Esther Vergeer Wheelchair

Why ESPN's body politics matter for people with disabilities

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BY RYAN PETERS

Like salmon returning from the ocean to spawn, or Robin Thicke creeping us all the fuck out, society has its annual rites. Way down on the list of social significance among these conventions—but incredibly high on my list of voyeuristic curiosity—is ESPN’s once-yearly "Body Issue," in which professional and amateur athletes pose in covered nude portraits, intended to highlight the grace and power of their impressively-sculpted bodies. In many ways, the issue is a chance to see how artfully a photographer can get Prince Fielder to cover his balls while swinging a bat, or to ponder whether Rob Gronkowski ever removes the puka shell necklace that, like Sampson’s hair, gives him his power.

After readers freaked out that Fielder's fit body wasn't like the other six-pack physiques typically on display in ESPN, the hashtag #HuskyTwitter celebrated men of all body shapes—as well as ESPN for recognizing and representing "husky" athletes. In addition, the Body Issue offers readers the chance to see something else they otherwise almost never encounter: a nude disabled body.

For years, the Body Issue has featured a small, but not insignificant number of Paralympic and disabled athletes, from triathlete Sarah Reinertsen and Dutch tennis player Esther Vergeer, to pentathlete Jeremy Campbell. Even among dozens of images of often-stunning physiques, these athletes stand out—not only for the equal impressiveness of their bodies, but also for the taboo attached to the opportunity to even view them. The disabled body, in so many ways, exists in a cultural blindspot.

Try this thought exercise: In less than 30 seconds—and without the help of our all-seeing, all-knowing Lord Google—name one disabled person, male or female, that you’ve seen in a romantic storyline in a major film or television show. Name a disabled character that has had sex in any recent show or film. Name a widely-known Paralympic athlete other than those I just mentioned above. Name a disabled porn star, for that matter.  Here’s an even more difficult one: Name a disabled film or television character played by a person with an actual disability.

It’s not impossible to fill in any of these categories (shows like House and Ironside come to mind, and pre-homicide Oscar Pistorious had a prominent endorsement deal with Nike), but it is extremely challenging.

That difficulty is rooted in the fact that disability, from the outside looking in, is a paradox that is pushed to the cultural margins. Disabled bodies are hard to ignore, on a screen or passing by on the street, and yet our wider culture has almost no vocabulary—and certainly few cultural touchstones —on which to base any knowledge of disability. In a nation where 20 percent of the adult population has a disability, the differently-abled are greeted with a deafening muteness.

Some of this is predicated on ignorance, but much of it operates as a well-meaning sense of sympathy for the vulnerability that disability communicates. Roger Crawford, who made the professional U.S. tennis tour with congenital defects in all four of his limbs (and with one prosthetic leg), wrote in his autobiography, “Handicapped people might as well wear a big sign around their necks saying, 'This could be you!’”

In my experience, the discomfort and guilt that disabled bodies engender among the fully-abled produce two broad narratives about disability. In the first, the differently-abled are positioned as heroic (with a capital H) just for trying; because merely rising to live each day and struggling against the odds of an indifferent God’s cruel vision of life is super inspirational, and hey! everyone else really appreciates the motivation, buddy. Think of the storyline’s attached to films like Simon Birch or The Mighty, which feature characters whose positive outlooks on life persevere despite the fact that they are made into outcasts by their physical disabilities.

In the second, stories about disability feature a handicapped person who accomplishes or performs something so well that it negates their disability — or elevates them above it in a way that all but erases the bodily reality of being disabled. Avatar’s central character, Jake Sully, is a perfect embodiment of this trope; he travels to a distant planet as a wheelchair-user, but the Avatar program allows him to assume the form of a non-disabled alien body, freeing the film of the need to explore his disability with any real depth.

These narratives are not entirely invalid. I, too, find fellow disabled athletes to be inspiring. In more ways than I can count, I understand the desire to achieve something—to attach something to my name—that would in any way overshadow the claim that my body, in everything good and everything limited about it, has to my identity. The point, though, is that these cannot be totalizing narratives—they can’t be the only lens through which we view disabled people, nevermind the only manner in which we define the experience of disability.

In his essay collection Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “It is the peculiar triumph of society—and its loss—that it is able to convince those people to whom it has given inferior status of the reality of this decree.” That’s true not only for race; growing up as a disabled boy and then teenager, I internalized the void of disability in popular culture as a reflection of myself. Like Claudia—the nine-year old narrator of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, who resents the “blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned” doll she is given for Christmas because it represents a standard of white beauty she can’t attain—I wished for some kind of cultural whetstone to help sharpen an identity, something I could see my reflection in other than myself.

That’s why when there’s a great commercial, like the following one from Guinness, which suggests that wheelchair sports take real skill and athleticism and features able-bodied characters spending time (albeit brief) in their disabled friend’s world rather than the other way around, it matters:

That’s why this promotion for the Paralympics, which appropriately identifies its athletes not as impaired, but as superhuman, matters:

Besides the fact that the promotion makes the always-correct decision to take Public Enemy as its soundtrack, I think this spot is unique because it deftly walks a fine line. On the one hand, it provides back stories for how these athletes were potentially disabled – military service, a car crash, birth defect—and positions them as challenges to overcome. And yet significantly, it doesn’t suppress the reality of their disability; the wheelchairs and amputated limbs are as prominently featured as anything else. The paralympians are superhuman for conquering challenges, not for bypassing their bodies.

And that’s why the Body Issue matters, for all its trappings. Over at Deadspin, Leigh Cowart says that Prince Fielder’s ample body is sexy. She’s right. But Amy Purdy is sexy as hell too. As is Oskana Masters. Looking at someone can be an act of voyeurism, sure; but it can also be an act of generosity and recognition. We should be seeing more disabled nudity. We should be seeing more disabled athleticism. We should be seeing more disability, period, and with a clarity and complexity that views someone as more than the sum of their parts, while not eliding the beauty and the challenges of their constituent elements.

Photo via photop.nl/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)