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The Voice, and the body: contesting with disability on reality TV

Tim McCallum’s performance on The Voice wowed viewers, and offers an opportunity advance social understandings of disability. Channel 9

The Voice, and the body: contesting with disability on reality TV

I got chills when I watched Tim McCallum’s “blind audition” for The Voice Australia, which aired on Monday night.

He sang the Italian aria, Giacomo Puccini’s Nessun Dorma (1920-1924).

It wasn’t just his voice that got me. His descent to the stage, in a wheelchair, just before he began singing, and then the moment he started to sing, were all expertly staged to elicit maximum emotion.

This was his moment, and he was amazing.

The internet agrees: he’s incredible; people got passionate; he wowed Australia.

Tim McCallum performs Nessun Dorma on The Voice.

But will McCallum’s appearance on The Voice Australia continue reality television’s new approach to disability or will it fall back on patronising discourses?

McCallum joins a number of other reality-television contestants who have a disability, appearing on a diverse array of reality programs, including Survivor, The Amazing Race, America’s Next Top Model, American Idol, Masterchef, The Biggest Loser and Big Brother .

Dancing with the Stars has also featured a number of celebrities with disabilities, from entrepreneur Heather Mills to actor Marlee Matlin, from Paralympians Amy Purdee and Gerard Goosens to army veteran Noah Galloway.

When John Hughes appeared on Masterchef in 2011, his storyline was criticised on ABC as doing little “to encourage social inclusiveness and honest engagement with issues of marginalisation”. Rather than accept the extra time a person with cerebral palsy would need to compete on an even level with people without any dexterity impairments in a cooking competition, Hughes was celebrated for serving up an empty plate.

Women’s studies professor Natalie Wilson argued in a 2008 essay that disabled bodies are strategically placed on reality TV to elicit an emotional response from the audience and thus improve ratings.

Often competitors engage in the requisite discourse that they do not want to be seen as the disabled competitor, and then the judges proceed to construct them as exactly that. When Emmanuel Kelly, a refugee with vision impairment competed in Australia’s Got Talent in 2011, the judges focused only on his back story, rather than talent.

Of course, the focus on a back story – often about hard work, determination and missed opportunities – is a staple of reality genres whether contestants are disabled or not. But disability critics dislike such representations of people with disabilities because they happen across the board in all genres, not just reality TV. As the late disability advocate Stella Young commented in her criticism of the judges’ treatment of Emmanuel Kelly on The X Factor, in 2011:

So prevalent are the terrible, tragic, patronising representations that I’ve come to expect them. I could count on one hand the times I’ve seen a straight-up, honest, bullshit-free representation of a disabled person on Australian television.

In May last year, I criticised The Voice Australia’s inaugural season in an essay for the show’s treatment of a vision-impaired contestant, Rachael Leahcar. I argued that, by constructing her as sweet, angelic and childlike, the producers invoked discourses of disability that are proven to attract audiences.

What do audiences with disabilities think?

In an attempt to address the lack of academic attention to television accessibility and disability representation I conducted an online survey of Australian television audiences with a disability in 2013.

Some 341 people with disability responded to an email invitation sent to disability organisations in Australia, tertiary disability officers, and social media groups. The majority of respondents were aged between 22 and 34 and had a mobility impairment. One third were male and two thirds female.

I asked respondents to rank television genres on how stigmatising or empowering they were. With the exception of documentary, sport and children’s television, every television genre was considered more “stigmatising” than “empowering”. Reality television, although judged to be more stigmatising than empowering, was not viewed as a particularly bad offender by the respondents.

When asked how well The Voice specifically was “reflecting the lives of people with disabilities”, opinions were divided. One third believed the program “never approached” the topic, despite Rachael Leahcar appearing in the top four contestants in 2012, the year prior to the survey. A further third said The Voice reflected the lives of people with disabilities well to very well, while the final third ranked The Voice’s reflection badly to very badly.

The Voice coaches: Joel and Benji Madden, Delta Goodrem, Jessie J and Ricky Martin. Channel 9

Does Reality TV offer the potential for more diverse representations?

Despite its tendency towards emotional manipulation, reality television may educate people that have little experience with disability, through both incidentalist and non-incidentalist strategies of representation. Such was the argument of the 2012 Christopher Newell Prize for Telecommunications and Disability winners Floris Müller, Marlies Klijn and Lisbet Van Zoonen in their essay Disability, Prejudice and Reality TV (2012).

As Stella Young argued in 2012, society disables people with impairments when environments are not adaptive to the different physical needs people have. In her own home and in places where she was able to “create an environment” that worked for her she said she was “hardly disabled at all”.

People create their own environments using assisting technologies and alternative communication practices. In 2012, Christine Ha was the first blind contestant on MasterChef, globally. She won that third US season and was often depicted using assistive technologies such as talking thermometers and kitchen scales.

Similarly, Justin LeBlanc, a contestant with hearing impairment who competed in Season 12 of Project Runway early this year, was provided accommodations including an interpreter. He was also depicted teaching other contestants basic signing during a bonding exercise.

Such representations and the strategy to include incidentalist representations of disability have been described as examples of “naive integration” which do little to actually challenge prejudice against people with disability. And in the quest for ratings, incidentalist representations are all too easily turned into triumphs over adversaries, which the ABC’s Leena Rottman convincingly argued, “feeds the idea that those who haven’t ‘made it’ are lacking in talent, or simply lazy”.

Yet these incidentalist and non-incidentalist images of disability on television increasingly show the different ways people with impairments navigate the world.

Although McCallum, on Tuesday night’s episode of The Voice, chose Latin singer Ricky Martin to be his mentor, pop rock duo The Madden Brothers claim that McCallum did not need any help with his singing, suggesting instead they would be able to help with performance and marketing, which was a refreshing representation of disability in the reality-television format.

While it is too soon to say which way The Voice, Ricky Martin and McCallum take this journey, there is great opportunity for this show to embrace new directions in disability and reality TV that potentially advance social understandings of disability by showing the alternative, but equally effective, ways people with disability navigate the world.