The Rise Of The Supercrips

“Supercrips” are people with impairments who overcome great obstacles to achieve “normality” in their lives, or even more. She is that paralysed woman who went through intense rehabilitation with a never-say-die attitude and is walking again today. And he is the man with no limbs who go about life “just like everyone else.”

The recent London 2012 Paralympics has pushed these supercrips to the forefront. People are paying more attention to these elite athletes who can outrun most non-disabled people. Their visibility in mainstream society is made more prominent by the mass and social medias that recycled images of them in their eye-catching carbon fibre prostheses.

The term “supercrip” itself is condescending. The word “cripple” is considered not politically correct when used in reference to disabled persons. We have evolved where language is concerned but this particular word lingers as supercrips continue to amaze society while creating a sense of confusion within the disability circle.

To society, they are the epitome of what other disabled people should strive for, rising from the ashes to become one with society again. Their accomplishments are often used as examples to inspire non-disabled people and other disabled people as well.

Don’t we just love the story of the armless artist who paints with his foot? Or the wheelchair user who goes everywhere and anywhere and even up stairs by himself? They don’t need reasonable accommodation. They don’t complain. They just suck it up and move on. If they can, why can’t other disabled people?

They make “ordinary” disabled people like me sound whiney and demanding for not putting in that extra effort but expecting society to solve our problems. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against them. They worked hard to get where they are. They live the life they want to. That is their prerogative. I have no argument with that.

What I am opposed to is how they are being used as a yardstick on other disabled people. Not every wheelchair user can get up a kerb without assistance. Not every single-leg amputee can become a world class athlete. Not every disabled person who go through rehabilitation can regain full functionality of their body.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a seminar organised by a municipal council on the environmental barriers faced by disabled people. Imagine my shock and horror when one of the speakers, after concluding his session on removing barriers, played a video of a disabled person going about his life effortlessly in spite of the barriers in and outside his house.

That video alone cancelled out all our arguments calling for a barrier free environment. Needless to say, the participants were more impressed with that video than the presentations of subsequent speakers. What made it more unfortunate was that the speaker is a wheelchair user and veteran activist on disability issues.

Injudicious use of such examples is damaging to the dignity of disabled persons as individuals and dilutes the advocacy of the disability movement. Disabled people who don’t achieve that certain level of independence will feel that they are not working hard enough. Society, on the other hand, will not see the urgency to make the built environment accessible since disabled people are the cause of their own problems.

The crux of the issue is that we should all accept the diversity of the humankind. People should be given a choice of who or what they want to be. There are super-achievers and there are people who just want to be ordinary. Not every non-disabled person can climb Mount Everest or run a marathon. We respect that. Likewise, not every disabled person has the capacity to become a super-achiever and may need support in their activities of daily living. We have to respect this also.

Supercrips are the exception, not the norm. Notwithstanding society’s fascination with them as the posterboy for disabled people, they are not the true face of disability, and not every disabled person wants to be a supercrip. That is the reality.

Around the world, millions of disabled people are still struggling against barriers, discrimination and oppression every day of their lives. Their stories of courage are not any less interesting. They are fighting for the right to live ordinary lives without having to accomplish extraordinary feats. Now, isn’t that one cause truly worth fighting for?

Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Minion to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. Columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. Principal Trainer at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.