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What are the pros and cons of representing disabled athletes as “superhuman.” How might disabled athletes be represented so as to avoid the traps of the superhuman stereotype?  

Week 11 Lecture: Raising Questions Part II: Case Study, Superhumans
Dear Students,
This week, we continue to raise questions about urgent cultural issues for disabled people.
(Content note: this lecture revisits the conversations around suicide, assisted suicide,
euthanasia, and eugenics)
Last week I explained in detail how film “does away” with disability once it has served its
narrative purpose. I argued that the two most common ways that narratives have of doing
away with disability is through cures or kills. I also argued that “revaluaton” might be
considered another form of cure, since in this mode of representation, disability is done away
with by changing its meaning. What is most important to remember is that narrative uses
disability as a metaphor for a problem. Once this problem is resolved within the narrative
representation, disability ceases to be a problem and society (the audience) is basically let off
the hook for having to figure out how to include or incorporate disability in the world of the
film and, by extension, our actual world. I argued that these films are not actually about the
disabled characters. The disabled characters are catalysts for a change in the nondisabled
protagonist or the assumed nondisabled viewer.
Also last week, I linked the killing of disabled characters as a solution to the problem of
disability to the real-life solution of doing away with disability through death (suicide, assisted
suicide, and euthanasia). I wrote about eugenics and its representation in film as well as how
euthanasia/suicide films such as Are you Fit to Marry/Black Stork, Elephant Man, and Million
Dollar Baby concern many people in the disability rights movement because they tend to
reinforce ideas that it is better to be dead than disabled. There are dozens of such films (return
to Code of the Freaks for fuller discussion of some of them) All these films romanticize the
death of the disabled figure by portraying the deaths as painless, beautiful, and reasonable. I
argued that death becomes a logical solution to the problem of disability in medical model
thinking (remember this is a model of thinking, not an indictment of medicine or medical
professionals) because, in this model, people with disabilities are considered tragic victims of
individual pathologies.
If you look at the final moments of the Elephant Man when Merrick kills himself, the camera
moves to star-filled night skies, as if he were ascending to the heavens. This ending is eerily
reminiscent of the euthanized baby flying into Jesus’s arms at the end of Art You Fit to
Marry/The Black Stork. The way these films romanticize suicide and euthanasia as a solution to
the problem of disability is disturbing as it sends a message to audiences that it is, again, better
to be dead than disabled.
In last week’s lecture, when I said films portrayal of the disabled character’s death is
“beautiful,” I meant it literally. The films’ camera techniques, music, lighting, narrative, and sets
are aesthetically beautiful. The films’ final words reassure audiences that their deaths weren’t
tragic. In fact, they suggest that these characters are not even really dead. They imply that the
characters’ spirits will go to an eternal space or home, where no one’s really dead.
I asked you to think last week about whether some of these issues about disabled lives and
whether they are worth living are cropping up during this pandemic. I raised questions for you
to consider in terms of who has access to what kind of treatment, how “herd immunity” as
solution to the pandemic relies on assumptions of whose lives are worth living (and saving), and
what constitutes a cure (and for whom).
Relevance to now (this section discusses these issues in light of the pandemic, skip it if this
topic is too distressing right now and go to the next section entitled Superhuman)
Just this past week, I ran into many of these issues in the media.
One is a news story from UC Berkeley about how the university has a research program called
“The Genealogical Eugenic Institute Fund.” There seems to be debate about what type of
current research falls under the category of “eugenics.” I invite you to read the article to gain a
better understanding of the argument:
[from the article: The $2.4-million fund was offering an annual payout of about $70,000 in fiscal
year 2020 to support research and education on policies, practices and technologies that could
“affect the distribution of traits in the human race,” including those related to family planning,
infertility, assisted reproduction technologies, prenatal screening, abortion, gene editing and
gene modification, the email said. That “modern definition of eugenics” included “perspectives
that shed light on not only the benefits but also the limitations and the ethics of these
alternative approaches to improving the human race.”]
I also read an article from the UK about how decisions for rationed treatment for covid-19
patients was being put into policy in their National Health System (there have been US triage
system decision-making guides in the news as well, but this one was so current, I thought I
would share)
[from the article: “. . . the NHS and many doctors were forced into taking controversial
decisions — choosing which lives to save, which patients to treat and who to prioritise — in
order to protect hospitals. In particular, they took unprecedented steps to keep large numbers
of elderly and frail patients out of hospital and the intensive care wards so as to avoid being
Because this online format does not give us a good way to process these issues, I am putting
them here only to show the connection between Hollywood film, eugenics, and contemporary
questions about whose lives are prioritized. I am NOT suggesting there are easy right or wrong
answers here, I am only raising questions for you to consider. The issues we discuss in this class
might seem to be “just about the movies” or “just about art,” but they set the context for
decision-making when they appear in real-life, especially during time of personal and cultural
I have asked you to think critically about the concept of “normalcy.” I have asked you to think
critically about the concept of “human.” Both these concepts work in tandem to define what
kind of life is worth living. Deciding who is human and therefore worthy of life, as I’ve pointed
out, is dangerous. I hope that as you think about these ideas, you will think critically about what
constitutes “human.” The issues we’re discussing in this class are relevant to every single one of
you. My hope is that this class will give you the opportunity to think critically about these issues
before you experience them, or help you if you are experiencing them now. What I’ve
experienced throughout my own life is that even when I have thought I’ve understood a
disability issue and taken a stance on it, something happens that makes me re-think what I
thought I knew. And this affects my life choices (for myself and my children most strongly). I
wish I had known and really taken in the complexity of these issues before I experienced them.
Having multiple perspectives on an issue, in a way, cushions the blow because you are already
aware that there are many ways to approach an issue. For example, a doctor offers you prenatal testing during a pregnancy. How might having thought about disability complexly affect
your decision about 1) taking the test, and 2) acting on the information. Here is another
example, you might have to make medical decisions on behalf of someone you love. How might
having thought about disability complexly affect your decisions about that person’s future, even
if it is not a life or death decision?
A critical perspective and exploration of various viewpoints can help you to recognize the
meaning that representation (in our case, mostly film) generates about disability. And you will
know more than Hollywood tells you. In general, representations use disability as a means of
exploring the boundaries of what is considered human. These representations might take for
granted the following assumptions:

