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Friday, February 15, 2013

Oscar Pistorius, Helen Keller and the Problem with Role Models

In the last twenty-four hours the press has gone wild over Oscar Pistorius' arrest (he allegedly murdered his girl friend with a hand gun).  Until yesterday Pistorius was widely known as the Blade Runner or the fastest man with no legs. He was the first double amputee to run in both the Paralympics and Olympics.  More generally, Pistorius was supposed to be an inspiration to other amputees and disabled people in general. Pistorius and the corporations he represented such as Nike carefully crafted an image that would make him instantly recognizable. At the core of this image was the fact the good looking rugged South African Pistorius "overcame" his disability. But wait there is more! He never considered himself disabled to begin with. Pistorius is the classic feel good story when it comes to disability. Many of the images associated with Pistorius fit squarely into the "inspiration porn" category that resonates with the general public. Thus Pistorius is but one of a long line of people with a disability, super crips, to be considered a role model for all.

When I woke up this morning I wondered just how many amputees were relieved that Pistorius has been instantly knocked off his pedestal. Nike and other corporations are leaping over each other to distance themselves from Pistorius. As I read the latest news about Pistorius, I thought of Helen Keller, who aside from Franklin D. Roosevelt, is the most famous American super crip. Everyone knows who Helen Keller is. In secondary school children are taught that Helen Keller overcame being blind-deaf and graduated from college--Radcliffe no less. I am sure thanks to You Tube children have seen clips from the black and white classic film Miracle worker. I deplore this sort of overly simplistic reasoning and I despise how disabled role models are portrayed. It is why I cringe every time I am referred to as "inspirational" or "remarkable".  The use of role models when it pertains to disability is inherently destructive.  The role model in disability is narrowly understood: super crip overcomes a physical or mental deficit. The problem rests with the individual. We people with a disability are set up to fail. If we "achieve" the ordinary we are amazing. If we fail it is because we lack the will power to overcome our individual impairment. A so called normal life is beyond our ability.

The super crip as role model conveniently ignores any and all societal barriers. This lead James L. Secor to write the following sarcastic passage: All Oscar Pistorius has done is overcome a handicap that most normal, and, probably, most exceptional people could not overcome. And that pisses y'all off. Who the hell does he think he is, acting like a normal person? He's a fucking crip! He belongs on the sidelines, living a bare subsistence life, dependent on the pity and piteous welfare of peoples and governments, living in holes in the wall or nursing homes--just damn well anywhere but out in the public and independent".

When I read Secor's passage years ago it reaffirmed what I already knew: society is unwilling to accept the fact a person with a disability could compete against world class athletes. Pistorius thus had super human qualities. How else can one explain why he could run so well. Many got caught up with the debate about Pistrorius' prostheses--did he have an unfair advantage. To me, this was a technical question. The real issue was far more complex.  This brings me back to Helen Keller. Keller's life has been reduced to a single fact: she overcame being blind-deaf. Like Pistorius, Keller is held up as a role model for all people who are blind, deaf, or blind-deaf. There is a startling dichotomy involved here: the general public loves the Keller story. People who are blind, deaf, or deaf-blind are not happy. In Blind Rage by  Georgina Kleege she wrote that she hated Helen Keller when she was growing up. Kleege hated Keller because Keller was "always held up to me as a role model, and one who set such an impossibly high standard of cheerfulness in the face of adversity. Why can't you be more like Helen Keller? people always said to me. Or that's what it felt like whenever" Keller's name came up. Count your blessings they told me. Yes, you're blind but poor little Helen Keller was blind and deaf, and no one ever heard her complain".  In "A Note to Readers Kleege noted that she wrote he book to "exorcize a personal demon named Helen Keller".

While I am by no means a Keller expert, I perceive her legacy as being hopelessly misunderstood. Given this, Keller to me is a tragic figure in much the same way Christopher Reeve was after he was paralyzed. Kim E. Nielsen, in The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, wrote: Keller failed to move beyond her political individualism also because like other disabled superstars, she became mired in the performance and ideology of perpetually overcoming her disability. This purpose isolated her from other people with disabilities, for it implied that she was stronger, braver, better, and more determined than they. It also implied that the responsibility for meeting legal, physical, or cultural barriers lay entirely on her shoulders, and that she should respond to such barriers with cheerfulness and vigor. This strategic move allowed her to escape the role of a housebound invalid but depoliticized disability by relegating it to the realm of coping and personal character".

I understand role models hold great appeal, especially for young people who have no idea how their life will unfold. But role models and the super crip myth set up people with a disability to fail. Keller's life, Pistorius' life, Reeve's life were profoundly unusual. They were not mythic beings but rather complex people that had strengths and weaknesses.  Their life had and does hold great meaning but not in the reductionist form that they are known for. So rather than read another speculative story about Pistorius tonight I am going to pull out Helen Keller's FBI file and read about a very complex woman who was a political activist and theorist.


Jo Kelly said...

We are a smaller group of people in the community - I once read a woman who was blind was po'd when Erik Weihenmayer climbed Mt Everest because all her co-workers started saying - so when are YOU going to climb Everest? WHAT??? The only thing these 2 people had in common was being blind but people are so darn narrow minded - in their minds the 2 are equals and one should be able to do whatever the other can do. It's ridiculous. She said she felt paled by comparison - why should she even BE compared to this other man?

