The ‘Supercrip’ in sport media:
Wheelchair athletes discuss hegemony’s disabled hero
Marie Myers Hardin
College of Communications,
Center for Sports Journalism
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16801
Assistant Professor of Adapted Sport Pedagogy
University of Alabama
Department of Kinesiology
103 Moore Hall
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0312
Key words: hegemony, supercrip, sport media, disabled
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.
1.1 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,
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
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
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
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,
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, &
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,
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
they throw to them to make them feel better. It’s not a real competition,
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.
6.1 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.
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.
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).
7.1 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
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
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
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.’
8.1 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
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
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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