Belated BADD Post – What’s Your Excuse?

In any week I’ll see at least one picture of a disabled person doing ‘something’, often exercising, emblazoned with the caption “What’s your excuse?” or something similar. Here are some examples;

A picture of a quadruple amputee lifting weights with the caption “No excuses”
A before and after becoming a body builder picture of an amputee with the caption “Excuses. Let’s hear yours again”
Young boy, a double above the knee amputee with running blades, running with the caption “Your excuse is invalid”
This one has been doing the rounds again recently on facebook. A picture  of a double just below the knee amputee  using prosthetics rock-climbing. Normally shared with the caption “What’s your excuse?”

I hate, hate, hate these memes and I think you should have a problem with them too. “Why?” I hear you cry! “These pictures celebrate the achievement of overcoming disability/adversity! They are a force for good!”. Well I don’t agree, and because this is my blog and I’m writing this post I’m going to tell you exactly why I don’t agree.

They assume people reading are non-disabled.
These messages all seem aimed at non disabled people which is an issue in itself. It shows that on some level they are “othering” disabled people. Here disabled people are inspiration, not audience. If you want to build a world where disabled people are treated as equals then that’s not the way to do it.
If, on the other-hand, it’s not assuming that it’s audience is non-disabled then that’s also a issue. These things are really insulting to disabled people who for one reason or another can’t just pop out and climb a mountain and they place undue pressure on disabled people to conform to some heroic ideal. I’m going to talk more about these things in the rest of the post.

They forget there are many vaild reasons people can’t do those things.
Money. All of us have to grapple with the cost of getting to venues, paying entrance fees/membership and buying equipment which is often prohibitively expensive. If you are disabled then extra costs like adapted prosthetics  mobility equipment  care also cost a lot of money. A decent all terrain electric wheelchair is at least £15,000, then you need a specialist car or a trailer to move it in… It all adds up to quite a lot before you factor in the costs of powerful, safe to use grappling hooks and strong rope so you can try your hand at mountain climbing.
Time. Turns out disabled people work and have social commitments, go figure. Finding the time to train to a high level isn’t easy.
Location. I’m telling you now that even from a UK perspective a disabled person in London has a better chance of finding a local accessible gym than a disabled person living in the rural Scottish highlands.
Opportunity. It’s great that some people know the right people or get lucky with charity support, but they are the exception to the rule.
Disability, yeah I went there. An amputee with running blades may well be able to run 200m. I, as a non-amputee with chronic pain who cannot walk 30m without being sick simply cannot run 200m, and as it stands will not be able to run 200m in the foreseeable future. I could do it in my wheelchair but that’s not the message. The message is that just using a wheelchair isn’t good enough, you need to go beyond that to be “normal” and to fully overcome disability.

These pictures often forget that disability is a social not medical construct.
Most of us, the UN included subscribe to the social model of disability or a variant of that. The social model states that disability is the result of having an impairment in an inaccessible society. In simpler terms it says being an amputee isn’t what disables a person, it’s not being able to access good prosthetics, wheelchairs, aids, adaptations, education, employment and health care. It’s living in a society that on a institutional level thinks disabled people aren’t as capable, moral, ‘normal’ as the rest of us. These pictures forget that to be in the position the young boy is, running on a good track, with expensive running blades one has to have a certain amount of social privilege.  As this article explains, blade running isn’t the reality for most amputees.

Disabled people are not there to inspire you.
It may surprise you but when I personally go down to the gym, swimming pool or even supermarket I’m not doing it to inspire non-disabled onlookers and to send a message that disabled people who aren’t doing the same just aren’t trying. I’m just living my life and doing what I want to. The same way you taking a trip to the shops isn’t a statement other than “Hey, I need some milk so I’m going to buy some.”

These just feed the “super-crip” stereotype.
The “super-crip” stereotype is fairly well known in disability circles, but if you don’t know it I’ll quickly explain. When disabled people are not being held up as objects of pity (see messages like “this poor girl suffers hourly with her impairment, sending £5 will help us do what we can to put a smile back on her face”) they are often held up as “hero’s” who strive to overcome their disability. Those that “overcome” their disability by doing something that disabled people aren’t supposed to do – like sport, high level exercise, having a high powered job, smiling daily, sometimes just going outside and talking to people – are lauded as super-beings. Of course disability isn’t that simple. It’s not a case that we are all hero’s nor are we all objects of pity. We can be both or neither or, frequently, a huge mix of everything in between. Just like non-disabled people. Yes we have access issues, yes sometimes our lives have more challenges than non-disabled peoples but that doesn’t make us hero’s for just getting on with our lives. In fact by assuming it does it either suggests that you buy into the myth disability is miserable or that disabled people just aren’t as good as non-disabled people. Which brings me onto my final point…

They assume non-disabled people are better than disabled people.
The basic message is “If a disabled person can do it then anyone (and I mean anyone) can!”. Do you see people putting up pictures of Usain Bolt saying if one non-disabled person can win an Olympic gold then any non-disabled person can? No. Why? Because it would be a stupid statement to make. Clearly, given all the people who fail to win an Olympic gold every year it’s not that easy. We, as an audience, allow Bolt to have personal skill, talent and dedication to his sport above and beyond the levels the majority of us have and we celebrate him for that. We don’t feel the need to use him as inspiration porn in the same manner we do disabled athletes. Why? Because it’s hard to believe we could be better than Usain Bolt if we tried. Whilst apparently it’s not hard to imagine we could be better than a disabled athlete, because at the end of the day, on some level we simply don’t think disabled people are as good as non-disabled people.

That is why I don’t like these things. They are insulting, ignorant and they prop up damaging myths about disability.

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  1. I was planning on writing a post on this very subject but now I will point my readers in your direction as you've said it all much better than I could myself!

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  2. Excellent post,

    Like

  3. Brilliant Post. I think the other really strange thing these posters do is to privilege physical activity, which is weird. In every day life, we don't credit someone's ability to run in a race or build their muscles particularly highly – not compared to intellectual or creative achievements.

    Meanwhile, of all the things that folk can't do but would really like to do, to broaden their horizons and improve their quality of life… the ability to participate in sport, if you want to and are physically able to, may be important, but it's hardly a priority.

    Thanks for participating in Blogging Against Disablism Day!

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  4. Brilliant! I have wanted to say this for ages, but never been able to quite find the words. I get as far as, “That's so… stupid! And insulting! And stupid! GAAAHH…” and then my brain freezes up and leaves me incoherent with rage.

    Thank you for being coherent, and giving me something to link to the next time I see one of these posters online.

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  5. It's amazing. This is looking very adventurous. I think the other really strange thing these posters do is to privilege physical activity.

    Regards,
    KC Sharma
    Fitness Center in Lucknow

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