The Ableism of RSA’s ‘Crashed Lives’ Campaign

Driving is such an integral part of our lives that we rarely question how crazy it is. Every day, millions of people sit inside mobile chunks of metal, some of which weigh over two thousand kilograms, filled with highly flammable liquid that they consume in order to move several dozen miles per hour, all guided by a human being. A human being that takes time to process information, has hands that can slip off a wheel, has commitments that it will want to get to on time even if it means less than ideal safety checks, and can fall into a robotic trance as it guides its two thousand kilogram metal encased bomb on wheels at several dozen miles per hour.

And when we do such a thing, we should be really damn careful, because hitting a puny flesh-and-blood person with our heavy metal box (or another heavy metal box) is obviously a Bad Thing. It’s clear, though, we’re not always careful. Even ‘experienced’ (read: ‘old enough to forget about what was on the test’) drivers will forget to indicate on roundabouts, gun the engine before the seatbelt’s on, or not know what a traffic light going from green to solid yellow means (yes, I’m looking at you, the entire fucking population of Galway). With all this in mind, I’m almost always happy to see public service ads about road safety.

Almost.

Since 2007, Ireland’s Road Safety Authority has been running a campaign called ‘Crashed Lives’, a series of TV and radio advertisements showing people whose lives have been damaged by road accidents, theirs or others. A second campaign with three new ads was launched in 2008, and in recent months I’ve seen them on TV more often. I can certainly applaud the campaign for using real testimonies, which should keep the ‘oh, that’ll never happen to me’ crowd on their toes. Most of the ads are unique, detailing a separate issue (drunk driving, tired driving, concentration lapses, visibility jackets, proper seatbelt use, et al). However, there are three in particular that are a little problematic. I have to resort to links as their privacy settings won’t let them play while embedded.

1. Dr. Áine Carroll

2. Siobhán

3. Micilín

Though these three are the only ones I will be talking about, you can see the rest of the TV spots and hear the radio ads here.

It should go without saying that you should be careful driving, so as to avoid having anything like this happen to you. But the ads aren’t free of context. When your ad campaign is aimed at changing a culture, it situates itself in that culture. And this is where problems start to appear: how our culture treats disability and how these ads subtly (and, I hope, unintentionally) support that attitude.

Firstly, a very brief primer. There are two general ways of looking at disability: the medical model and the social model. The former sees the human body like a machine, that it has certain functions and people with disabilities are in a sense ‘broken’ and must be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’. The latter view was formed as a reaction to the first, and it emphasises that people without the entire range of bodily function are ‘disabled’ in the sense that society, from attitudes to architecture, is constructed in a way that restricts them and privileges able-bodied* people. Rather than just focusing on developments in science and medicine, proponents of the social model of disability seek to allow for greater accomodations for people with disabilities – in the way buildings are constructed, in the way social support schemes are structured, and in the attitudes of ‘normal’ people. The broken leg isn’t the problem, the sideward glances and rail-less staircases are. I go to university on a campus where a maze-like library is worsened by hidden lifts, some lecture theaters are borderline innaccessible to those who cannot walk, a day without using staircases is considered a huge challenge, and the office for the disability support service is on the second floor.

There’s that awful word, normal. When I use it here, I’m talking about ‘normal’ according to the society that’s influenced by the medical model of disability, the one that sees disability as a ‘defect’ in itself. When I say “disability is a social construct” I refer to the fact that ‘disability’ is just a word, but one that’s given meaning and connotation by use. It’s the way society draws lines in the sand and categorises people, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, and most importantly the way in which it casts disability, in itself, as debilitating and ‘not normal‘.

Which brings us back to the advertisements. Pay attention to the first two, and the first in particular. Note how much time is spent looking at objects rather than people, the still, slow lingering shots over wheelchairs, canes, physiotherapy equipment, prosthetic limbs. These are the icons that the RSA wants you to identify as a ruined, or in their terms, ‘crashed’ life. Not income inequality, not the costs of assisted or adapted living, not difficulty in finding employment, not having to take ‘the long way round’ nine times out of ten (if you can get there at all) and most certainly not the internalised ableism and deep-seated self-loathing that comes from living in a world where the nonconventionally-abled are subject to stares, prejudice, feelings of inferiority and a mass media that tells them they are broken, invalid and worth less than the ‘normals’ – including poorly thought-out road safety advertisements.

The focus on the physicality is brought to a head in the third video. My jaw dropped when he semi-jokingly said “and now I look drunk all the time”. The ability to ‘laugh at yourself’ is usually something desirable, but when you place a comment like that in our society, there’s a severe problem behind it: it’s a very damaging stereotype and way of perceiving people.

So much bigotry and xenophobia is rooted in and fostered by irrational, visceral gut reactions. “They’re ugly.” “It’s icky.” “Why would a man kiss a man?” “He talks funny.” “Look at that scar.” We live in a society where so many of us are guilty of oppressing the disabled without realising it. The words we use as synonyms for ‘stupid’ reinforce the beliefs entrenched in society that the disabled are ‘lesser’ – none of those slurs need to be listed here, but suffice to say there are far, far too many of them and they concern both physical and mental disability. And when it’s acceptable to use the ‘other’ to insult anyone, that society creates and fosters prejudice and tells privileged people that their bigotry based on ‘ew, they’re different!’ is justifiable.

As I’ve said before, I think it’s great that the campaign uses real life people and their accounts, but it’s shocking how it can try to be so intimate and at the same time end up being so othering. Remember when I talked about those lines in the sand? These ads for Crashed Lives deepen and try to validate those lines. On their own, it’s a message of “take precautions so you don’t end up impaired.” In the context of an ableist society, it translates to “take precautions so you don’t end up like one of them. You don’t want to be like the other ones, do you? You want to be one of us. Not icky. Normal.”

It (hopefully accidentally) ostracises the disabled by playing on the emotions of people whose society tells them that these people are ‘broken’. The RSA needs to rethink its views on disability, especially if they’re going to broadcast them to the public for their own good. Why were these lives ‘crashed’? Was it because of the impairments resulting from their accidents? Or is it how these lives were repositioned in the social order because of those impairments? What’s the greater harm done, the crash, or the ongoing prejudice?

* Though I use ‘able-bodied’ here as the ads in question mainly reference physical disability (and more importantly, the physical and visible effects of disability), ableism also refers to negative attitudes regarding those with mental disability (as in the third video and many ableist slurs as outlined above) and can refer to the treatment of people with mental illness.

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