I continue to be perplexed by this ad. In it, a woman with Down Syndrome begins narrating “This is how I see myself.” This narration overlays images of Olivia Wilde living her life, the full range of human experiences and emotions. It should be noted that Wilde is an attractive actress and has a striking appearance on screen. The narrator goes on to describe the events unfolding, the possibilities for her life. She says, “I am an ordinary person.” Inspirational music swells. At the end of the ad, the camera pivots in a 180 away from Wilde to show the narrator. She then asks us, “How do you see me?” This has spawned the #HowDoYouSeeMe hashtag on Twitter. In describing this ad, I noted the general attractiveness of the actress performing in it, and I do so not to draw a contrast between her beauty and the beauty of the woman narrating; however, I cannot help but feel that there is contrast being drawn nonetheless. The woman speaking and narrating, giving voice to worlds of possibilities, is disabled while the actress on screen does not share in that particular disability. We, the audience, are being asked to confront our preconceptions. But what about the ad’s preconceptions? This young woman sees herself as a normal, ordinary person going through life. And why shouldn’t she? The ad’s view of “normal” at first does not seem to include disability. The disabled body is effectively erased in the ad except in the form of a spectral voice and the final image. This is a visual version of a statement I’ve heard again and again – “You’ve done so much despite your disability.”
I do understand it. Really, I do. I get a steady stream of patronizing and sometimes demeaning attitudes from people who only seem to see my wheelchair. And yet, I feel it is impossible to read this video as having any other message than “Inside every disabled person is a ‘normal’ attractive person just waiting to be recognized.” I’m uncomfortable with the insinuation of normativity that hangs over the ad. I do not think it is intentional, and I think this ad is, in fact, well-intentioned, but I agree with David Perry that it is an absolute failure.
Most importantly, I do not think it is possible to see past one’s disability, to extract those impairments and differences and prostheses from a person’s identity or sense of self. Nor do I think it is possible to experience life separate from one’s disability and difference. For someone to say they see me and not the wheelchair is disingenuous at best, and a fantasy at worst. There is no there there. I can only speak for myself, and I cannot speak on behalf of of the Down syndrome community. But I do think there is a harmful message inextricably caught up in this ad, no matter how well-intentioned it is.
So, please no videos where I am narrating over Bradley Cooper doing mundane yet cool stuff. (Okay, if he wants to do a video for me to narrate I’m happy to do so as long as it’s not inspiration porn.)