Saturday 27 August 2016

Disability erasure at it's finest. Thanks Brazilian Vogue.

[Image: a screen shot of a Vogue Brazil promotional photo of able-bodied models Cleo Pires and Paulo Vilhena cripping it up thanks to the miracle of photoshop. Who knew your paralympic dreams are simply a mouse click away?]

How do you celebrate paralympians without actually celebrating paralympians? By photoshopping Brazilian soap opera actors to look like they are missing limbs. Actual paralympians were there on set. To provide inspiration. Because that's what disabled athletes and disabled people in general do best. We provide inspiration. Not enough to actually be in the photos. Oh no. We couldn't have that. Not us icky confronting disabled people. Ew. Who'd want them in Vogue. It might make people uncomfortable. But we can make the disabled totally relateable and palatable by using able-bodied actors. It's not like paralympians could be worthy in their own right. They are only worthy when seen in reference to the able-bodied. Look, they're just like us. Brazilian Vogue has come out to say it wasn't their concept and that the actors involved were responsible. That they chose to run with the advertisement and can see nothing wrong with the concept. Well lets just all shift the blame and sweep that part under the carpet.

The caption runs that "We're All Paralympians", Except we're not. I'm disabled, I've got the progressive neurological condition, even a set of wheels to get around, and a disabled parking permit, and still, I'm not a paralympian. Neither are the Brazilian soap stars in question, or any other able-bodied folk. Or 99% of disabled folk. You know who are paralympians? The actual paralympians. The disabled athletes at the height of their professional sporting careers, they are the paralympians. And they are the ones who aren't good enough to be in an advertisement promoting the Rio Paralympics.

What hope do us mere mortal, boring, average, run of the mill disabled folk have, if even paralympians can't make the cut for an ad for an event in which they are the stars.

In an advertisement promoting the Paralympics. I'm probably going to keep mentioning that part as despite having first seen this advertisement a day or two ago I am still gobsmacked that they came up with this concept and it made it's way through all sorts of levels where someone could have spoken up with a gentle "Hey mate, you might just want to rethink this", or a more direct "You're being an ableist dick, dude" and simply vetoed the whole idea.

It's just the latest instalment in the very public farce that has also meant that there is a shortfall in funding for the Paralympics. That money set aside to enable disabled athletes from poorer nations to attend was instead used to clean the green pools at the Olympics. That venues are being dismantled and many sites where the paralympians will be housed are not accessible. But hey, you know, they're for disabled folks, so it doesn't matter quite as much.

Whilst this is a very public example of ableism, it is symptomatic of a wider community attitude not just in Brazil but around the world, that disabled bodies are unpalatable and that as a group we matter less. And most of us don't have the currency of being awesome athletes to offset our unpalatable disability. Though in truth while so many are all happy to claim the achievements of our paralympians, the same people are often the ones that bemoan our drain on public coffers for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) or are indignant at the humble parking permit.

Time and again we see discussions of disability not involving the disabled people who live the consequences of those discussions. We are continually talked about or around. Others know better. Hell, an able-bodied actor can play disabled better than an actual disabled actor. It's all very "Don't back-chat me fella. I know boats!"

Time and again we see discussions of diversity that don't include those with disability. We are either not included, or the issue is not even raised. Even in discussions of feminism disability has often been seen as an after thought or inconvenience, or disabled women have been told how to express their views and even shut out by groups purporting to support all women.

Time and again we see token representation. Oh you have one person in a wheelchair on one panel in a fortnight long festival. Well you've met the quota. It's not like we could have two disabled people present. Or that there could be more than one type of disability represented. Oh no. We are a homogenous group obviously. We must all think and live the same way. Or as in the glaring case of the Perth Writers Festival earlier this year accessibility was such an after thought that a disabled person couldn't even get around to see events. Nothing like an inaccessible festival to tell you in no uncertain terms that you're not welcome.

Time and again we see claims of diversity (I'm looking at you Myer) that don't include disability (or various ages, body types etc). Whilst organisations such as Starting with Julius are making great strides when it comes to including disabled children in advertising, adult representation is still far from common. The same companies that are using disabled children in advertising aren't transferring that same diversity to their adult range. And diversity in general rarely includes disabled models. Or if it does that representation is so rare as to be heralded as suddenly representing a more accepting and inclusive fashion industry. The same fashion industry that still fails, with some exceptions, to even acknowledge that disabled people can and do enjoy fashion.

