. How do I know this? This point was made by son. He is perplexed and annoyed that his friends think I am cool. I told him this was based on my appearance being so different--I have a tattoo and long hair tied into a pony tail. When I told him this he shook his head in a way that only a teenager can do that signals how amazingly stupid his father is. He replied: "Dad, everyone assumes disabled people can't do anything. It has nothing to do with the way you look because the only thing people see is a wheelchair".

My son's observation made me realize Linton was onto something but not the dichotomy she identified between active and inactive disabled people. Society not only associates inability with a wheelchair but thinks the person "in a wheelchair" never gets out of a wheelchair. I have often been asked "were you born in a chair?" or "how long have you been in a chair?". The focus here is squarely on the chair and the assumption that there are millions of things that cannot be done. These assumptions are not made when a person who uses a wheelchair is in a sit ski or kayak. When one is not "in a chair" people think of what one can do rather than what cannot be done. Getting out of a wheelchair and into a sit ski is a radical social transformation--one that is normalizing. I simply become another skier. Few ask me about the sit ski though I will acknowledge some may perceive me as cool. But the majority people I have met skiing think I am just another person on the slopes. I know this because we talk about ordinary things--the weather, the view when we get off the chair lift, the conditions of the terrain etc. Rarely, if ever, do people ask me anything related to my disability when I am in a sit ski. At issue is one thing: skiing. But when I return to the ski lodge and my wheelchair the social perception changes--I return to my socially inferior status, the man "in a wheelchair". Getting out of my wheelchair then is the key to social equality. This is odd to me, a thought that would not have come to me without my son because I perceive my wheelchair as a liberating tool.

1 comment:

cfwheels said...

I must agree with your comments about getting out of your wheelchai as liberating experience. I have been a user of a wheelchair for the past 20 years. It wasn't until I found adaptive sports did I begin to feel "whole" again. I started in wheelchair tennis. It was great to get my adrenaline rolling again, but I was simply going from one wheelchair to another to participate. Then I found sled hockey. I finally got to get ouut of my wheelchair and get into a "sled". Not only was it great to get out of the chair, but I found other benefits. Suddenly I was using different muscles. I was now pulling to make myself move across the ice. This ultimately helped my posture. One friend on my team coined sled hockey as the "greatest out of chair experience". Although the wheelchair is now a permanent part of my life, it is always good to get out of it.