Sociology of Sport Online School of Physical Education, University of Otago

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The ‘Supercrip’ in sport media:
Wheelchair athletes discuss hegemony’s disabled hero

Marie Myers Hardin
Assistant Professor
College of Communications,
Center for Sports Journalism
Penn State University
222 Carnegie
University Park, PA 16801
(814) 865-1395

Brent Hardin
Assistant Professor of Adapted Sport Pedagogy
University of Alabama
Department of Kinesiology
103 Moore Hall
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0312
(205) 348-0867

Key words: hegemony, supercrip, sport media, disabled athletes


There has been little critical recognition of the marginalization of athletes with disabilities through media use of the ‘supercrip’ model in their coverage. This research explored sport, media and hegemony in relation to disability through in-depth interviews with disabled athletes, examining their reading of the supercrip model in mainstream media to ascertain how they accepted, negotiated or opposed the supercrip, and explored their ideas for alternatives to a hegemonic, ableist frame on the disabled in sport. The wheelchair athletes interviewed for this study had an acute awareness of the supercrip in media coverage, but varied in acceptance of the assumptions embedded in it; they were not uniformly vulnerable to a dominant reading. They also showed preferences for other media models but expressed fear that these models would not be accepted by an ableist public.

1. Introduction

1.1 When Erik Weihenmayer in 2001 became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, he also quickly reached the top of the media world (Kahn, 2001). The 32-year-old mountaineer, who reached Everest’s summit tethered to his teammates and aided by a system of bells and specialized trekking poles, was the subject of major newspaper and television features and appeared on the cover of Time magazine (Ingold, 2001). He was hailed as a ‘hero’ in media accounts and compared to blind pioneers like Helen Keller. "His Everest trip has that historic feel to it," read a story in The Boston Globe (Ingold, 2001, B2).

1.2 Weihenmayer, who wrote a book about his Everest experience, said his climb gave blindness "the facelift it deserves" (Ingold, 2001, B2). The National Federation of the Blind sponsored Weihenmayer’s trip, and staff members said they were pleased with the attention. "Erik is a spectacular newsworthy demonstration of the Everest that blind people climb every day of our lives," said one (Tawa, 2001, 1).

1.3 While the attention to Weihenmayer was praised, it was also criticized by disability advocates for the very things that made Weihenmayer a ‘newsworthy’ story. Critics charge that the ‘supercrip’ media model – a standard framework for stories about disabled ‘heroes - serves as a hegemonic device that keeps people with disabilities at the bottom of the social hierarchy and deflects the culture’s responsibility for its ableist infrastructure. Kathi Wolfe, a blind journalist who often writes about disability issues, wrote that after Weihenmayer’s climb, she was approached by well-meaning people and asked when she, too, would climb Everest (Wolfe, 2001).

One of us bursts onto the cultural radar screen as a superhero, and all of us are expected to perform amazing feats…Supercrips are everywhere in the media. The person with no use of her arms who paints masterpieces with her feet, the guy with Tourette’s syndrome who becomes a radio announcer. Stephen Hawking explaining the universe from his wheelchair. And, of course, that blind mountain climber…The supercrip exacerbates the already difficult challenges that people with disabilities face. If we hear enough such stories we may feel defeated by comparison. (p. B4)

1.4 Disability advocates define a supercrip as the presentation of a person, affected by a disability or illness (often in the prime of life), as ‘overcoming’ to succeed as a meaningful member of society and to live a ‘normal’ life (Smart, 2001). As in the case of Weihenmayer, the supercrip model is a common media frame for disabled athletes, who are, like women, generally excluded from mainstream sport media (Golden, 1992; Walsdorf, 2000). The impact of the supercrip model on those with disabilities and the wider culture, however, may be more assumption than reality. While research has explored how the supercrip manifests itself in coverage, it has yet to explore how consumers (disabled or otherwise) perceive it. Further, while critics argue that the supercrip demeans disability, researchers have, as yet, to explore how (or if) individuals inculcate the supercrip into a hegemonic worldview.

