Journalist Monique Jessen set out to write a profile of a young, talented athlete in Cornwall. The thing about being an athlete is that it’s actually rather a lot of work; I have tremendous respect for athletes because it requires serious commitment of time and energy. I’ve had friends who competed in the Olympics, which is pretty much the top of your game, athletics-wise, and what I remember most is that I basically never saw them because they were training, or competing, or passing out in an attempt to get enough sleep to wake up and do it all over again.
So, profiles of athletes in the news are not something terribly remarkable, especially when they are young and appear to have a lot of potential, because many newspaper readers find young athletes of interest and enjoy reading about them. And while I am not wildly enthusiastic about sports reporting, I do think that people who work extremely hard at something ought to receive some recognition for it.
But this athlete, you see. He’s special. He’s inspiring. Is it because he’s 12 years old and he’s excelling in multiple sports, putting in a lot of hard training, and wanting to become an athletic instructor? Because he’s pushing himself to compete in multiple events and making a point of not missing meets or trainings?
No, of course not, silly! It’s because he was born without his lower legs. That transforms him from an ordinary hardworking athlete to an Inspirational Story, and he’s got it all, ‘an inspirational young boy indeed,’ as Jessen’s article informs us. ‘He even participated in a bhangra dance event after school one evening.’ Land sakes!
There are a couple of things about this story that bother me. It seems to me like this young man is doing what any other child seriously committed to athletics would do: He’s setting goals for himself, he is figuring out how to accomplish them, and he’s working hard to get that done. Yet, he’s being singled out as ‘special’ and ‘inspiring’ because of his disabilities; suddenly, his athletic success isn’t a result of some natural talent combined with very hard work, it’s ‘overcoming’ and ‘in spite of.’
This article could have been written from the perspective of a regular profile of a promising young athlete, with a mention that he wears prostheses. Instead, his disabilities become the focal point of the article, the cornerstone of the story, and they totally consume his identity. Training at the level he’s training at is seriously hard work, with or without disabilities. What’s notable to me about his story isn’t his disabilities, but the work he’s putting in, and the support he’s receiving from his parents.
The article also makes a point of noting that he is used to guilt his fellow students. ‘Show up with the sniffles? That kid’s got no legs!’ This is all very much part of the SuperCrip narrative used to not only abuse other people with disabilities, but also to guilt-trip nondisabled people and make them feel bad. There are plenty of reasons why other students in this child’s school might not really want to participate in school athletics, and no one, disabled or otherwise, deserves to be beaten over the head with an ‘inspiring role model’ to be forced into participating in something.
Is there a way to profile a disabled athlete without falling into an inspirational SuperCrip narrative? Of course there is. It’s just that journalists seem to have a hard time doing it, mainly because they are framing these stories as profiles of athletes because they are disabled, rather than profiles of athletes who happen to be disabled.
But, not all journalists are completely hopeless!
Here’s an article about athletes competing in the Special Olympics, putting the focus on their athletic accomplishments and their work as a team. Sure, there’s an ‘everyone tried their best’ comment, but I’ve seen coaches make similar comments in articles about Olympic teams in competition, so I don’t take umbrage at it.
Another article, discussing rules changes for visually impaired athletes competing in the New York City Triathlon, focusing again on athletic accomplishments and discussing the problems with lumping all people with visual impairments into the same group. The disability is important because it’s directly relevant to the context of the article, and it’s not used to emotionally manipulate readers. A ‘they’re inspiring’ quote snuck in there, but the article is pretty balanced, and leaves readers with more information than they came in with.
While specifically seeking out decent examples of journalism about disabled athletes, I came across slews of ‘inspiring’ and ‘overcoming adversity’ style articles, where the focus is placed, front and centre, on laborious discussions about disability. The two articles I cite, while not ideal, get closer to what I look for, which is demonstrating by showing, instead of telling, or, more commonly, lecturing.