When Jessie J cried upon hearing 34 year old Tim McCallum’s performance of Nessun Dorma on The Voice last Tuesday night, I immediately thought of Stella Young’s stance on inspiration porn. You know, disabled people applauded for doing ordinary things. Like banking or working.
Tim is a brilliant singer, who just happens to be in a wheelchair. That’s his backstory. Like X-Factor winner Dami Im was born in South Korea and came to Australia when she was nine. Like Shannon Noll worked on the family farm prior to coming second to Guy Sebastian on Australian Idol. And like Karise Eden was a foster child. Those are the facts of their lives. Every successful reality TV star has a back story. That’s the dramatic effect the producers employ. Contestants rising above adversity tug at the heart strings.
One thing I like about talent shows like The Voice and Masterchef is the diversity they showcase. Contestants are from different countries and religions, have various disabilities and sexual orientations, which represents the richness of our community more than fictional TV.
Tim was paralysed from the neck down after a surfing accident when he was 19. He only has use of his arms.
Tim told The Voice coaches “My level of injury is quite high and I don’t have the use of my stomach and diaphragm … I invented different ways to hit the notes.” Singing is hard work for him. Ricky Martin called him a “miracle”, which might make disability activists uncomfortable, but it IS really amazing that he’s trained himself to sing using different parts of his body. That’s his reasonable adjustment.
The late Stella Young did great work speaking up about inspiration porn. She wrote “[Inspiration porn is] there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life”. It’s there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think “well, it could be worse… I could be that person”.
Stella continued: “My everyday life in which I do exactly the same things as everyone else should not inspire people, and yet I am constantly congratulated by strangers for simply existing.
Have a think about why you think someone with a disability inspirational.
Is it because their situation makes you feel better about yours? Or are they actually doing something really amazing?
Tim McCallum is not just doing something ordinary. This guy isn’t just buttering his toast or doing the groceries while in a wheelchair. He’s singing opera live on national prime time TV. Being judged by international singers and social media audiences.
And I think we need to give him credit for his achievements. Making The Voice is a big deal for anyone. He’s been a singer for years – and this program might just give him the break he needs.
Sarah Barton, founding series producer of No Limits – the community TV program that launched Tim’s media career (and where he shared the desk with Stella Young) believes it is great we are seeing positive stories about disability in the media. “Anything that puts a disabled person in the spotlight alongside everybody else, achieving something is fantastic”, she says. Sarah has known Tim for many years and says his aspiration has always been to sing.
Tim’s not calling himself inspirational, telling The Today Show “I try to blow that myth out of the water that you can actually sing while you’re sitting down.”
We do need to question why Jessie J was moved to tears, and why audiences found Tim inspirational. Was it because Tim has a disability, or because he’s got amazing talent? Perhaps it’s also because the show’s judges, producers and audience haven’t been exposed to disability? And are they reacting the same emotional way to contestants without disabilities?
The ongoing problem with the portrayal of people with disabilities is they’re only ever tragic or heroic, never just living an ordinary life. I think Tim just wants to sing – and working hard at his talent – and his talent is a part of his ordinary life. I don’t think Tim wants to be a superhero in a wheelchair. I think he wants (and deserves) a record deal and a season at the Opera House.