1.5 This research explored sport, media and hegemony in relation to disability through 10 in-depth interviews with competitive disabled athletes. It examined their reading of the supercrip model in mainstream sports media to ascertain how they accepted, negotiated or opposed the supercrip media model; it also explored their ideas for alternatives to a hegemonic, ableist frame on the disabled in sport. While this research cannot be generalized to the wider population, it does provide a starting point for exploring the role of the supercrip in the lives of athletes with disabilities and discussing their perceptions of its impact on the able-bodied majority.

2. Hegemony and media

2.1 Through (Gramscian) cultural hegemony, a capitalist culture’s most powerful economic groups obtain consent for their leadership through the use of ideological and political ‘norms’; social structures and relationships that help the powerful but disadvantage others are presented as ‘natural’ – the ‘way of things’. (Holtzman, 2000; Croteau & Hoynes, 2000; Altheide, 1984; Condit, 1994). Thus, social relations and political policy are framed within a worldview that serves the powerful but has gained passive acceptance from other groups that are oppressed by it.

2.2 Over the years, American scholars have adjusted Gramscian hegemony to fit what they argue are unique socio-political conditions in the United States and contemporary culture (Artz & Murphy, 2000; Condit, 1994). For instance, hegemony in the United States does not involve one small elite group, but an interlocking set of powerful groups (at varying levels) that amalgamate to oppress minorities (Condit, 1994). Further, the hegemonic process is complicated by competing systems of representation, via mass media (Lewis, 1992; Croteau & Hoynes, 2000). Because of the prevalence of ‘highly conflictual’ mass media, U.S. society is hegemonically contested terrain (Kellner, 1990). Thus, the state of hegemony is fluid, allowing for accommodation as groups seek to negotiate better social conditions for themselves, or ‘concordance’, as Condit calls it.

2.3 Mass media is key to the function of cultural hegemony in the United
States (Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Holtzman, 2000; Croteau & Hoynes, 2000). Scholars contend that mass media inculcate individuals with values and beliefs essential to institutional structures in society by adopting dominant assumptions and framing content within them (Croteau & Hoynes, 2000). Hegemonic ideas are presented as universally valid, and alternative views are appropriated into the dominant frame, which is consumerism (Artz & Murphy, 2000; Condit, 1994). Consumerism provides some groups with "disproportionate rhetorical advantage," writes Condit (1994, p. 220). Meanwhile, "some groups are not invited by mediators into the concordance at all" (Condit, 1994, p. 220).

2.4 Those groups shut out of concordance are woven into what some sociologists would call the ‘fabric of oppression’ (e.g. Holtzman, 2000). Fabric of oppression theory recognizes the privilege (or lack of) that comes with membership in powerful (or powerless) groups; members of disenfranchised groups experience internalized oppression, a result of the dominant messages they observe about the social hierarchy. They repeat the cycle of oppression as they transmit their observations as truth (Holtzman, 2000; Lewis, 1992). Artz and Murphy (2000) observe that oppressed social groups often eventually cooperate with their oppressors by giving up their struggle to gain better social status.

Mass media and the individual

2.5 The role of media in cultural hegemony, while quite powerful, is not total. While Gramscian hegemony assumes a source/message/audience model, scholars contend that consumers and mediators are key in a contemporary setting (Condit, 1994; Morgan, 1997; Kellner, 1990; Crane, 1999; Meenakshi, 1999; Lewis, 1999). Media messages are not entirely monolithic; media are really sites of ‘conflicted hegemony’ – that is, of constant negotiation and conflict among cultural ideologies (Crane, 1999). Media content is polysemic – multivocal and incorporating themes that speak to different publics (Condit, 1994; Crane, 1999; Croteau & Hoynes, 2000). However, as Duke (2000) argues, a text’s polysemic qualities do not neutralize its ideological potential.

2.6 However, media audiences are not ‘passive dupes’ who are completely controlled by dominant media messages (Lewis, 1999; Morgan, 1997). Media consumers are purposeful in their use of media for information and entertainment; they are also capable of interpreting texts in ways that are individually meaningful (Meenakshi, 1999; Lewis, 1999; Duke, 2000). While individuals may interpret media messages in a way that absorbs the dominant ideology, others may negotiate their acceptance of such ideology or reject it outright (Holtzman, 2000; Duke, 2000).

