There are No Infirmities: Disability in Post-ADA Media

video stills showing a black computer monitor with the white text “there are no infirmities,” and a black-and-white image of a light-haired, white girl holding her fist (perhaps the sign for “S”) to the camera

In her 2002 book Cybertypes, cultural theorist Lisa Nakamura analyzes an advertisement by the late-twentieth century telephone company MCI (above), titled “Anthem.” The spot begins with a range of characters declaring the end of identity differences in the utopic digital era. “There is no race,” says a white woman, while a young, seemingly South Asian girl crosses the word “Race” off a blackboard; “there are no genders,” “there is no age,” echo other voices with clips of a multi-racial collection of children and older adults. Finally, a light-haired, white girl appears, standing between shelves in a library, using American Sign Language with the voiceover “there are no infirmities.” It is hard to see what her signs are, as her clip is interrupted by the image of the phrase repeated across a computer monitor screen, but she seems to be finger-spelling.1

Disability as Diversity

As Nakamura points out, this MCI ad is one of many in the late 1990s that depicted “spectacles of race” in support of an argument that internet technology would be able to “break down racial and ethnic differences.”2 Ads for MCI, IBM, and other technology companies, Nakamura shows, used visible otherness, ironically, to depict a world freed from the perceived downsides of race, gender, age, and disability identities — a space of “only minds,” in the words of the “Anthem” ad.

This advertisement fits well into the phenomenon Nakamura discusses in which a utopian idea of internet-enabled connectedness is illustrated by stereotypes of the non-Western Other. But, it is worth noting that the presence of disability is not coded as “global” but instead American and white, with the particular version of whiteness that is embodied in innocent children. In this sense, the phenomenon follows on decades of young disabled people as “poster children” for charitable campaigns such as the March of Dimes, which funded polio research. However, coming out during a period of increased visibility for disabled Americans in the aftermath of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, it identifies disability among other categories of legally protected civil rights, including race, gender, and age. And, like the united global world that tech ads often promised, the proclaimed end of “infirmities” implied the disappearance of disability as an identity category almost as soon as it appeared.

Disability-as-diversity within commercial media is also significant to the ADA era because the law expanded civil rights that had been established earlier, from 1973, in federal and state contexts. The ADA’s innovation was to assert the rights of disabled people in the private sector, as consumers and workers. And as this advertisement shows, while the ADA more firmly established disability within American civil rights protections than its precedents, it also enfolded disability into a neoliberal rights culture that flattened difference into a mere issue of market participation. The “Anthem” ad’s added cues of distancing such as the obscuring of the girl’s signs and the vague euphemism “infirmities” illustrate how legal protections often fell short of cultural understanding.

Everything is an Experiment

Other media of the 1990s also introduced disability in diversity narratives. In 1998, Tibor Kalman, a Hungarian American advertising director whose design work included Benetton’s quasi-political/cultural magazine Colors, constructed a photo essay that implied both wonder at, and critique of, the media world in which he operated. The photo essay included colorful images of goods and people, including vaguely non-Western images: the opening page depicted a jumbled shop or storeroom filled with plastic vessels—buckets, jugs, basins—with a brown-skinned woman seemingly searching among them with her back to the camera, under the yellow sans-serif type that read simply, “I’m not sure.” In other pages of the essay, Kalman notes the tremendous wealth and inequality of his era, with republished images that capture both the saccharine—a line of flight attendants clapping a welcome to an unknown airport—and the rugged—a peeling wall advertisement for Coca-Cola over a trash-strewn city street, with a family carrying goods on their heads walking below.

On the thirteenth page of the twenty-one-page spread, Kalman included a photograph of a seemingly white man, walking with purpose across the frame on sports-style prosthetic legs with curved metal foot pieces. On this image, the text reads “Everything is an experiment.” For Kalman, who had included controversial content about AIDS, racism, and violence in Colors, disability was another addition to his visual catalog. Positioned next to an image of developing-world children at play, the layout suggests, as the MCI ad did, the disabled figure as another “experiment” for global capitalism (even if this was an idea that Kalman was himself ambivalent about).

Thirty years later, the MCI ad and Kalman’s photo essay bring us back to the period of the ADA as one in which disability was increasingly visible in U.S. media and aligned directly with other categories of social and legal difference. However, these examples also suggest the shortfalls of “being included.” In a piece published in 2001, Rosemarie Garland Thomson proposed various genres of disability representation in photography. In most of these, she noted, disabled people were “to-be-looked-at rather than to-be-embraced,” and rarely was this gaze meant for disabled people to see themselves.3

In these technology and media images of the 1990s, disabled figures are visibly distinctive, representing the variety of identities to be incorporated into late-twentieth century capitalism. And given the ADA’s implications for the structures and devices of everyday life, these ads also reaffirm the role of technology in creating this individualism. In the MCI ad, the phrase “there are no infirmities” is followed by “only minds,” suggesting a smoothing-over of communication differences through the screen. Likewise, Kalman’s prosthetic wearer shows the amputee steadfast, surging ahead, an individual in motion. As Ashley Shew has noted, when prosthetics are presented as redeeming disabled bodies, technology becomes an imperative, not a site of pleasure or agency. Both advertisements also picture these disabled people alone, another cue to the individualism of these rights protections, in contrast to the community activism that had produced the legislation.

Diverse Advertisements

In 2020, “diverse” advertisements that include disability are all too familiar. We might think of many media examples that intermingle visual markers of disability with those of gender, race, or age to suggest inclusiveness. In an Amazon advertisement from this pandemic summer, for example, “Ricardo,” a deaf man, signs a narrative of working in the company’s warehouse and supporting his family. Like the 1990s advertisements, “Meet Ricardo” is one in a series (“Meeting the Moment”) that showcases the diversity of the Amazon workforce. The one-minute spot goes beyond the 1990s advertisements that gave a single frame or scene to a disabled person and rendered ASL unreadable (although, wearing his mask, Ricardo is unable to show the facial expressions that are also part of sign languages).

Further, in presenting a Latinx deaf man with a family, the Amazon advertisement encompasses a greater range of identities for its subject. Still, the “Meet Ricardo” spot echoes the 1990s message of disability seamlessly incorporated into a diverse workforce. Thirty years after the ADA, the message of disability as a form of diversity that contributes to, rather than challenging, American corporate individualism persists.


Bess Williamson, a white woman with straight brown hair, stands and smiles at the camera. She is wearing glasses. Behind her is an art exhibit of strings in the color of a rainbow. They cast a shadow on her face.

-Dr. Bess Williamson is a historian of design and social change. She is the author of Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design, and Associate Professor of Design History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Contact: besswilliamson.com or on Twitter as @besswww


Header: Stills from “Anthem,” MCI Advertisement produced by Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schemetterer, 1997.


Notes

  1. Thanks to Stephanie Kerschbaum for ASL help with the clip.
  2. Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002), 87.
  3. Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 340.

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