How Do You See Me?

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.)

6 comments

  1. Good points Rick. I can never understand this premise and I’ve seen it so often not just with disabilities!
    Debbie Pham

  2. As the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, I TOTALLY agree with you! I too get the message, but think that she could be seen (by herself and others) as “ordinary” WITH her beautiful Down syndrome face. It’s definitely a skewed message.

  3. I’m perplexed by the angry responses. I feel that the girl at the end was as beautiful as Olivia and has an empowering message. Why can’t someone with a disability actually see themselves like that? The point of showing the actress was to create an impact on those who don’t get it. We live in a world where people need powerful images to impact the full message. Honestly I believe the young lady narrating was just as beautiful. That’s the point. Stop getting bent out of shape about things that are trying hard to bring light to real issues. Down Syndrome is no excuse for treating humans with this different or less and they are as beautiful as what is considered “beautiful” in our “society”. The message that she sees herself as strong and capable on top of all that. I applaud the young lady for narrating and sending that clear message with her in the end. She is the person they will remember. I get those with children who have Down Syndrome may be caught off guard and be defensive but please listen and look at the message and the young woman at the end! Empowering!! (Yes I have a child with Downs Syndrome as well)

  4. I get it. I didn’t see it till the end though but I do get the message. Whether we see it in ourselves or not, we tend to love but pity people with so called disabilities. Unless your heartless everyone does. What she is saying, is she doesn’t want your pity and doesn’t see herself as having a disability. You do, She sees herself as a beautiful women that can do anything and you should see her that way too. She is saying, you should see the same in her as you did in other women. I think it was a great message.

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