False Positive

The Ragged Edge Online, January/February 2000

By Beth Haller

Beth Haller, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Journalism at Towson University, writes frequently about disability coverage in the mass media.

The Supercrip looms large whenever a disability story makes it onto the television news. Some may think this “inspirational” image is the least of the disability community’s problems — after all, people are still trying to escape nursing homes; people are still being denied employment.

Yet one of the biggest problems the disability community faces is society’s ongoing negative attitude toward disability. This problem underlies all the others. How will our country ever change to allow people with disabilities equal access if it doesn’t believe this should happen? It’s easy to throw down some concrete for a ramp. It’s another thing entirely to believe that this is the right thing to be done.

Media images shape societal attitudes in powerful ways. It’s always been my belief that media images of disability cause the disability community some of its most serious and persistent problems — problems that are often unacknowledged.

Which brings us back to the Supercrip.

How does a TV news story about a one-armed baseball player hurt the disability community? Doesn’t it just make non-disabled viewers feel positive toward people with disabilities?

No. It creates a false — and damaging — sense of the “positive.”

Here’s how media scholar John Clogston defined the Supercrip: The disabled person is portrayed as deviant because of “superhuman” feats (i.e. an ocean-sailing blind man) or as “special” because they live regular lives “in spite of” disability (i.e. a deaf high school student who plays softball). This portrayal reinforces the idea that disabled people are deviant — and so, for someone who is less than “complete,” the accomplishment is “amazing.”

As part of my media research for the Center for an Accessible Society, I studied in detail a February 1998 “Nightline” show about golfer Casey Martin’s ADA case. After watching the 10 evening-news reports in 1998 on the Martin case, I was expecting the “Nightline” show to be a well-done in-depth look at the issue. The TV news stories had given decent coverage to the ADA issues involved and Martin’s soundbites had carried a strong disability rights theme.

But from the start of “Nightline,” the Supercrip image barreled onto the show and overtook it.

“You’ve been a tremendous inspiration for heaven knows how many disabled people,” Nightline” host Forrest Sawyer told Martin.

The real hero of the Casey Martin case was the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was used appropriately and effectively to halt discrimination. But because of the Supercrip story with its focus on the individual, this — the most important aspect of the story — was lost.

The most destructive aspect of the news media’s use of Supercrips is that the Supercrip image kicks real issues off the table.

The real story on “Nightline” should have been about the power of the ADA in stopping discriminatory practices based on disability. Instead, the show was about the “inspirational” Casey Martin.

To his credit, Martin tried to keep his message focused on the ADA. But his longer quotes allowed him to make some inappropriate statements as well.

Producers played on the Supercrip theme because they felt an issue-oriented show might be dull. That’s why TV news loves Supercrips; it ties right in to the “infotainment” style.

Though “Nightline” interviewed ADA sponsor Sen. Tom Harkin, the quotes producers selected didn’t focus on the issue of discrimination; they propped up the Supercrip theme: “Because of his courage to go out and fight and this judge’s decision, thousands of kids with disabilities are picking up golf clubs.”

Harkin was quoted as saying that the ADA decision about Martin’s golf cart use would have long-term impact — but the long-term impact was never discussed.

Harkin’s “courage” quote presented Martin as a Tiger Woods for kids with disabilities; but the “big picture” was missing. This “Nightline” interview with Harkin, one of the architects of the ADA, could have given context to the Martin decision in terms of the ADA, its enforcement or disability rights in general — but the show didn’t allow it.

Reliance on the Supercrip image creates TV stories devoid of context. Martin was “the man who beat the system”; “this David slew Goliath.”

Casey Martin’s case was really a straightforward legal process; he used the ADA when the PGA would not appropriately accommodate his disability. The “beating the system” reference made it seem that he’d manipulated things; calling Martin “David” to the PGA Tour’s “Goliath” painted him as a lone fighter in the arena of disability rights, when in fact, he had federal legislation and legal precedent backing him up. Both removed the story from its true context: that Martin’s win was one of many appropriate ADA court rulings.

Within the “Supercrip” framing, “Nightline” presented Martin’s accommodation as something “special” for him as an individual, rather than it simply being the law. Golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez compared Martin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “If FDR could run the country out of a wheelchair, Casey Martin should be able to play golf out of a golf cart. That golf cart is not going to hit the ball.”

It’s nice that he supported Casey Martin, but his quote revealed another problem with the Supercrip representation: It distorts the reason people with disabilities receive ADA accommodations. Rodriguez seemed to be on Martin’s side because he saw him as a person who “succeeded in spite of a disability” and therefore deserved the “reward” of accommodation. In fact, accommodation is a straightforward Congressional mandate and a civil right. Every person with a disability is supposed to be treated within this civil rights framework, not just the Casey Martins of the world (Martin was described as an “athlete who never gives up.”).

The Supercrip story’s focus on the individual over the issue brings yet a final problem: people may be intimidated by Supercrips and their “inspirational” prominence. Golfer Scott Verplank, who has diabetes, was interviewed at the end of the “Nightline” show about the fairness/unfairness of using a golf cart. Verplank seemed afraid to state what he believes: “I don’t want the general public that has been so supportive of him (Martin) to turn on me.” Verplank understood the power of the Supercrip model: he knew better than to criticize Supercrip Casey Martin.

But the power of the Supercrip is a false power. People with disabilities are put on pedestals because of their inspirational quality in doing ordinary things, which is actually a patronizing way to laud people, imbued with charity. Presenting someone as inspirational is just another way of pitying them for the “tragedy of their fate.”

These beliefs tie into societal attitudes. Society holds few expectations for people with disabilities — so anything they do becomes “amazing.” Any disabled person who does any basic task of living becomes “inspirational. And any disabled person who does more than daily living, such as competing as a professional golfer or playing pro baseball with one arm, becomes a Supercrip.

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