The media and the Internet are abuzz with the shooting death of law graduate and anti-domestic violence advocate Reeva Steenkamp in South Africa last week, an event made all the more prurient to many media consumers by the fact that the accused, her boyfriend, is a Paralympic and Olympic athlete with an international reputation. As the commentary spews on, over and over again I see the statement that he was a role model, icon, or hero, and I am driven to ask this: whose hero was he?
I am told he was a hero to the disability community before his ‘fall from grace,’ as though shooting your girlfriend multiple times in the head and neck after a history of domestic violence with her and other women is a ‘fall,’ rather than a ghastly crime for which you should be severely punished. This presumes that the disability community is a collective entity that thinks and moves in lockstep, which isn’t the case; for some disabled people, Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend undoubtedly was a role model, but to others, he was just an athlete. A very talented athlete performing at the peak of his game, because very few people qualify for the Olympics and Paralympics, but just an athlete. Full social integration to me means that disabled people are measured by their accomplishments and deeds, not their disabilities.
I suspect that Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend was more of an icon for the nondisabled community than for the disabled community, because of what he represented. His very mainstream successes; adapting to prostheses, becoming an extremely talented and driven runner, working with custom ‘blades’ that were his distinctive trademark, were what made him appeal to nondisabled people. His success as an ‘inspirational’ or ‘heroic’ icon lay precisely in his ability to pass, to conform as closely as possible to nondisabled norms, to become, in essence, one of them. He was safe, comforting, and familiar, presenting a framework of disability that suggested all disabled people aspired to be like nondisabled people, and could if they just tried hard enough.
He modeled a specific bootstrapping presentation of disability, one in which people ‘overcome tremendous odds’ and ‘keep persevering’ to achieve greatness. A very specific kind of greatness, one mediated by what is ‘great’ in nondisabled terms. The accomplishments of people like Paul K. Longmore and Laura Hershey, two of my personal disabled icons, aren’t widely known or celebrated in the nondisabled mainstream precisely because their accomplishments were so rooted in disabled identity and politics. They fought to liberate people from nursing homes and stereotypes, to create a world where disabled people were an active component of society as they were. They were frightening to nondisabled people in their expressions of independence, of disability pride, of ferocity.
Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend attracted attention because he matched with nondisabled expectations of what disability can and should be. And he was used, ruthlessly, as a tool for beating disabled people; if he can do it, so can you. Go watch him and learn from his amazing feats. Revel in the fact that a man born with congenital disabilities can run on two legs ‘just like a normal person.’
Shocked by the revelation that disabled people can actually be abusive assholes too, the nondisabled community has lashed out in confusion and bitter outrage. Suddenly their poster child, their supercrip, has been turned into yet another athlete caught up in a sordid and unpleasant domestic violence scandal, with a side of murder; possibly cold-blooded murder, according to some accounts. This upends everything they think about athletes, and about disabled people. They were the ones who put him on a pedestal, and they were the ones faced with figuring out how to take him off it again after learning who he truly was.
Intriguingly, their response has been to put him back in the corner with the other cripples. Rather than directly confronting domestic violence in athletics and the culture that obscured prior reports of violence involving Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend and other women, as well as Reeva herself, people chose to attack him on the grounds that he clearly wasn’t ‘one of them,’ because ‘they’ don’t do things like shooting their girlfriends. Abruptly, his honorary nondisabled person status had to be taken away.
Notably, the jokes that started flying around about him almost immediately focused heavily on his disability status; he ‘wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in court’ and ‘must have been legless at the time,’ commentators quipped on Twitter. Some argued that this was a case of resentment and jealousy: that an athlete at the peak of his career was bitter over his disability and took it out on his evidently nondisabled partner. This served dually to remind people both that he was disabled (as though they might have forgotten) and that inside every disabled person lurks a Bitter Cripple struggling to get out. Said Bitter Cripple, of course, can be violent and dangerous, angry at the world for not being nondisabled.
As more evidence and discussion rolled in, people turned to what they thought would be a fit punishment, and more than one person suggested that he should be ‘forced to go back in the chair,’ visualising this as the worst possible punishment for a man made famous by the prosthetic limbs he used to walk. As though there is something deeply wrong with using a chair for mobility. As though being a wheelchair user makes you less of a man; a common attitude held by nondisabled people, who view wheelchair users of all genders as desexualised and inanimate, objects rather than human beings. People turned vicious by the revelation that their icon was just another misogynistic athlete struck out in the way they thought would be most effective, by attempting to downgrade his status, visualising disability as The Worst Thing Ever, and suggesting that being forced to sit instead of walk would be a great comeuppance for their clay-footed hero.
At the same time the media linger over hero worship and elegies for Reeva Steenkamp’s boyfriend, Reeva herself is reduced to a background player; she is the one who died, yet she’s the one who’s usually not named until at least halfway down the page. She’s the one who died, yet the media focus on the fact that she was a model with, shockingly, modeling shots displaying her body. She’s the one who died, yet people are making her out to be a frivolous secondary story, rather than the core of the narrative: Reeva Steenkamp was in a relationship that may have been abusive, and no one talked about it because her boyfriend was an athlete, and Oscar Pistorius fired the gun that killed her.