Language is never black and white. As this NY Times article suggests, most of us, on the one hand, would hate to think of ourselves as racist or homophobic or ablest, and on the other, still hold biases that we are barely aware exist. After all, we don’t buy biases at the supermarket. They prefer to creep into our conversations or essays or Facebook statuses. Sometimes, they are the wallpaper to us, and the rhinoceros in the room for our audience. I’ll show you a couple of my recent rhinos.
We are the Superhumans
In the lead-up to the Rio Paralympics, Channel 4, the official paralympic broadcaster for the UK, released a trailor depicting people with disabilities in a positive light. In fact, they went so far as to suggest that the subjects are no ordinary human beings.
“We’re the superhumans!”, reads the gleeful tag line.
I get it, Channel 4. You’re a broadcaster in need of a punchy, positive headline. You’re genuinely trying to portray people with a disability as positive and thriving members of society. You’re even making an effort to make your video accessible by audio describing and close-captioning it.
But as a person with a disability, I find it demeaning that my peers are being put in a box called “superhumans”.
- Preternatural talent
- Above and beyond
- … What have I missed?
I am blind. I am a Paralympian—a swimmer. And I am definitely not a superhuman. I hate to break it to you, but just like every other high-performing sportsperson or performing artist, I didn’t wake up one day and discover my mermaid streak.
You know what most Paralympic and Olympic swimmers actually do?
- Train upwards of 16 hours/week
- Go to the gym
- See nutritionists and keep tabs on what we eat when
- Benefit from Sport Psych services
- Work with physios and massage therapists
- Reshuffle the rest of our lives around our sport
Call us nuts. If you insist, call us “super humans” (i.e. humans who are super/awesome/ …). But every human in Channel 4’s campaign trailer has put far too much of themselves into their sport or art to deserve to be likened to the Incredible Hulk.
Foundation Fighting Blindness
“The urgent mission of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, Inc. is to drive the research that will provide preventions, treatments and cures for people affected by […]the entire spectrum of retinal degenerative diseases.”
“More than 10 million Americans of every age and race suffer vision loss from these blinding diseases.”
And they’re bringing in the bucks, alright:
“[…] the Foundation has raised more than $600 million [towards] leading-edge research in promising areas such as genetics, gene therapy, retinal cell transplantation, and pharmaceutical and nutritional therapies.”
I get it, FFB. You want to help us, or at least, our future counterparts, be free from the burden you find blindness to be. This, you are sure, will remove much unnecessary stress from our lives, give us opportunities we were afraid to dream of before, and help us integrate better into society. I’m glad the research you have funded exists, and I’m glad you are fundraising to make that possible.
But it disgusts me that, as a fundraising tactic, you use methods which research (not to mention common sense) is showing worsen people’s perception of just how awful it must be to actually be blind for a substantial length of time. Your methods also place undue weight on the problem of blindness itself, when a lot of the problem lies in those sneaky biases I was talking about at the beginning.
Your thinking is engrained in your language—language which those who campaign on behalf of you naturally spread. If my blindness needs “cured”, and I “suffer” from my vision loss, how will society react if I honestly say that I really don’t know if I’d choose to get some sight back if the opportunity arose? What will blind children, being used as the poster girls and boys of fundraising campaigns for FFB think when the scientists you fund for research say things like “FFB […] has given hope to people who didn’t previously have hope”?
Compounding that, your tactics ask people to act on that pull of their heartstrings. Your latest campaign, #HowEyeSeeIt, challenges sighted people to do something blindfolded and video the experience, so everyone else finds out what it’s like too.
Let’s say the task is for Eva to navigate from a chair in the middle of a classroom to the door. To make sure she’s getting the real deal, Eva borrows her friend’s cane for the exercise.
Eva’s experience probably goes something like this.
Step 1: blindfold on.
Step 2: look for cane.
Step 3: start walking.
Step 4: keep walking.
Feeling: disoriented duck
Let me try the real-life version of Eva’s exercise, as someone who was born blind.
Class is over, time to leave.
Step 1: pick up cane (I know where I put it).
Step 2: listen to hear where that door is that people are leaving from.
Feeling: alert dog.
Step 3: with one hand blocking desk collisions, and the other preventing them with cane, follow people.
Feeling: #freshairtime #freedom.
Our language can’t exists in a vacuum, separate from our intentions. It is our job, as communicators, to constantly strive to make these two see eye to eye. That is #howeyeseeit