I love Channel 4’s Paralympics advert. But we can’t all be superhumans

DWP Wheelchair Cliff

Since the Channel 4 Paralympics trailer was unveiled last week, the reaction has been almost universally positive. And understandably so. As a film, it is pretty phenomenal. It’s witty, slick, doesn’t prettify disability, and the music is brilliant. Actually, positive is an understatement: it’s been more like a collective gush of joy, with able-bodied people who never tweet about disability showing an extraordinary level of enthusiasm for the advert.

In our household, the response has been a little more conflicted. As a couple, my husband and I fall on either side of a line that divides disabled people into two different groups: those who society approves of, and the rest of us. My husband, James, is an amputee footballer – a “supercrip”. I am not. (I don’t think there is an accepted word for my group – “feeblecrips”? “scroungers”?) So I watched the trailer with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was genuinely happy to see people like the man I love, disabled but fit and talented, shown looking so fabulous; on the other, I felt a creeping sense of dread for me and all the other disabled people in my own (much larger) camp.

I loved the 2012 Paralympics and I’m all for celebrating Paralympians, as visibly disabled and talented people. And I really like that the trailer doesn’t stop at sports people but includes musicians, dancers, cereal-eaters and baby-lifters. However, the hashtag used to promote this film is #yesican – the lyrics to the song used. That in itself seems harmless enough. But it’s a small lurch from “yes I can” to “there’s no such thing as can’t”, and sure enough Channel 4 jumped right in on this. On their Twitter account, a pinned tweet reads: “There’s no such thing as can’t. Introducing our #superhumans trailer. Proud to be the UK Paralympic broadcaster.”

This is one of those supposedly “inspirational” phrases that rubs me up the wrong way, because it is silly, facile and untrue. Because, er, can’t IS a thing. It’s in the dictionary. It’s also a useful word. My daughter “can’t” become a mermaid, she also “can’t” eat two chocolate cakes for supper. I “can’t” stop people I love dying. I also “can’t” walk.

We all know that “there’s no such word as can’t” isn’t meant to be taken literally. But if it isn’t meant literally, what does it mean? I suppose it’s meant to encourage hard work, perseverance and self-belief, which are generally thought to be Good Things for everybody, very much including the able-bodied mainstream, at whom this film is aimed.

So how are we meant to interpret this film? Do we appreciate these extremely talented disabled people doing their thing simply for the spectacle, like when we watch exceptional able-bodied gymnasts, dancers, athletes? No. Channel 4 gives us a message. We are being invited to think “yes I can” too and “there’s no such thing as can’t”. In other words, if they, with their manifestly disabled bodies, are able to achieve these things, then “what’s your excuse?” Able-bodied people are being invited to look and be INSPIRED. (If you’re not familiar with the phrase “inspiration porn”, it’s well worth Googling, or perhaps have a look at this TED talk.)

The funny thing is that “no such thing as can’t” doesn’t even fit the narrative that people like my husband live with, never mind the rest of us. I’m willing to bet that almost every person featured in that film comes across things they simply can’t do on a daily basis. Many can’t walk. It may be that some, like me, can’t have a shower without assistance. Isn’t it more likely that for many it is precisely because they have accepted those can’ts that they have become successful? If the wheelchair athletes had spent their disabled lives refusing to accept that they can’t walk, how would they have had the time and energy to develop their skills and become wheelchair athletes?

Living well and happily with a disability is, I’d argue, about accepting the can’ts you have to accept, whether they are imposed by your own body or society, and navigating them in the best way you can. So why, of all the groups in society to apply this silly phrase to, are disabled people chosen again and again?

My husband knows how this ad will affect him. He will attract more interest when he’s kicking a ball about, or cycling with our daughter. People will ask if he’s a Paralympian. Sometimes this can be inconvenient, patronising or even irritating for him, but generally the effect is positive. A narrative is being circulated in society that will afford him approval and admiration. Given he has to put up with being stared at whenever he leaves the house, he’d be mad not to accept and even enjoy this.

But then we come to people like me. The majority. The totally non-inspirational disabled people. What does “no such word as can’t” and “yes I can” mean for me? It means I am a failure. I can’t walk, and I accept that. I can’t function without serious painkillers. I am a wheelchair user but could not be further from the wheelchair jumper in the film – just negotiating a kerb is extremely difficult for me, often impossible. These things already frustrate and confound people. Why can’t I be just a bit more damn inspirational?

And the problem is that the hashtag and the way the advert has been marketed encourages society’s frustration with people like me. They legitimise it, by telling able-bodied people that if I just wanted it enough, or was positive enough, I could be one of those shiny talented people too.

My fear is that creating a view of disabled people as magical creatures who might look impaired but actually – ta dah! – are as capable as anyone else, if not more so (#superhumans), means that the general public will find the vast majority of disabled people, with our pain, weakness and fatigue, even more frustrating and confounding than they already do.


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