“Yes, I can.” Or so declares the Sammy Davis Jr. refrain throughout “We’re the Superhumans,” Channel 4’s (UK) commercial for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Slick, brisk, relentlessly upbeat, not to mention expensive, the advertisement opens with a snare drum, pulling-back to reveal that the drummer is drumming with his feet, and is part of an exuberant big band of disabled performers. From there, we are hurtled into a wheelchair race and a vibrant parade of disabled achievement.
The commercial follows-up on Channel 4’s prize-winning 2012 Paralympics trailer. While the earlier ad featured only athletes, the 2016 iteration shows people doing ordinary things as well. “Yes, I can”: drive a racecar, win a race, dance with verve. But also: be a parent, eat cereal, hold an office job.
“We’re the Superhumans” is compelling in many ways. It garnered major industry awards and remarkable play on social media. Around half of the UK watched the Paralympics after it was released. The ad features more than 140 disabled actors, breaking from the pervasive use of non-disabled actors for such roles. Commendably following accessibility standards, the ad was released with audio-description, sign interpretation, and captions.
Yet “We’re the Superhumans” grows out of a complicated history of exhibiting extraordinary bodies as spectacles for the non-disabled. As critics were quick to point out, the commercial does a cliché double-whammy, playing into stereotypes of both the supercrip (a disabled person with astounding capacities) and inspiration porn (disabled people doing ordinary things “in spite” of their disabilities).
Most of all, though, the ad’s celebration of individual ability relies on magical thinking: As if self-assertion were the recipe for social change. As if unenlightened people were the sole basis of disability oppression. As if that oppression had nothing to do with poverty and structural inequalities, race and class.
Only say the words—“Yes, I can”—and you will achieve. As if. Those of us with disabilities and disabled kin might wish to be “superhuman” in this way. While we enjoy watching the Paralympics, we don’t have the privilege of buying into that “Superhuman” view of things.