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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Even More on Oscar Pistorius

The mainstream media response to the arrest of Oscar Pistorius for allegedly killing his girlfriend has been devoid of insight. Nothing I have read in traditional news outlets such as the New York Times or Washington Post has been remotely interesting. Online sources such as the Huffington Post, Salon, or Slate have not faired much better. The tabloids such as the New York Post have published humorous headlines ("Blade Gunner") and juicy gossip. As one might expect, many people with a disability, myself included, have weighed in on the larger cultural significance of the Pistorius story. In my opinion the best essays about Pistorius are located in various feminist websites. I read three particularly insightful essays. Here are the links:

Briana Rognlin at Blisstree writes that "overwhelming reactions fall into two camps: a) disabled people couldn't possibly be violent, especially not ones like Oscar Pistorius who must be saints because they're high achievers in a non-disabled way, and b) he might have been violent because he resented being disabled". Eddie Ndopu at Feministwire writes "I am both fascinated and perturbed by the narratives surrounding the fatal shooting". Ndopu points out the ironic fact that Pistorius "defense team and PR strategists are drawing from ableist tropes to make the case for his innocence". S.E. Smith was particularly insightful at Tigerbeatdown. Smith wrote that Pistorius

"was more of an icon for thenondisabled community than for the disabled community, because of what he represented. His very mainstream successes; adapting to prostheses, becoming an extremely talented and driven runner, working with custom ‘blades’ that were his distinctive trademark, were what made him appeal to nondisabled people. His success as an ‘inspirational’ or ‘heroic’ icon lay precisely in his ability to pass, to conform as closely as possible to nondisabled norms, to become, in essence, one of them. He was safe, comforting, and familiar, presenting a framework of disability that suggested all disabled people aspired to be like nondisabled people, and could if they just tried hard enough.He modeled a specific bootstrapping presentation of disability, one in which people ‘overcome tremendous odds’ and ‘keep persevering’ to achieve greatness. A very specific kind of greatness, one mediated by what is ‘great’ in nondisabled terms."
Smith states the real figures of inspiration within disability rights are people like Paul Longmore and Laura Hershey. Virtually no one outside of disability rights and advocacy knows who they were.  Worse yet, few know about the issues they championed: liberating people from nursing homes in particular and more generally the elimination of gross economic, social and political isolation. Smith contends the reason Longmore and Hershey are unknown is because their efforts were rooted in a disability identity and that "they were frightening to nondisabled people in their expressions of independence, of disability pride, or ferocity".  I am not sure fearful is the right word but Smith's point is well taken. When a person with a disability is proud, independent and assertive in defending their civil rights the reaction on the part of the nondisabled population is rarely if ever positive. In part, it is why I consider myself a bad cripple. I know my forceful support of disability rights will meet stiff opposition. 
What frustrates me is that people with no exposure to disability soak up inspirational stories such as Pistorius' like a sponge. However, when one tries to explain why such stories are grossly misleading and put forth a strident disability rights perspective one can see reluctance, anger, animosity, and resistance. I understand this response because it is based on deeply held cultural beliefs that have great value. We Americans are rugged individualists. We are all equal! What separates us is effort and will power. This simplistic take on disability and life in general reminds me of a book my son loved as small child. I read the Little Engine that Could many times. I love and hate the story. It is American folklore at its best. Or as John Kelly wrote in the Ragged Edge a decade ago: "I think we need to investigate disability inspiration as a form of propaganda that glosses over oppression while simultaneously reassuring normals about the superiority of their ways". Read the rest of Kelly at: I have no idea what will happen to Pistorius. I am equally unsure how the pending murder trial will pan out. Of one thing I am sure: the mainstream media will struggle mightily with framing this story as it unfolds. 


FridaWrites said...

I try to read everything s.e. writes that I can--it's all brilliant. Smith wrote an article on inspiration and disability some months back on was surprised at the vitriol by commenters on this issue. I can't imagine why nondisabled people are so invested in this inspiration model that they actually become angry when someone objects.

william Peace said...

Inspiration model empowers people to justify disability based discrimination. S.E. Smith writing is excellent. Vitriol is the norm when one advocates a civil rights model of disability.