Have you seen the banner ad below, featuring a wiry, muscular and thoroughly cool-looking guy in a wheelchair? This ad [my copy comes from www.lovebyrd.com, a dating site for people with disabilities] promotes Disaboom, a site of news, networking and such for people with disabilities and their hangers-on.
I’ve been wanting to address this ad for a while because I feel ambivalent about it. I really like the concept of Disaboom, right down to the name, which contains enough association with the familiar term “disability” so that viewers know what it’s about, but adds the “boom” so that the result sounds like a magical exclamation or an energetic comic-book sound effect. A quick glance at the sight, which divides into Health, Living, Community and Jobs, shows that Disaboom confronts the major concerns of people with disabilities [i.e., notice that Health is one of the primary ones!], but does not emphasize the limitations of disabilities. Instead, with categories like Community and Jobs, Disaboom highlights that the concerns of people with disabilities are universally human ones for a productive existence and companionship. So I’m all for Disaboom as a site.
However, I feel that this ad has both positive and negative points. On the plus side, the man in the ad contradicts the prevailing stereotype that people with disabilities, especially people who have paralyzed lower extremities, completely lack sexual interest, experience and desire. The man is presented as a sexually active person who doesn’t have any time or patience for stupid misconceptions about people with disabilities. Since the ad is aimed presumably at people with disabilities, the audience will probably not put themselves in the place of “people who have stupid misconceptions about the sexuality of disabled people,” but will instead identify with the man, saying to themselves, “Yeah, I have romantic and/or sexual interests and, like this guy, am sick of being seen as asexual!” This appeal to the audience members’ frustration and intelligence will likely motivate them to click through and see what’s going on. I also appreciate that the man is portrayed as confident, active and independent.
On the negative side, the subject of the ad is, as far as I can tell, a hard-bodied Caucasian guy. In other words, he fits many of the current bourgeois American standards for attractiveness [white, muscular, male]. Needless to say, people with disabilities come in all colors and genders, so I think that the ad would be more effective if it were a series, each with a different character with a different race, sex and disability. [That would be kind of hot, actually. Off the subject a bit, I’m picturing a poster showing a grid of photos with all types of people, all types of romantic encounters, all types of disabilities, and the legend LOVE KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES.] The fact that there’s only a muscular white guy representing “sexual activity” glosses over the fact that people of other races, genders and disabilities have interests in sex and romance too.
Also on the negative side, not only is this guy the picture of modern white bourgeois hegemonic masculinity, but I can’t shake the feeling that he’s also passing as non-disabled. Tattoos aside, he looks like a non-disabled guy sitting down in a chair that just happens to have wheels. While some people indeed use wheelchairs with no back and no handlebars and a low-slung profile, other people with disabilities have much more obvious tools that they use; an electric wheelchair, for example, can have six wheels, headlights and tail lights, a control box with joystick and horn, storage pouches on either side, footrests, leg braces, head rest, reclining seat, adjustable cushions and posture support, a backpack on the back and an obvious computer on board, all of which are much more obvious than a discreet little set of wheels under your butt. Here’s a randomly selected six-wheeler, the Invacare Pronto M94, just for your information, the likes of which I see much more regularly than the chair shown in the Disaboom ad. I feel that the Disaboom ad downplays the unavoidable obviousness of some mobility aids in its attempt to make the guy in the picture seem more stereotypically “non-disabled.”
All in all, though, I think this ad is a great start, provocative and well done. I’d just like to see it as the first in a series, though, featuring a wide array of colors, shapes, sizes and disabilities.