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Capaldi at Glastonbury last week. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Opinion As Lewis Capaldi pulls back, he cuts through an unspoken form of ableism

Niamh Jimenez says Lewis Capaldi’s break from touring announced this week is an antidote to inspiration porn.

LAST UPDATE | 30 Jun 2023

“THE FACT THAT this probably won’t come as a surprise doesn’t make it any easier to write, but I’m very sorry to let you know I’m going to be taking a break from touring for the foreseeable future.”

As soon as Lewis Capaldi’s tweet surfaced on my Twitter feed, it had an eerily familiar ring to it, casting me back four years to events in my own life: a flurry of emails sent to my doctoral supervisor and a swarm of admin staff, the hasty evacuation of my little apartment in Oxford, England, the night flight home to Ireland pushed by my father in a wheelchair.

On multiple fronts, the Scottish singer-songwriter and I, a woman whose musical skills are limited to having played the recorder in sixth class, live worlds apart. Capaldi has achieved worldwide fame as a pop artist, while I was an unknown PhD student tinkering with chemical compounds in a lab.

Capaldi has Tourette Syndrome and I have an energy-limiting chronic illness known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.) or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Capaldi had to halt his career in front of about 100,000 fans at Glastonbury, while I terminated mine in front of a research group of five, the majority of whom struggled to pronounce my surname, let alone comprehend the nature of my disability.

But there is something important that Capaldi and I share in common. That is the experience of being suspended abruptly at the precipice of a big dream because your body refuses to comply with the plans you had for it.

The body screams ‘No’ in a moment that is both chaotic and involuntary, compelling you—whether you like it or not—to impose a complete moratorium on the activities that you love the most.

It is in such moments, which can extend into weeks, months or even years of physical immobility, that we are most vulnerable; moments when we are perceived to lose our grip on our power to perform in the ways that society has taught us to value.

Choosing your well-being

Most of us are keenly attuned to the distance that lies between where we are now and where we aspire to be. This is a gulf which is often magnified for people with disabilities, as we grapple with that relentless tension between our unique physical limitations and the ambitions that they keep in a stranglehold.

In his recent Netflix documentary, How I’m Feeling Now, Capaldi appears to be immersed in his pursuit of this elusive destination, saying, “I feel like I’m in a race against the clock to get my mental health in order.”

The expanse between these two hypothetical points in space is not, as some erroneously believe, the product of a lack of willpower or a deficiency in motivation. Rather, this distance is created by the limits of the human body itself—whether it be sick or tic-ridden or weighed down by unspeakable levels of fatigue. Acknowledging this reality, as a person with a disability, is not the same as surrendering one’s pride, but rather signifies a refusal to dilute or somehow sanitise the countless setbacks, the grief, and the complexity of living and striving in a disabled body.

Even at their best, our bodies are, as Capaldi clearly demonstrates, remarkably sensitive to the weight of society’s expectation for superhuman performance. “Making the first album, touring the first album, recording it, I think it was as close to dreams coming true as you can possibly get,” Capaldi confesses in How I’m Feeling Now. “But as soon as your first album goes well, it’s like, ‘Can he do it again, though?’ So, there’s that tension all the time. You can only be the next big thing for, like, a year. The clock’s ticking.”

december-18-2019-chicago-il-u-s-niall-horan-and-lewis-capaldi-perform-onstage-during-kiss-fm-103-5s-jingle-ball-2019-at-allstate-arena-in-rosemont-illinois-credit-image-daniel-deslover December 18, 2019, Chicago, IL, U.S: NIALL HORAN and LEWIS CAPALDI perform onstage during KISS FM 103.5's Jingle Ball 2019 at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In the interests of sustaining cyborg-level productivity and the image of external success, some of us push our bodies to the very limits of their physical and mental capacities. This race to rid ourselves of the burdens of our own physicality seems to permeate Capaldi’s recent announcement:

…I’d hoped three weeks away would sort me out. But the truth is I’m still learning to adjust to the impact of my Tourette’s and on Saturday it became obvious that I need to spend much more time getting my mental and physical health in order, so I can keep doing everything I love for a long time to come.

In this decision to prioritise his physical and mental well-being, Capaldi slices through a ubiquitous, yet largely unspoken, form of ableism. He challenges the notion that disabled people should deny rather than listen to their body’s signals. By respecting his own individual limits, the musician engages in a practice that has been consistently misrepresented as an act of succumbing to obstacles that could, in fact, be fearlessly overcome.

‘Inspiration porn’

This dangerous equivalence, which has been drawn between disability and “overcoming,” underlies what the late Australian comedian and activist, Stella Young, described as “inspiration porn.” Not much digging is needed to unearth this distinctive genre of media representation, which can be seen, as Stella suggests, in the image of “the young girl with no hands drawing a picture with a pencil in her mouth”, or that of “the child running on carbon fibre prosthetic legs.”

Softer echoes of this “supercrip” ideal have reverberated through the online forums and support groups I have frequented, ever since my own illness forced me to change career paths. Conversations are often steeped in battlefield metaphors and the lexicon of the trenches: “keep fighting”, “stay strong,” “chronic warrior.”

We have, somewhere along the line, internalised a mandate for heroism, along with the requirement that we fight against our bodies with all the militancy of a lifelong civil war.

Do anything less and you are seen to renege on that tacit social contract which stipulates that your existence will be tolerated when you uphold one comforting illusion—the one that says disability goes down easier when it comes in the more palatable form of a Michael J Fox, an Andrea Bocelli, or a Stephen Hawking.

The danger of this messaging resides in the implication that when we listen to our bodies, when we honour our signals, and when we opt not to spend our lives in active internal warfare, we are somehow choosing our own miserable fate.

Disability, however, is not a matter of choice or performance that can be graded as pass, distinction, or fail. By listening to his own current physical limitations and refusing to exist in a state of perpetual “overcoming,” Lewis Capaldi offers us a glimpse into the reality and fluctuations of ordinary disability.

Niamh Jimenez is a freelance writer and online journalist covering racial inclusion, mental health science and digital therapeutics. She is also currently undertaking a master’s degree in humanistic and integrative psychotherapy.   

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