I began covering blind sports in 1987 after medaling in my first Boston Marathon (Visually Impaired division) and receiving from the state a computer to make a writing career accessible.
I’ve cherished moments when work and disability dovetailed with adventure — like the summer I cycled from Seattle to Asbury Park, N.J., to raise awareness of albinism. I felt fortunate during such pursuits; not special, never inspiring.
In recent years, while writing my blind sports encyclopedia, I was amazed how thoroughly the lives of disabled people had been transformed: miracles (self-driving cars and smartphone apps that scan and read text aloud) had become mundane, while culture had elevated the Paralympics and embraced programs such as the Wounded Warriors.
I’ve seen barriers obliterated in every area of life — except the nightly news. To this day, networks remain mired in their maudlin use of inspiration to shape stories about disabled people.
There’s nothing wrong with inspiration when you find it, but when it’s packaged for you, stories become a beatific bait-and-switch that turn euphoria into faux engagement and shift the focus to the viewer’s own ability to feel.
Here are two recent examples of stories that ended network news broadcasts.
A piece on a blind marathoner featured on-camera interviews with her three sighted guides, each expounding on their life-changing experiences. The runner appeared at the end, her gush of gratitude centered on a narrow smartphone screen — not exactly an afterthought, but more a response to the story than its focus.
After the California School for the Deaf’s historic football season last year, I assumed one of the stories would mention that the huddle originated at Gallaudet University, or discuss crowd noise by describing how the team calls plays. Neither came up. And why should they? When stories exist to offer hope after the hard news, facts become frivolous and risk staunching the flow of empathy by forcing connections too close to the game that viewers know.
And that’s why this approach is so patronizing and inappropriate. These stories are not designed to inspire, but to separate. They offer viewers a bulwark against believing disability has anything to do with them apart from compassion, which, once felt, frees the audience from any further involvement.
Networks rarely acknowledge disability as a demographic, even though it now includes 1 in 5 Americans, and increased longevity means most of us will age into some form of sensory or activity limitation.
What’s especially irksome to me is how the ubiquity of sports imbues profiles of disabled athletes with empathy that’s genuine and almost inescapable.
In my 30 years of interviewing blind athletes and adaptive sports professionals, the word “inspiration” never came up.
What has emerged is body of work that lays out every motivation that makes people move (whether toward the park or the Paralympics) with stories that dial down deification, remind viewers of their own pursuits, and feature solutions showing blindness as a condition that is managed rather than endured.
For example, here are some observations on Alpine skiing and biathlon, two sports for which vision seems indispensable.
Downhill skiing doesn’t require eyesight. True, one must avoid obstacles, but eyes are just one way such life-or-death details reach the brain. Skiing’s kinesthetics are all about the body. Blind people may learn by gripping a pole held between two instructors (or tethered to one) to develop the feel for sliding into turns.
Once they can control their speed, they can ski with a guide and listen for directional cues via two-way helmet radio, commands that might include grid numbers to hold the center of the trail and a danger-averting safety word necessitating an immediate drop to the ground.
Most people, on hearing “blind biathlon,” quip, “A blind skier with a rifle? Are you kidding me?” The first thing you should know is that blind people are just as likely to make that joke and most prefer humor to woke-wary silence.
The rifles blind biathletes use have acoustic scopes that shoot light beams instead of bullets. After a sighted guide orients the athlete on the range, the athlete dons headphones attached to a computer running a program that converts light into sound. As the skier aims, he or she listens for beeps that quicken to a continuous tone and rise in pitch as the laser dot nears the center of the target.
Such stories, set in an expanding infrastructure of inclusion, address fear with fact. These stories make disabilities (even blindness) less daunting and foster immediate connectedness by reinforcing sports as a shared human experience.
These stories also offer the media a solution for lessening the disparity between how disability lives in reality, and how it’s perceived and presented. Such stories can swap “inspiration” for facts and understanding that can calm the audience’s fear of disability.
Andrew Leibs is an author in Portsmouth, N.H. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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