Last summer’s Paralympic Games brought disability sport into the public eye in a new way. The one athlete who probably had the most impact on the public is Oscar Pistorius who took part in both the Olympics and Paralympics (whilst he is not the first person to do both, he is the most high profile). He’s a South African double amputee who is known as “the blade runner” and “the fastest man on no legs.”
This week Pistorius hit the headlines again when the news broke that his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp had been shot dead – and he’d been arrested on suspicion of her murder.
There’s been a lot of reaction about it. The coverage has had a lot of misogyny in it – the amount of reports referring to “the dead woman” or “Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend” had #HerNameWasReevaSteenkamp trending on Twitter. And then there’s that Sun front page. Both are important issues and need to be addressed. What I’ve seen less coverage of is the disability issues the matter raises. I can see two.
Twitter and Facebook exploded with jokes about the matter, as they always do. Some of them are vaguely amusing but the vast majority contained some degree of ableism (or disablism if that’s your preferred term). Joke, if you must, about how lawyers have said “Pistorius doesn’t have a leg to stand on” or how you “feel sorry for him because he can’t stand up for himself.” But remember that just shows ignorance and could be hurtful to other disabled people reading your post. Most of the jokes about Pistorius disability aren’t even funny.
I joke a lot about my disability. When my friend brought her 11-month-old grandson to see me this week I saw him walking and joked, “I see he’s exceeded my ability already.” Joking about disability isn’t wrong. Joking about it in an ableist way is.
Over 3000 people retweeted Frankie Boyle’s insipid attempt at a joke about how Reeva Steenkamp should have known he was armed because they’re the only limbs he’s got. But if tomorrow they were in a car accident and had both of their legs amputated and someone joked about them only having arms now I bet it wouldn’t be funny any more. I think it would hurt.
The second issue it raises relates to the perception of disabled people and is, in my opinion, more important. Traditionally disabled people are always shown as either the hero or the villain. They’re a source of inspiration or they’re to be feared and hated. Life isn’t black and white like that though and disabled people are just normal ones moving through life in the shades of grey in between like everyone else. Sometimes we do good things and others we do terrible things.
Pistorius was the hero held up to able-bodied people as an example of why they shouldn’t complain about their problems. And the one pointed out to disabled people with the “if he can do that why can’t you try to do…” supposedly helpful comments. He was viewed as showing just what was possible for disabled people. But really, what he did was show what was possible for him – and maybe, along the way he inspired a few people to explore what might be possible for them.
And now, Reeva Steenkamp is dead and Pistorius is the stereotypical disabled villain. People are wondering how it’s possible he could do this. They’re shocked that a disabled person could do such a thing. Being the hero meant he had to be a good person and good people only do good things. Bad people do bad things, which is why the press and public are often quick to label those who commit violent crimes as being mentally ill or having learning disabilities. Because they need an excuse which explains it to them.
A woman is dead and a man is accused of her murder. He’s known as the man who overcame his disability to become the fastest man on no legs. The press seem determined we should only know her as “Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend.” It’s up to the courts now to determine if the man (and not the inspirational hero) had anything to do with that. Because she’s more than a dead girlfriend. Her name was Reeva Steenkamp. She deserves justice. Even if it means the world loses a hero along the way.