2.7 Meenakshi (1999) argues that factors such as the range of available texts and individuals’ access to oppositional codes help determine their ability to resist dominant ideological meanings in media. If such factors are strong, members of disenfranchised groups may be more likely to resist and oppose dominant messages, opening the way to renegotiate their place in the social order (Morgan, 1997).

3. Hegemony and sport

3.1 Like mass media, sport has also been viewed by scholars as a powerful hegemonic institution in the United States. As a multi-billion dollar industry, commercial sport has been pervasive in American society since the 1920s; the rise of the industrialist-capitalist era separated sport from its group and community origins for the purpose of selling it (Sage, 1990). Sport is an industry with paid labor and the private appropriation of such labor for a profit.

3.2 Sport media is an ideal site to reinforce American cultural values such as respect for authority, individualism and hard work (Trujillo & Vande Berg, 1989). One major concept of success in American culture is that it is a process of self-actualization and ‘being the best you can be’; success implies individual effort to overcome obstacles and better oneself. It is associated with traits such as self-discipline (Trujillo & Vande Berg, 1989).

3.3 The hegemonic emphasis on defining ‘success’ in sport media is a reflection of general capitalist values. American culture glorifies tales of the ‘rugged individualist’ by rejecting interdependence as weak and undesirable (Barr, 2000). Autonomy and physical fitness are valued, and physical dependence is generally viewed with disdain (Ashton-Shaeffer et al, 2001). Indeed, sport in its elite, commercial form reflects and projects itself on the surveillance, modification and manipulation of the body. Through sport, the body has become a site of struggle over symbolic and material rewards between dominant and subordinate groups (Rowe, McKay, & Miller, 2000).

Hegemony, gender and media

3.4 The most examined subordinate group in relation to the body and sport over the past several decades has been female athletes. Scholars have produced volumes of research that leaves little doubt about the marginalization and sexualization of women in sport (Mason, 1992; Walsdorf, 2000; Crane, 1999; Bruce, 1998). Further, they have implicated the media’s role in reinforcing women’s low status in sport. "The media, in their representational constructions, are important agencies in supporting and reinforcing this ideological hegemony, rendering it ‘natural,’ ‘normal,’ and therefore invisible," writes Mason (1992, p. 30).

3.5 A number of researchers have examined how girls and women read, negotiate or oppose hegemonic media messages, including those in sport and fitness media (Duke, 2000; Bruce, 1998; Crane, 1999; Meenakshi, 1999). Scholars have found that while many females respond to mass media by accepting dominant ideology, they are not uniformly vulnerable to media messages. They also may read messages thought demeaning by scholars as empowering. In one study of particular interest to this research, Bruce (1998) found that female viewers of televised women’s basketball games were aware of the dominant cultural meanings within media presentations of the sport (women as less able competitors, women as sexual objects). However, the viewers negotiated the coverage they saw and often rejected the embedded hegemonic messages, turning their experience with sport media into one they saw as empowering.

4. Hegemony, disability and sport

4.1 While sport media’s male hegemony has been recognized through scholarship and advocacy, its able-bodied hegemony, which reflects ableism in the larger culture, has gone virtually unnoticed. Disability is a socially constructed identity that has gone largely without criticism, as Davis (1999) writes:

It has become commonplace to talk about the ways that capitalism and imperialism have created a cultural hegemony … No one would dispute that women, gays, subalterns, people of color and so on have been marginalized … But the case of people with disabilities is somewhat different. Indeed, one of the most egregious acts of omission committed in the 20th century by progressives and radicals has been the almost complete ignoring of issues surrounding people with disabilities …An ableist cultural hegemony is clearly the rule. (p. 1).

4.2 Scholars argue that the emergence of a consumer-driven, capitalist economy in the United States has rendered people with disabilities invisible and undesirable. The ideal body is one that fits an environment constructed for the majority; people with disabilities are a liability for their inability to navigate it (Davis, 1999).

4.3 Hahn (1987) describes the media reinforcement, through mostly advertising, of the able-bodied ideal. The result has been a visual paradigm that "consequently reinforces the exclusion of marginalized groups such as visibly disabled adults from the work force as well as from other areas of community life," he writes (p. 565).

