The internalization of messages of superiority

The internalization of messages of superiority.

In the story, it was clear that the three-eyed people believed that their bodies were better, more attractive, and more normal than yours. As was evident in the interactions, they set every aspect of what was considered normal in that society. These norms not only included the layout and organization of physical space, but also included values such as which kind of bodies were beautiful and preferable.

As members of the dominant group—in this case people defined as able-bodied—seeing how our privileges manifest can be extremely challenging because everything in our environment is constructed to enable us to take our privileges for granted. The story illustrates the following manifestations of internalized superiority:

There is no value in the experiences of people with disabilities and nothing to gain or learn from their experiences. (The three-eyed people believed that it was better to be three-eyed, and wanted to “fix” you as a two-eyed person. Even though you told them you liked yourself the way you were, they felt entitled to tell you that it was better to be like them.) Able-bodied people are capable of understanding the experiences, representing, and speaking on behalf of people with disabilities. (The play’s writers and producers were the ones to represent two-eyed people and believed that all a three-eyed person had to do was “pretend” to be two-eyed in order to understand and represent their experiences. This was reinforced through the award granted to the actor by other three-eyed people, even though the script reinforced negative stereotypes.)

In ways such as these, those in dominant positions tend to see themselves as superior and tell stories that affirm and support that superiority. They tend to lack interest in the perspectives of the minoritized group except in limited and controlled situations such as writing and producing inspirational stories from the dominant perspective.

In an attempt to draw attention to the narrow “inspirational” stories that are often told by nondisabled people, essayist and blogger Haddayr Copley-Woods (2010) created “disability bingo” (Figure 6.2). This bingo card holds up a mirror for dominant culture to gain a rare glimpse of these stories through the eyes of people with disabilities.

An example of the “inspiration story” about people with disabilities was repeatedly told during the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Canadian gold medal mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau and


his brother Frédéric, who has cerebral palsy, were prominently featured in stories about how Alexandre gets his “inspiration” from his big brother Frédéric. This story worked to make Alexandre appear heroic and even more talented and special than he already was as an Olympic-level athlete. The story also served to invest the crowd in his success; to root for Alexandre was to indirectly root for his brother Frédéric and in so doing demonstrate our sympathy for people with disabilities. The brother with cerebral palsy is only mentioned in order to further the story of the heroic Olympian brother. The “inspiration” we draw from this story reinforces the notion of the superiority of the able-bodied while denying Frédéric personhood; Frédéric becomes a prop to advance the story and privilege of Alexandre. This story of course does not stand alone; inspirational stories about people with disabilities are told and retold in mainstream culture in ways that uphold the superiority of those defined as normal.

Consider the idea of inspiration itself. Why are stories about people with disabilities so inspirational to able-bodied people? Notice how they can only be inspirational if the person is presented as overcoming the tragedy and suffering that the able-bodied believe to be inherent to having a disability. If we are telling a story of someone who cannot overcome their disability, then we draw our inspiration from their determination and courage to simply live. These narratives communicate and reinforce the idea that body diversity (anything beyond what is socially constructed as normal) is undesirable; a terrible and tragic medical condition that no one would ever choose and that, if possible, must at all costs be fixed. If the condition cannot be fixed, then it is perceived as a terrible waste of life. Thus the only way to “overcome” the condition is to “put a positive face on it” and struggle to be pleasant. If you have ever thought (or been reminded by others) how “fortunate” you were not to have a disability, consider what ideas about disabilities are being conveyed.

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