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Features Opinion Published 11 August 2016

What is A Superhuman Anyway?

A look at the new Channel 4 advert for the Rio Paralympics and the notion of meeting the “superhumans” in their follow-up to the 2012 ad.

Amelia Cavallo
A still from the 2012 Meet the Superhumans campaign - the silhouetted figure of a Paralympic swimmer

A still from the 2012 ‘Meet the Superhumans’ campaign.

This August we are heading towards the four-year mark from the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in London. This is a particularly sentimental time for me as I was in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony as an aerialist – by far my favorite gig to date. I’m sure we all remember the build up to this time with people being worried about overcrowding, closed roads, and various other potential inconveniences. I’m sure we also remember how we had nothing to worry about and how those weeks four years ago were some of the most fantastic examples of British culture being a positive force in the world to date. From the disability perspective, it was truly momentous because it felt like we were finally on the map. We were being seen regularly on TV in a positive light, or at least so it seemed.

The commercial for the Paralympics on Channel 4 titled “Meet The Superhumans” showed fast clips of strong Paralympic athletes amidst images of car accidents and hospital rooms all in Grey heavy lighting to an anthemic rap song. Many disabled people, myself included, were uncomfortable with this commercial as we felt it was an example of inspiration porn – a topic I discuss in a previous blog. Disabled people were being shown as strong despite their disabilities with their impairments being something to overcome as opposed to an integral part of one’s identity. More to the point, Channel 4 did not make the commercial accessible for those of us with sensory impairments: no closed captioning, no audio description. Overall, this gave the impression that the commercial and therefore the broadcast of the Paralympics was still mainly for the non-disabled masses at the exclusion of the disabled.

Now that we are heading quickly towards Rio, Channel 4 has a new commercial about meeting Superhumans. I have come across many criticising this commercial for similar reasons to the one shown four years ago, and have spit a bit of my own venom on social media about the subject as well. However, after thinking about it and watching the commercial a few times, for once I am actually going to disagree with the nay-sayers. The commercial shows many disabled people doing many wonderful things from sport to music to dancing to brushing their teeth. The whole feel is upbeat and cheerful, and the commercial is completely accessible. There is a version with audio description and a spectacular British Sign Language rendition as well. Channel 4 listened to people’s complaints and did infinitely better. That alone deserves at least some praise.

The song played throughout the commercial repeats the phrase “yes I can!” while showing talented disabled people doing whatever it is they do best. This phrase “yes I can!” alongside the term “superhuman” is where many people have taken and continue to take issue. At first glance, and certainly in the case of the commercial four years ago, phrases like this epitomise inspiration porn because they do not take into account disability culture or societal barriers that actually mean many disabled people have to say “no, I can’t” to every day experiences. However, I actually believe Channel 4 has subtly attempted to address this as well. One short moment in the commercial shows a young wheelchair user in front of a teacher’s desk with the teacher saying, “no, you can’t” in an extremely patronising voice. It then shows this same man playing wheelchair basketball while shouting “yes I can!” While not perfect, I believe this is Channel 4 acknowledging the social barriers disabled people face and implying that disabled people are inspirational for overcoming these barriers, not for overcoming their impairment.

The main thing for me about this commercial is that so many of us crips jump quickly to the defensive with regard to anything about us that we didn’t make ourselves. This is to be expected: often these things do miss the mark, and given the current social climate – with benefits continuing to be cut and disabled people struggling harder than ever – it’s easy to be cynical. However, in this instance, I suggest we celebrate something that has a great deal of good in it. There is so much to love about this commercial. It is clearly working hard to encapsulate the joy that was in London four years ago around the Paralympics, and Channel 4 really listened to the complaints from their last attempt. For me, this commercial makes me excited and hopeful that we might find another little moment of Paralympic euphoria – even if it is only for a couple of weeks.

If you are interested in taking part in some disability-led art and Paralympic fun, come see Amelia’s latest show “Sailing Through The Dark” on September 3rd at The Liberty Festival. The show will be performed multiple times throughout the day and has AD and BSL included. The event is free and fully accessible at the Olympic Park as part of National Paralympic Day.

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Amelia Cavallo

Amelia Cavallo is a visually impaired, USA born actor, singer, musician, circus aerialist and aspiring academic. As a performer, Amelia has worked with various companies throughout the UK including Graeae Theatre, The Raven Theatre Company, Extant Theatre, Future Ruins and Natural Diversions. She also worked as a sway pole performer in the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and conversely as a burlesque artist for Criptease Unlimited as part of the Southbank’s Unlimited festival. Amelia is currently a Phd candidate at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama researching the potential normative structures in acting processes via disability studies and crip theory.

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