Disability and Sport

4.4 Despite cultural images to the contrary, many individuals with disabilities do not view their bodies as entirely weak, frail and imperfect, perhaps explaining the increase in their sports participation (DePauw, 1997; Hoffer, 1995). Participation in the Paralympics – the premiere elite sporting event for athletes with disabilities – has steadily grown over the decades; the 1996 Games drew more than 3,000 athletes from 103 countries (Schantz & Gilbert, 2001). Hoffer (1995) writes, "Really, the distinction between wheelchair racers and Olympians is fading at these high levels" (p. 65). Participation in sport "demonstrates that individuals with disabilities are more able and similar to their non-disabled peers than stereotypes suggest" (Taub, Blinde, & Greer, 1999, p. 1469).

4.5 However, "most of today’s sport fans and able-bodied athletes can’t truly imagine seeing an obviously ‘disabled’ athlete on the medal platform at the Olympic Games, with equal status to that of able-bodied athletes" (DePauw, 1997, p.424). Even the notion of ‘disabled sport’ might be likened to the same ideological paradox presented by that of ‘lesbian mother’ (Cherney, 2003; Thompson, 2002). Disability sport is not viewed as legitimate, but instead as something less (DePauw & Gavron, 1995). Disabled athletes report high levels of stigmatization – being stared at or having their entire identities construed in terms of their disabilities (Ashton-Shaeffer et. al, 2001).

4.6 Besides internalizing the idealized ‘normal’ body image, people with disabilities also internalize their oppression (Holtzman, 2000; Iwakuma, 1997; Smart, 2001). The media have been cited as a key site for the reinforcement of negative images and ideas in regard to people with disabilities (Auslander & Gold, 1999).

5. The media, disability sport and the supercrip

5.1 Research shows that over the past decade, coverage of disability sports has increased slightly (Schantz & Gilbert, 2001). However, authors of the most recent studies acknowledge that the marginalized role of disabilities in media coverage has not improved over the years. Reporters still focus primarily on the ‘disabled’ instead of the ‘athlete’ (Schantz & Gilbert, 2001). For instance, Jean Driscoll’s seventh win in the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon was framed as a ‘social event’ in a 1996 edition of Runner’s World, and CBS’ airing of the 1997’s ‘World’s Fastest Man’ competition included all events except one: a race between amputees (DePauw, 1997).

5.2 The Paralympics, the most elite sporting event for disabled athletes, receives scant coverage compared to the Olympics in the U.S. press. Coverage of the Salt Lake City games in 2002 was virtually non-existent in U.S. media but received generous coverage in the foreign press (Golden, 2002). Golden, who interviewed sports reporters at both events, found that many U.S. sports reporters did not view disabled sports as valid. Golden quoted one American reporter who said about disabled athletes and the Paralympics:

They can’t compete on the same level as the Olympic athletes, so it’s a bone

they throw to them to make them feel better. It’s not a real competition, and

I, for one, don’t see why I should have to cover it. (p.13)

The supercrip model

5.3 When athletes with disabilities are covered, they are most often framed as supercrips (Schantz & Gilbert, 2001; Schell & Rodriguez, 2001; Haller, 2001). This model involves presenting the disabled person as heroic by virtue of his or her ability to perform feats normally considered not possible for people with disabilities or by virtue of the person living a ‘regular’ life in spite of a disability (Clogston, 1991).

5.4 Disability advocates argue that the disabled hero model may be deeply moving for the able-bodied majority but is oppressive for those who are disabled (Shapiro, 1993). They argue that the supercrip, and its opposite but just-as-popular stereotype, the ‘helpless victim,’ are harmful (Wolfe, 2001; Iwakuma, 1997; Mitchell, 1989; Golden, 1992; Shapiro, 1993; Smart, 2001; Barr, 2000). While popular because of its inspirational element, the supercrip reinforces the low societal expectations of people with disabilities (Iwakuma, 1997; Golden, 1992); it also plants the idea that all people with disabilities should be able to accomplish at the level of disabled hero. Consequently, all people with disabilities are judged by the supercrip standard (Smart, 2001).