In my life, I find that when people first meet me they put me on a pedestal and keep telling me how great I am - and I say just wait til you get to know me and you realize I'm no different from you....but they don't get it. Not until it hits them - whether it's months or years down the road. At some point they realize I'm just a human being trying to live my life and that actually disappoints them. I have said in my blog that I think we as a people are sad that we have to find what most consider to be horrible sob stories to be inspired - why can't people find inspiration within?

Unknown said...

Seriously? I remember once before having a look at your blog via a link from Elizabeth's. In one particular post you harped on about being kept waiting for a specially modified bus, and how nobody bothered to speak to you, because you're disabled. At the time, I thought that nobody wanted to speak to you because you're a rude, irritable, self pitying misery. This new posting only serves to confirm that perception. With your attitude you'd be unlikable even if you were standing...

william Peace said...

Unknown, If I am such a "rude irritable self pitying misery" I cannot fathom why you would waste your time reading my posts. The point you are missing is that I expect to be treated like any other human being that is bipedal. Should I be grateful for the crumbs and charity model of disability? Sorry, but no. My life has value as I am sure yours does. More generally, while I have the moniker "bad cripple" I am polite to fault. Rarely, if ever do I lose my temper. I also do not hide behind an unknown identity.
Jo, There are times I am weary of being compared to other people with a disability. It is as though every person with a disability is expected to know each other. Maybe we should form a club! Bipedal people need not apply.

william Peace said...

Rachel at Disability and Representation left this spot on reply to my post on Facebook. Thank you.

"I think that the problem with disabled role models derives, in part, from the fact that the able-bodied world generally defines people with disabilities only according to their disabilities. So Pistorius wasn't just an accomplished athlete; he was an accomplished disabled athlete. All other humanity seemed to fade away. He was pretty much defined by his prostheses; people seemed to obsess over them, almost to the exclusion of anything else. It seemed not to occur to anyone that Pistorius was a human being capable of what all other human beings are capable of, for better or worse. I don't know what people are more upset about -- that he allegedly murdered his girlfriend, or that he interrupted the "overcoming" myth. I think we'll be getting somewhere in disability rights when people are just pissed at what he allegedly did, and not at the fact that he somehow owed it to the world to live up to their myth of who he is and then disappointed them. I'm just disappointed because he's a man who liked guns and ended up with someone dead in his house, not because he failed to live up to his billing."

FridaWrites said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post on Pistorius. It is important, though ignored by the media, that he doesn't consider himself disabled.

I'm sorry about the verbal attack on you. Anyone who doesn't realize what disabled people go through in public should spend a day or two with us--my friends say it's eye opening. You are not these things, and your kindness and writing about wheelchair use mean so much to me from when I was first navigating the world of disability and experiencing such culture shock.

Matthew Smith said...

I don't think there's any hint of gladness that Pistorius has been knocked off his perch - there is an awful lot of concern for his girlfriend, and there has been a lot of anger that the media have been focussing on "Pistorius's tragedy" or "a glittering career destroyed" and not on the fact that he killed his girlfriend (who he had only been dating for a few months) and the police do not believe he did it believing she was an intruder, as initial reports suggested. There is a lot of overlap between disability activism and feminism, a lot of disabled people are women, and to them it looks like yet another woman dying as a result of violence by a male partner.

I don't think a comparison with Helen Keller is fair. Helen Keller was a woman, and however problematic her opinions or her status as a role model (which was the fault of the media and education system, not her own) did not kill anyone. A better comparison would be with OJ Simpson, despite his race, who was also disabled as a child (he developed rickets and wore braces until age five). Pistorius overcame his disability to the extent that he could live a normal life and not be functionally affected by the loss of his lower legs (had they been amputated above the knee, it would have been a lot more complicated, as many a military veteran could tell you); Keller was always deaf and blind and this always restricted her life. As an example, when she planned to marry someone, the plans were publicly condemned in a newspaper and her family intervened and prevented it. She was also fortunate in coming from a wealthy and enlightened family. And she could walk - blindness and deafness do not require the use of a wheelchair.

There is definitely disquiet in the disability community in the UK about the use of Paralympians as role models, however. The Games represent certain heavily policed impairments and give the impression that disabled people can, in fact, achieve if they want to -- useful to a government which is stripping the benefits people need to live an independent life. In fact, many disabled people's conditions are complicated; many can only function normally for short periods or at least less than a full day, or their condition results in regular hospitalisations which is not exactly conducive to remaining in employment. They may be able to manage a trip to the shops, but sitting in an office all day would make them ill. Some are house-bound or even bedridden. The "super crip" Paralympian stereotype of someone with an uncomplicated disability performing an athletic feat does not reflect the reality of life for most disabled people.

Melanie Suzanne Gerber said...

I once watched Charles Barclay, former NBA star say during an interview.." I am not your idol or someone you should want to grow up and emulate. Your parents and teachers are better role models."
In fact, I read that steroids were found at the crime scene. That could account for the behavior of the accused. But not an excuse.

Matthew Smith said...

The reports this morning say it was testosterone. That should destroy his athletic reputation once and for all, if true. (Even Lance Armstrong didn't kill anyone.)