Disabled people are not “whole”

Disabled people are “vegetables”

Disabled people are “animals”

Disabled people have “half-lives”

Disabled people have low “quality of life”
These cultural assumptions create the conditions in which a narrative’s logic makes sense.
Now, this week, I want you to think about how representations recuperate these notions of
disability by claiming their opposite. If the above assumptions about disability mean that a
disabled person is not fully human, then representation must do the job of convincing you that
disabled people are human. Often, this idea that “disabled people are human, too” is the only
message (Elephant Man). And that, to me, is distressing as a very low bar set for disabled
Often, to get people to think differently about disability, a representation must go further than
representing disabled people as human. To counter these deeply held beliefs about disability,
representations portray disability as Superhuman (or inspirational, as we’ll discuss later in the
Disabled people are not only cured. They are even better than cured; they are extraordinary.
And because they are extraordinary, then their lives are worth living. We saw this in The
Elephant Man when Treves saves John as he realizes John is 1) human, and 2) highly intelligent
and educated.
Just as representation shows us the minimum of what humanity is through disability, it also
shows us the maximum limits of humanity through disability.
In the Week 11 folder I included an advertisement called “Meet the Superhumans” which was
shown throughout the UK in 2012 to promote the Paralympics, which is always held after the
regular Olympics. (Paralympics is different from Special Olympics, if you want to know more,
please google them). Below is a still from that campaign.
This image shows a line up of disabled athletes set against a foggy background. They include a
man with a prosthetic leg astride a bike, and man with one leg in a sporty wheelchair, a woman
who is a little person in her swimsuit, a man with no legs with a ball on his lap in a wheelchair, a
man with a cheetah-blade prosthetic limb, a woman in a swimsuit with an arm difference, a
mad with a cloth over his eyes with a foot on a soccer ball, and a woman in a handcycle whose
legs are not visible. All the athletes appear to be white.
I’d like you to think about how these athletes are being portrayed in this image and in the video
commercial I included in your folder.
The case of the “Meet the Superhumans” campaign is another example of why it’s not useful to
classify disability simple in terms of good/bad, right/wrong, positive/negative. I love this ad. I
think it’s really cool. And at the same time, it is highly problematic. If we lived in a world in
which disabled people’s humanity were presumed and not something disabled people have to
prove, this ad might not have caused the controversy that it did. So while I admire it, I also
critique it.
Disability activists in the UK protested the representations used to promote the Paralympic
Games in the “Meet the Superhumans” campaign. These games were wildly popular. More
popular than any other Paralympic tournament in its history. Events were sold out. Everyone
was talking about them. Disabled athletes were cool. People were amazed at what disabled
people could do.
Amazed. Extraordinary. Superhuman.
The reason that activists decried the use of this terminology is because the public’s excitement
about disabled Superhumans was happening during the same time the UK government was
making substantial cuts to disability services. A large corporation called Atos sponsored the
Paralympic Games. Sounds like great corporate charity? A good cause?
Disabled activists protested Atos and its sponsorship of the Paralympics because Atos was the
very company the government had hired to assess disabled people’s ability to work. Anyone
receiving disability benefits underwent a medial reassessment, and most people had their
benefits reduced. Often drastically. Some people lost transportation. Others housing. Many lost
their independence. Disabled people were committing suicide when their benefits were taken
away. Some traveled to countries (Switzerland, The Netherlands) where assisted suicide is legal
even for those who are not terminally ill, and ended their lives.