5.5 What makes the supercrip stereotype most egregious to critics, however, is the manner in which it emphasizes individual effort as a way to overcome societal barriers for people with disabilities. In other words, the living condition of people with disabilities is entirely their fault; they must adapt to living in an able-bodied environment (Clogston, 1991; Haller, 1999; Smart, 2001). As Golden (1992) writes, "If all we need is drive and spirit, there’s no reason to remove barriers, no reason to outlaw discrimination, and no reason to change society" (p. 42). The supercrip model also rests on the assumption that people with disabilities are social misfits (Clogston, 1991; Smart, 2001). In short, the supercrip model promotes ableism. Ableism is the oppression of people with disabilities, placing them at the bottom of a hegemonically defined social hierarchy where a higher value is put on ‘normal’ bodies that are part of the working majority (Smart, 2001).

5.6 There are alternative models to the supercrip; they frame disability as located in society’s failure to accommodate members of the population, treat people with disabilities as an identifiable group with legitimate grievances and access issues, or present disability as just one facet of a multi-dimensional, whole person (Auslander & Gold, 1999; DePauw, 1997; Clogston, 1990; Haller, 2000).

5.7 The supercrip and other models of disability have been studied in terms of their presentation through media content. However, they have not been approached from the perspective of the active reader or consumer. This research seeks to explore how the supercrip is accepted, negotiated or opposed by disabled athletes.

6. Method

6.1 This research explored sport, media and hegemony in relation to disability through 10 in-depth interviews with competitive disabled athletes about their reading of the supercrip model in mainstream sports media. It also explored their ideas for alternative media models that might replace a hegemonic, ableist frame on the disabled in sport. This study took a qualitative approach; it did not seek to generalize, but instead probes the particular experiences of a small group within the disabled sporting community to deepen understanding of the relationship between disability and media-facilitated hegemony in sport.

6.2 The criteria for participation in this study were being an active member of a competitive wheelchair basketball team and a willingness to take part. Participants signed appropriate consent forms. Participants in this study were 10 male wheelchair basketball players who practiced together informally in a university setting. Most played on different elite wheelchair basketball teams around the United States. Two had played on the 1996 Paralympic basketball team, and one player had been ranked as being the best in the world a few years earlier. Each player had at least one year’s basketball experience, and most of the players were also involved in other sports, from kayaking to tennis.

6.3 The participants’ ages ranged from 16 to 45 years; eight players were White, two were Black. They came from a variety of vocations, educational levels and socio-economic backgrounds.

Data collection

6.4 This study used the ‘auto driving’ technique (McCracken, 1988) to record the perceptions of wheelchair athletes in regard to sport media and to stories that relied on ‘supercrip’ or progressive framing of disabled athletes. Participants were each given money to purchase their favorite print sport media to bring to the interview. The media then served as stimuli for the interview; participants could provide more vivid interpretations and use the magazines to strengthen descriptions of their perceptions. A copy of Sports n Spokes (a disability sport magazine not available on newsstands but popular with disabled athletes) was also available during the interview for participants because they likely could not acquire this magazine in the time allotted to purchase their magazines. Participants were also asked to read two sports articles also used as interview prompts: (1) an article about former Phoenix Suns player Neal Walk, published in the May 1, 2000 issue of the East Valley (Ariz.) Tribune, and, (b) an Associated Press article, also published in May, 2000, about accessibility of golf courses. The article about Neil Walk was written with supercrip framing: It told the story of Walk’s years in the NBA before he was forced to use a wheelchair after surgery for a spinal tumor, and about his ‘withstanding a challenge’ by continuing his involvement with an NBA team from his wheelchair. Words like ‘inspirational’ and ‘phenomenal’ were used to describe Walk, and the article quoted him talking about working to get out of his wheelchair. The second article used progressive framing to focus on people with disabilities in the United States as a minority group with accessibility rights that were not being met. Using the Casey Martin case as a news peg, the writer described the concerns and discrimination faced by a number of average golfers who were disabled and responses from golf clubs that refused accommodation.

6.5 Each interview began with a ‘grand tour’ question (Crabtree & Miller, 1979): ‘Tell me, and show me, how you use sport media’. This invited participants to talk at length, using the magazine as a prompt. Participants paged through the magazines, providing comments on stories and photographs; dialogue was allowed to flow freely, with researchers referring to an interview protocol to make sure all issues were covered.

