Down with the Miracle Cure: Disability in the Media

So, last week I was struck with the reproduction of ableist ideology within the media in the Rob Summers story. As a result of innovative technology, Summers, who had been paralyzed five years previously, regained some movement in his legs.   Starting with the Guardian “Paralysed baseball star steps into medical history,” we have the BBC playing it safe and dull: “Paralysed man can stand and move his legs again.” Whilst the Daily Mail commits two offenses within a single headline alone: “Miracle of paralysed crash victim who can walk again thanks to Superman star Christopher Reeve.” Here can be seen the simultaneous evoking of the idea of the ‘miracle’ cure of the helpless victim, in parallel with the unattainable status of the superhero. Neither the victim status nor the superhero status in reality relate to the experience of a person with a disability. Further, all three of these articles fail to position Rob Summers as having a disability.  Although Summers is shown at various points (very briefly) to use a wheelchair, at no point are the terms ‘disabled person’ or ‘person with a disability’ actually used. Instead the emphasis is placed on Summers’ new ability to stand.

Sure enough, the Daily Mail is quick to point out that Summers “is normally confined to a wheelchair.” The feature is followed by ‘before and after’ photographs to emphasise his previous physical status as an “athlete in peak physical condition.” Does this not posit that physical fitness is only reserved for the ‘normal’ able-bodied people and the superhero? Have they ever seen Murderball or the Paralympics? Meanwhile, the Christopher Reeve foundation, which provided funding for Summers’ treatment, also proves to be antithesis of the disability rights movement.  It advocates the idea of a cure rather than promoting the rights of people with disabilities.  That old mantra: rights not cure – is still valid. By no means am I attacking technological progress, but I must warn that this cure is neither available nor indeed, applicable to all.

What I am responding to is the ableist world view that’s revealed within mainstream media – it seems to me that the [mis]representation of disability is the most harmful effect because it  propagates negative stereotypes.  Millions of people are exposed to news features on national television, in which they reinforce narratives of the need to cure disability.  Headlines such as the “Daily Mail thanks the Superman” who funded such treatment, positions people with disabilities as solely dependent on the ‘charity’ of others for a cure. Alternative views are not allowed to penetrate the hegemony of the ideal of the able body and the power of medical technology.  This shows the complexity and obscurity of ableist oppression.

This leads to my final point which deals with language and the ongoing argument over the use of the term ‘disabled person’ in preference to ‘person with a disability’.  Let’s just say for argument sake, that all features within the media are written by the ‘able bodied’ people, and they are required to use the legal term  ‘disabled person/people’; after all it’s society that is disabling members.  I’d like to question by whom is this decided?  The disability organization that is run by the ‘able bodied’ people?  Personally, I’m still convinced that I am person before my disability, not a disabled person, such placement of the adjective before the noun in disabled person emphasises the disability before the person.  The questions that burns for me is: can the media talk about a person with a disability and not a disabled person in need of a cure? Can the able bodied world conceive of a person with a disability as being one infused with pride?

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