Activists argued that the government and Atos was using the fervor of the Paralympic games to
justify drastic austerity measures and fed the public’s notions of the “undeserving disabled.”
The above photo shows activists protesting Atos’s sponsorship of the games. Activists argued
that the way the Paralympic Games portrayed disability encouraged people to believe that if
disabled people could be Superhuman athletes through good attitudes and strength of will,
then why was the government paying for services and benefits? If disabled people could be
athletes, then why couldn’t they work for a living?
I want you to think about how even “positive” portrayals of disability are complicated. This
theme keeps emerging throughout this class. Remember the questions I’ve asked you to keep
in mind, “What is the cultural work this representation is doing?” and “HOW is this
representation constructing meaning about disability?”
The hilarious disabled performance artist Katherine Arienello responded to the Superhuman
campaign/Atos sponsorship fiasco through her own spoof. That video is in your folder.
Arienello commented about her view of this controversy:
“I find the terminology that the Paralympians use repetitive and the opposite to inspiring. In
fact I find what they say quite nauseating….
My message is that I have no high energy motivational message other than physicality and
sporting excellence will not inspire a future generation of disabled people – because there are
many disabled people who even if we did want to partake in sport – we simply cannot. Staying
alive is our unprecedented daily sport which lasts a lifetime.”
Her video parody, Superhuman Part 2, addresses the problematic and contradictory meanings
about disability during the summer of 2012.
In 2022, the winter Paralympics were held in Japan. The same UK television, Channel 4, that
created the Meet the Superhumans Campaign also created the winter Paralympics ad called
“Super.Human.” Check it out here if you like,

I actually quite like this one—activists who criticized the 2012 campaign clearly made an
impact. Did you notice the changes in the disability representation between the two? If you
like, you can write about in your journal entry for this week.
This year, 2022, the Paralympics were held in Beijing from March 4-13. The big news for
Channel 4 this year is that all the commentators for these televised games are disabled people.
If you’re interested, check this out: https://variety.com/2022/tv/global/channel-4-disabledpresenting-team-beijing-winter-paralympics-1235173503/
Wrap-up: This week’s film
Fixed is a relatively recent documentary that also explores eugenics. The film asks us to
question whether disability can ever be fixed. It asks us to think about new forms of eugenics
that are happening now, not in some science fiction world. It also asks us to think about what
are the benefits and drawbacks of human enhancements. It asks us to think about class
privilege and who has access to certain forms of technology and who does not.
Most importantly, to me, you get to meet a lot of disabled people who have different opinions
and perspectives! What I think this documentary accomplishes is showing how varied those of
us in the disability community are. I hope that seeing this diversity of opinions and viewpoints
in this independent documentary, by way of contrast, illuminate the way that Hollywood films
isolate disabled characters and use them as metaphors, rather than as complicated people with
various intersections of race, class, gender, and sexualities who believe different things.
Fixed gives you a lot to discuss about disability, eugenics, cure, and kill. It is a rich and dynamic
collage of ideas and the “problem” of disability is not resolved for the audience. Instead, you
are left with questions.
As you are watching Fixed, think about

The varied perspectives on the science of human enhancement

The politics involved in the pursuit of being transhuman or extra-able

Whether this film asks us to re-think what impairment is. What is disability? What
normal is? How?

Do all disabled people think alike? What do the different interviewees reasons for their
points of view?
Dr. Sandahl

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