Participants were also handed a recent copy of Sports n Spokes, and then copies of the articles they read just before the interview. During discussion of the articles, interviewers asked a series of semi-structured questions about the athletes’ perceptions of issues raised by the framing used in each story. Interviews were audiotaped and then transcribed. Aliases were assigned to each participant to protect anonymity.

Data analysis

6.6 Three researchers independently examined the transcripts of the interviews for instances of language, descriptions of content, particular uses of text, and units of information. Using a variation of the constant comparison method (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), units were examined individually and sorted into sets. The three researchers worked separately using the data sets to construct themes of the wheelchair athletes’ perceptions concerning models used in media coverage of disability and sport, with special attention to their comments about the supercrip theme. The researchers then worked together to construct the final themes. Data was triangulated for trustworthiness. In order for a theme to be included in the findings, all three researchers had to agree on the inclusion of that theme. No themes were included unless supporting evidence of the theme was found in at least four of the interview transcripts (Goetz & LeCompte 1984).

7. Findings

7.1 The wheelchair athletes interviewed for this study were enthusiastic consumers of sport media, which they used to learn more about sport and to validate their own status as ‘athlete’. The participants also had an acute awareness of the supercrip in media coverage but varied in their level of acceptance of the assumptions embedded in it; they were not uniformly vulnerable to a dominant reading. They also showed preferences for other media models, but expressed fear that an ableist public would not accept more progressive coverage of disabled athletes.

Use of sport media

7.2 The 10 wheelchair athletes interviewed for this study reported themselves as avid consumers of sport media. They described themselves as consumers of general-interest and specialty sport media and of television programmes and events. Some were regular readers of the sports section of their local newspapers. The athletes reported using the media for several purposes: to learn more about their favorite sports, to seek able-bodied role models and to enhance their socialization with able-bodied peers. In other words, mainstream sport media is an important tool to ‘fit in’ the culture.

7.3 Players mentioned the importance of consuming mainstream media so they could strike up conversations with others; several players mentioned their reputations among friends as being knowledgeable about sports trivia and current events. They also sought sporting role models among famous able-bodied athletes they saw in media. They studied their favorite players in game situations, interviews and media features. One player said he likes to read about Dennis Rodman to get rebounding tips; another said that he read game stories to learn about player strategy. Still another, a 21-year-old player, said he liked Michael Jordan.

7.4 The athletes interviewed enjoyed paging through Sports n Spokes, a niche publication for disabled sports, but said they used the magazine for different reasons: as a way to keep up on ‘insider news’, to keep up with other disabled athletes, and to affirm their own status as ‘athlete’. They did not mention using the magazine to seek out sport role models in the same way they used mainstream media. Ethan, 41, pointed to articles about sports he wanted to try. "Why do I like it? Because it’s all about people like me. They’re in chairs, and doing all kinds of sports," he said.

Acceptance of the supercrip model

7.5 Most athletes talked at length about the supercrip model, although most (but not all) were unaware of the term. While they expressed misgivings, they were generally accepting of the practice as perhaps even helpful for disabled and non-disabled audiences.

7.6 Several athletes talked about the Neil Walk story as one that inspired them. They see the supercrip as valuable precisely because it highlights the ‘rugged determination’ of disabled individuals. John, 28, said he wanted to read something ‘inspirational’.

For somebody who just had a new injury, they’ll want to hear what happened to Neil, and how he endured – I mean, he was an athlete – he had a great life as an NBA player, but then, gosh, his life made a turnaround, and he just has to deal with it.

7.7 Vic said he read supercrip stories "all the time, because I can relate to them". He said about the Neil Walk story,

Me and him can relate, because we both have the same mental attitude, because in the middle of the article he says that he uses a chair that someday he doesn’t want to use anymore. And, I know that that’s got to be hard for him being able to walk and then being put in a chair, but I’ve been using a chair all of my life, and someday I’m not going to use my chair. I know that one day I’m going to be out of it.