Media in general still falls into three camps when reporting disability. We are either inspirational , worthy of pity, or as is now more often politically expedient, "bludgers" or "leaners". The media continually reinforce a negative portrayal of disability though their language (eg they continue to fall back to the use of terms such as "wheelchair-bound" or "sufferer" despite clear guidelines on disability reporting being readily accessible). Not only do the wider community come to believe these categories, but as this piece by Carrie Wade examines, disabled people as members of that same community, end up internalising ideas of Good Disabled and Bad Disabled. Or really it is Good Enough. We get a pass at a certain level. Not enough to be worthy of a Vogue shoot mind you. Don't start thinking you're good enough for that little disabled person. Good Enough that we approve of your existence, but know that you can easily become Bad Disabled at any time if you don't toe the party line.

It is the combination of these beliefs and actions that lead to increased levels of violence against the disabled.

We are less than.

Not even worthy of being in a photo shoot when at the pinnacle of sporting prowess, in an advertisement promoting and celebrating the pinnacle disabled sporting event. (The sarcastic part of me wants to know if Kylie Jenner was a consultant on the concept.)

Is it any surprise that more and more disabled people are turning to social media to share their lives in writing and through selfies on platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr. We are continuously erased from the current social zeitgeist by active exclusion or pity/inspiration tripe reporting. While the Brazilian Vogue issue is a glaring example it is both a product and extra fodder for the exclusion and othering or disabled people. Be it the recent massacre in Japan where the victims remain nameless numbers with the thin veneer of cultural norms used as an excuse for this erasure, or the disturbingly high rate of violence against disabled people, in particular disabled women, around the world including here in Australia, all derive from the same base level of negative beliefs surrounding disability and the people who are part of that community.

"Other statistics indicate that 90% of women with intellectual disabilities have been sexually abused. 68% of women with an intellectual disability will be subjected to sexual abuse before they reach 18 (Frohmader, 2002)".  (‘Double the Odds’ – Domestic Violence and Women with DisabilitiesWritten by Sue Salthouse and Carolyn Frohmader. This paper was presented to the ‘Home Truths’ Conference, Sheraton Towers, Southgate, Melbourne 15 -17 September 2004. Copyright 2004.)

It is estimated that 1 in 5 people are disabled. Yet we continue on the fringe, an unpalatable reminder of the fallibility of the human body and life in general. Disability is seen as a horror to be avoided and those who live it are seen as living horrible worthless lives. How on earth could someone be disabled AND happy? We are seem as villains in movies, welfare bludgers by the politicians, poor things (stop patting me, people!) or inspirational heroes for getting out of bed or buying milk. And when we raise our voice to call out ableism we are whingy. The people we hold to account for poor behaviour or attitude assume the role of victim. We are told to be quiet. People have good intentions. They know better. And they are shocked and angry that we have the audacity to say we might actually be able to articulate the nuances of life as a disabled person better than them.

"Pires [an abassador for the Rio Paralympics and one of the models] defended the photos on Instagram saying, ‘As ambassador, we lend our images to give visibility [to a cause], and that’s what we are doing, my God.’" 

AKA Damn you ungrateful disabled people how dare you tell me I'm wrong!

Brazilian Vogue and the actors/models involved can side step all they like. For the rest of us we can see it for the BS it is. And we're over being quiet.



  1. Excellent post. Absolutely spot on.

    Thank you.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. You have put my thoughts about the photoshoot into (very articulate!) words.
    And I can't tell you how excited I was to find a chronic illness blog from a fellow Aussie. I suffer from CFS/ME POTS/OI and fellow spoonies can be far and few between.

    1. There are a few of us around Siobhan. Are you on FB? There's an Oz and NZ Dysautonomia group with over 700 members. It's been a slow grower but especially in places like Melbourne there are higher proportion of patients.

    2. Thanks for the tip! I've just requested to join.

    3. It can take a while sometimes as all the admins are ill and not always online to approve members, but keep an eye out in your 'others' folder for a message. :D


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