The slogan for the London 2012 Paralympics was Meet the Superhumans. Personally, as a deaf person, seeing such celebration and championing of those with disabilities was refreshing and, in an indirect way, flattering. Yet, a small part of me bristled a little at the term super – implying that we had superpowers.
Superior or Cyborg
Few disabilities can be completely cured, so we are rarely if ever on an even playing field with “abled” people. So to suggest that any disability somehow conveys superior abilities, is actually a nonsense. For instance, I have a cochlear implant (I have no hearing in both ears as the result of a childhood illness) and this technology is the only means I have to re-access the world of sound. Interestingly, this means that I can be legitimately labelled as a cyborg because my physiological functioning is dependent upon and aided by an electronic device. Essentially I have electronic circuits inside my ear making me hear, instead of the fluid and tissue of a hearing person.
When the cochlear implant technology first arrived in this country, almost thirty years ago, it was hailed as The Bionic Ear. This nickname is almost certainly attributable to an American television programme which was very popular at the time, The Bionic Man, together with a spin-off series of The Bionic Woman. The plot line was that both these individuals had sustained terrible injuries in their former lives, but had been transformed by the wonders of bionic technology (attaching electronic devices to biological tissue). The commentary over the opening titles of every programme proclaimed:
“We can rebuild them. We can make them better, stronger, faster”.
This bionic rebuilding resulted in these fictional characters being able to perform amazing feats, including hearing sounds coming from a tremendous distance away and running faster than a speeding car. Perhaps this was where the seeds of the idea that disabled people have superpowers were first sown in popular culture.
Yes, I am a cyborg. Yes, I do have a bionic ear, but I do not have superhuman hearing.
If only that was the case. The cochlear implant tries its best, but the world of sound is complex and cacophonous and the cochlear implant is expected to convey this with just a few electrodes, intended (but not completely succeeding) in replicating messages usually issued from thousands of nerve cells. Thus what I hear is distorted and filled with holes of missing information. Do not get me wrong, I am immensely grateful for such sparse representations of sound because it beats having no access to sound information at all. But I have to constantly compensate for my relatively poor hearing by concentrating hard to fill in the gaps and that takes a great of effort and is often exhausting.
A knackered superhuman?
There are many times every day when I literally have to switch off by turning off my cochlear implant device because I simply cannot take any more and need to rest. That hardly fits the definition of superpowers. We all have our limits. In fact, ironically, the assistive technology I need to use to hear actually pushes me to the limit much more quickly, because it takes so much mental effort to successfully use it.
Another thing to seriously consider related to the superhuman title (that the abled bodied seem to want to impose on the disabled) is that if it is to be correctly utilised perhaps it should be focused on the superhuman effort that is involved for a disabled person to aspire to able-bodied achievement.
Life is challenging enough as it is, but throw a disability into the mix, and everything becomes harder and potentially less achievable.
Those who succeed should be commended for their willingness and determination to overcome the obstacles that have been so unfairly placed in their way as a direct result of their disability. The human spirit is truly remarkable when forced to go the distance. Disabled people can find amazing reserves of endurance, determination and steadfastness in their fight to achieve their goals.
If they were truly superhuman they would find everything effortless. But instead, the superhuman qualities only come into play because disability makes things much, much harder. It is at these times that it is necessary to plumb that inner strength of character that everyone possesses, but does not necessarily utilise, unless they are pushed to their limits.
Therefore, the process of becoming superhuman only begins when these limits are tested to the hilt, or even surpassed by extraordinary acts of will, involving stupendous effort.
It is inspirational to see a disabled individual overcome their personal obstacles and the Paralympians are a high profile and very obvious example of this. Yes, their achievement should be celebrated. Yes, it should be admired. But it should be admired for the right reasons, with the emphasis on the process that lead to such success. To achieve what they crave, disabled people have to push hard at the boundaries of their capabilities, encountering barriers and overcoming them through sheer relentless hard work and bloody mindedness.
Now that is superhuman.
By Helen Willis, PhD student in Auditory Neuroscience at University College London.