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Disability Representation at Super Bowl XLIX: Why It Matters

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There are three kinds of people who watch the Super Bowl:  the fanatics who proudly proclaim that football is their religion; people who solely watch for the commercials; and those who flip the channel just in time to catch the halftime performance.  For Super Bowl XLIX, I had membership within all three groups; I am a budding football fanatic, but I also enjoy the hypeness surrounding the 1-2 minutes commercials that are meant to entertain us as much (if not more than) as the game.

This year’s Super Bowl advertisements did not disappoint; there were several “emotional roller coaster” moments experienced by viewers evoked from commercials created to open our eyes and minds about the realities underrepresented or ignored groups experience.  The disabled community was one of those overlooked groups who had America’s attention Sunday evening with two powerful commercials that shattered misconceptions about the disabled experience.

Amy Purdy’s How Great I Am:  Presented by the Bold New Camry (Toyota)

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To say that this commercial did not make me proud as a disabled woman would be erroneous; I could not contain my excitement when I saw Amy Purdy on the screen.  Amy Purdy came on my radar when she danced with Derek Hough on “Dancing with the Stars” last spring.  Amy is a Paralympic snowboarder; she is also a double amputee who lost her legs when she was 19 years old due to a bacterial meningitis infection.  Amy has such a powerful aura about her, and when she was on DWTS, I was amazed at her elegance, pose, and toughness in the competition as the first physically disabled woman to dance on the series.

Amy’s determination and fearlessness as a disabled woman is impactful to those like myself, and those traits that makes Amy so influential were seen by millions Sunday night when she starred in Toyota’s commercial for its Camry.  The commercial’s title, “How Great I Am,” fits Amy’s accomplishments as an athlete with a disability perfectly.  Hearing the iconic voice of the legendary Muhammad Ali in the background as we got a glimpse into the life of the 2014 Sochi Paralympics bronze-medal winning athlete, and her many talents and passions for dancing, modeling, and keeping her bionic legs in prime condition, were pivotal in ways I cannot even describe as a disabled woman.  The media typically shares two themes of the disabled experience: disaster or inspiration.  This commercial did neither; Amy is living the life she is destined for, and the commercial showed that her disability is not a tragedy, but a triumph.

To be afforded the opportunity to be represented during the Super Bowl will undeniably impact the way disabled girls and women view their disability.  We now have a role model of our own whose unapologetic boldness in pursuing her dreams has loosen the societal “shackles” on what we believe we can pursue and achieve in our own lives.

Microsoft Super Bowl Commercial 2015:  Braylon O’Neill

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Protecting and empowering our disabled children is an enormous advocacy focal point of mine, and the Microsoft commercial featuring Braylon O’Neill, a precocious, independent, and athletic six year old, caught me dead center in the feels.  Braylon was born without the tibia and fibula bones in both of his legs, and at 11-months old, was fitted with his first pair of prosthetics.  The commercial showcased Braylon’s journey in his young life getting acquainted with his prosthetics, and becoming a champ in baseball.  Braylon’s ability to be an independent and active kid is due to the technology Microsoft has designed to assist in improving the quality of life those with disabilities desperately strive for.

What stirred my enthusiasm about the commercial, beyond Braylon’s adorable spirit (and utter cuteness), is how technology affords disabled persons, regardless of age, the chance to explore the world they live in with fewer barriers than ever before.  Adaptive technology means inclusion for so many of us; experiencing inclusion in one’s environment validates that individual’s personhood and existence as someone with a disability.  As someone who benefits from adaptive technology (e.g., I wear digital hearing aids), it speak volumes to have Braylon’s story highlight how it is imperative for us as a society to support and fund technological research and innovations.  Microsoft is not the only company to make strides in this segment of the technology realm, but using this commercial as a strategic way to be viewed as a prominent innovator will greatly influence other corporations to put adaptive technology on their radar.  There is plenty of room for organizations and individuals to leave their adaptive technology “footprint;” the hope is for this commercial to influence and spark initiative so that the Braylons of the world can live life without obstacles.

Final Thoughts:

It was a welcomed surprise to see empowering disability representation while watching the Super Bowl.  The current lack of visibility in the media is problematic for the largest minority group in America.  Our stories matter, and it is long overdue for us to be seen beyond the offensive and inaccurate stereotypes about who we are.  Sunday night was truly historic, but it cannot end there – we have to demand more positive representation that includes those who are of color, LGBTQ+, and other identities that members within this diverse group possess.

ACTION TIME:  What kind of representation would you like to see more to close the media visibility gap?  What companies do you believe would be appropriate to support our community like Toyota and Microsoft?  Share your thoughts by ramping your voice!

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Free All Pictures.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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