7.8 The athletes also expressed a belief that stories that use the supercrip model are good for the able-bodied public, because they show disabled individuals in a "positive" light. They also show how "the human spirit can overcome," and they make the people feel good. Said Ethan:

I think that there is a popular perception that people in wheelchairs are just hopelessly limited by their disability, and that people feel sorry for them – or people feel sorry for us because we’re always in a wheelchair and they figure that we can’t do much of anything anyway. And stories like this refute that – that people in wheelchairs can be just as creative and productive as anybody else. I mean this guy is still working in sports! I mean that’s a real positive thing.

7.9 Joe, a 46-year-old player and avid sports media consumer, defended the supercrip model as one not particular to people with disabilities.

In all magazines you read articles about able-bodied people doing heroic things…Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean we can’t read about the good things they’re doing…do you read more about a disabled person doing something heroic or an able-bodied person doing something heroic? What’s the difference?

Negotiation or rejection of the supercrip model

7.10 Other athletes struggled with a dominant reading of the supercrip model, using their own life experience as reason to reject it. They said they fear that ‘hero’ coverage of people with disabilities simultaneously lowers and raises societal expectations of the disabled. Alan, 21, said the supercrip model puts him in an awkward position with people who look to any person with a disability as a potential hero or as someone who is virtually helpless.

I cannot count the number of times people have come up to me and said, ‘I just think it’s great you’re out doing this and that’ – like when I’m out at a bar. ‘I just think it’s awesome you’re here’, and I’ll say, ‘Why?’ Are they crazy? I’m at a bar!…People look at me like, ‘Oh, that’s so sad. You should be laying in bed everyday’.

7.11 Don, 42, who has been the subject of what he calls ‘supergimp’ (supercrip) stories, said he sees the value of the model for people with disabilities as what he called a "role-modeling" tool. But he echoed the same concern as Alan: "The risk with some of the supergimp stories is this – not so much stereotyping, but narrowing of expectation," Don said.

Preference for progressive framing

7.12 Most of the athletes interviewed said they got frustrated with the supercrip emphasis on disability sport as a ‘human interest’ story; more progressive models would illuminate their athleticism as valid. Joe, who often calls in wheelchair-game scores into his local newspaper, talked about his frustration with being shut out by sports editors.

They put in pages of high school sports, and yet they refuse to put [us] in…That’s so stupid! We’re athletes…One thing people probably don’t realize is that there’s 53 million disabled people out there. We’re probably the largest single group in the country.

7.13 Others talked about their desire to see sports coverage of disabled athletes that focuses more on the athletics and less on the disability. "You don’t have to focus on the fact that they play wheelchair basketball. Focus on the fact that they scored 21 points per game, 10 rebounds and the fact that he had a triple-double", said Alan. Ray said he’d rather not see more coverage of disabled athletics if it’s "going to make the general public say, ‘Ah, wow, the poor pitiful soul":

Talk about that person’s athletic abilities or the team’s athletic accomplishments, and it’s OK to mention a disability, because that’s what makes the person who he or she is, but you don’t focus in. The interest should not be that person’s disability…Maybe the people in the media need to have an in-service or a memo that says ‘these guys would rather be treated as athletes when you’re dealing with a sporting event, so let’s put the emphasis there’.

7.14 The interviewed participants expressed stronger support for the golf course accessibility story - a model that frames athletes with disabilities as a minority group with civil rights. Most participants expressed a preference for that model because they believed it presents them as ‘real’ to the able-bodied public and reminds the culture of a responsibility to accommodate the disabled community.

7.15 Although some athletes said they had never played golf, they said the story about golf course accessibility reflected the reality of their lives more accurately. Ray, 36, said he prefers progressive framing of stories because it emphasizes the social and physical barriers people with disabilities still face. "You know, this is the year 2001 and these same old barriers were in place when the first black man tried to get into a golf clubhouse – the country club. And the disabled are running into those same old barriers", he said. The athletes said the article that focuses on accessibility was also better for the able-bodied culture. Vic provided a list of examples.

They have to be aware … Restaurant owners will say, ‘Oh, we have ramps!’ Yeah, but they’re in the back of the building and the handicapped parking is up front, and the ramp should be up front so the person can just go straight up the ramp right into the restaurant.

