Friday, 22 February 2013

Oscar Pistorius: First, a Human Being

Sitting here with CNN's morning show on yesterday, waiting to hear whether disabled Olympian and Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was going to get bail (he did), I decided that it was time to write a blog post about him.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last little while (or on a deserted island, which definitely seems inviting for me some days), Oscar Pistorius has been charged with the premeditated murder of model Reeva Steenkemp, his girlfriend. It's all given new meaning to the phrase "media circus", and I've heard about most of the major developments as they happen this week (over and over) because, with the time difference, the bail hearing has been happening all week as I've been getting up.

For Those Who Don't Know Oscar Pistorius

(I didn't, before I started writing this blog.)

Oscar Pistorius is a South African sprint runner with two below-knee amputations.  In 2012 Oscar Pistorius was the first athlete to compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Oscar Pistorius is the runner pictured in the meme below, which some disability advocates consider "inspiration porn". I've definitely heard the word "inspirational" a lot this week, and the word "hero" as well. Many disabled and non-disabled people consider him a role model and proof that you can do anything you want to if you work hard enough (read why this sort of thing makes me uncomfortable here: )

Oscar Pistorius had been dating South African model Reeva Steenkemp since November 2012. She was found shot to death through a bathroom door in his home on February 13, 2013. Pistorius says that he didn't know it was her in the bathroom, and thought that she was an intruder.

A Long Way for Oscar Pistorius to Fall

I think that it's always a shock for people when someone that they really admire or that inspires them is charged with something like this. We tend to put our heroes on a pedestal and assume that they're not capable of terrible acts, and it's hard for us when they prove us wrong.

But I think that there's an extra layer to it when a disabled person disappoints us with their actions. I saw this a lot when I worked with intellectually disabled people, but I'd never really thought about whether I'd see the same phenomenon in physically disabled people. However, seeing all the tweets about how Pistorius could not have possibly done this, about how it all had to be an accident, a's made me start to wonder.

Pistorus' disability seem to put him on a much higher pedestal than non-disabled celebrities from which to fall.

When Disabled People "Fall" Every Day

I once worked with a family that was shocked by a letter from their intellectually disabled son's school. The school wanted to talk to them about how he was bullying another student, and then lying to teachers about it.

"I can't imagine him bullying anyone," his mother said. She really did look broken-hearted. "And I really didn't think that it would even occur to him to lie,"

I stayed silent, really not knowing what to say. I didn't know how to tell them that I knew that their son lied to them about things that had happened at school. I didn't want to tell them that I'd seen their son bully other students and take great glee in it.

There seems to be an expectation in society that disabled people are all naturally and authentically nice, noble, honest, caring, fun-loving, and incapable of behaviour that hurts others.

Some are. Some are lovely to be around. Just as there are lovely non-disabled people with all these qualities who lovely to be around. I try to be nice to be around. Like the lovely non-disabled people, I sometimes have days where I'm not.

And just as there are non-disabled people who aren't nice to be around, some disabled people aren't nice to be around *at all*. They're grumpy, they lie, they're manipulative, they pick fights, and they bully others.

Sometimes it's legitimately part of their disability, and very difficult for them to control. Sometimes it's not. A family came to me one time and told me that their 16-year-old intellectually disabled teen was being very irritable and disrespectful, and not doing what they told her to.

"We'll try and get a behavioural consult, to cover our bases," I said. "But that might not be her disability...that might just be her being a teenager!"

Oscar Pistorius: The Point

Maybe Oscar Pistorius is as great a guy as his supporters want to believe. Maybe he's just a stand-up guy, and his story that he didn't know it was Reeva Steenkemp in the bathroom is absolutely true, and part of the tragedy of this story is that a young man is, for the rest of his life, going to have to live with the fact that he shot the woman he loved.

Or maybe he's a cold-blooded murderer.

For better or for worse, his physical disabilities have nothing to do with which it is. Because, above all things, he's a human being. Like all of us, he's capable of brilliant things, and also capable of horrible things.

The more we can keep this in mind as we listen to coverage of his upcoming trial, the more we'll be able to keep in all in proper perspective.

Twitter reaction to Reeva Steenkemp's death:


  1. Amen, first a human being and also just a human being....

  2. Great post. When I first heard this story, I thought "oh no, there goes a disabled role model!" But putting anyone, disabled or not, on a pedastal, is asking for trouble. Thanks for such a thoughtful explanation of that.

  3. Yes, just a human being. The perfect follow-up.

  4. Hi Camilla! Yeah...that's what I was trying to get at. Some people read this as a defense of him, but my point was that no one knows one way or the other yet...and we have to be careful about what we let make the decision for us. I'm glad that the message was clear. Thank you for reading and commenting. :)