Fears about media in an ableist society

7.16 Throughout the interviews, the athletes expressed an acute awareness of the hegemonic boundaries of U.S. mainstream media. While they expressed a preference for increased use of more progressive models for coverage, they seemed to believe that society would be less accepting of such changes. The athletes often spoke from a consumerist position; they expressed belief that supercrip stories "sell better" to an able- bodied population, and thus will always be preferred. "If it’s not going to sell, it’s not going to be there," said Mark.

7.17 Athletes voiced worry that too many stories presenting disability as a social issue makes people uncomfortable; they voiced sensitivity about society’s reception to media coverage that advocates for people with disabilities. One athlete expressed concern that too much of such coverage might make people resentful. Alan said:

It’s going to make everybody scared about doing stuff. They’re going to be so stressed out about looking for every little thing that a person in a wheelchair can complain about – they’re not going to like somebody with a disability right when they come to their golf course because they’ll think, ‘Because of you, we had to do all this crud and spend all this money’.

7.18 Ethan contrasted what he thought are cultural sentiments about the two types of articles.

I think that people don’t like to be pushed…Businesses, corporations, agencies in general don’t like to be told ‘you must do this or else!’ …You know, there’s this initial inertia to not change, and dealing with issues of accessibility are, in essence, things that are demanding change…I think the other article – people can relate to that and people can say, ‘Wow, he overcame. He’s not limited. That’s really good.’

8. Conclusions

8.1 The findings of this research indicate that these athletes struggled with finding an acceptable negotiated reading of the supercrip model. Their readings were infused with understanding of the hegemonic power of the supercrip model but an overall acceptance of the model as one useful as they negotiated their own lives. They also expressed hope for alternative models but feared that more empowering models would be rejected by an ableist culture.

8.2 While disability rights activists have long criticized the supercrip model as stigmatizing and patronizing, the disabled athletes interviewed do not see it as such. Further, some see value for their own lives in the supercrip. They did express concerns that ultimately, the model simultaneously lowers cultural expectations of disabled people while expecting all people with disabilities to become heroes. But they also saw the supercrip story as a way to increase the exposure of people with disabilities in the media, and they believed that supercrip stories gave a favorable opinion of people with disabilities.

8.3 There are perhaps several reasons for acceptance of the supercrip. One, mentioned by Meenakshi (1999), is the limited access disabled athletes have to oppositional codes and alternative texts. Athletes with disabilities have virtually no alternatives that would provide rejection of the supercrip model; the mainstream sport media they consume presents the supercrip as ‘normal’, as these media are already embedded with ‘hero’ themes. Stories of personal triumph are common fare on the sports pages, reinforcing the capitalist premium on individualism.

8.4 As avid sports fans, athletes interviewed for this study accepted the hegemonic presentation of sports heroes as natural for sports coverage. Thus, it would be reasonable to expect that they would be motivated and inspired by reading the disabled ‘hero’ story as presented via the supercrip. In fact, their own media provides virtually no opposition to dominant media messages; the supercrip story used in this study was later reprinted in Sports n Spokes.

8.5 Another reason for acceptance of the supercrip may be what Artz and Murphy (2000) say is the dominant frame in U.S. media: consumerism. Athletes expressed an understanding of their non-value in relation to sport as a revenue-making industry. This is consistent with the internalization of oppression (Holtzman, 2000).

8.6 The participants expressed a preference for alternative media models. However, they were also acutely aware that the kinds of more progressive coverage they seek may not sell (literally) to an ableist culture. For instance, while most said they really preferred progressive story models, they expressed fear that the overuse of such models might result in a negative backlash. This, along with their rationalization about the supercrip stereotype, seems to be a reflection of an overall acceptance of the dominant hegemonic message about disability. Cultural body norms and social expectations shaped their expectations, their motives and their fears. They reflected the force of great cultural pressure to accept the supercrip ideal and to reject ideas that might hold society more accountable.

8.7 Their preference for more progressive story models, however, was clear and valid. Even blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer, the ultimate media supercrip, wished for a frame that more realistically portrayed him. "I was simply a blind person who planned to climb a mountain and nothing more. But people sensationalize the lives of blind people when, often, all they did was exhibit a semblance of normalcy," he said (Kahn, 2001, p. F1). As these athletes increase in activity and stature, and reach critical mass through organizations designed to meet their needs, they might feel emboldened to demand more progressive coverage.


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