In the past year, you may have seen the phrase “Manitoba Possible” splashed across buses and transit shelters in Winnipeg.
This campaign features photogenic children with mobility aids on solid, bright backgrounds. Although eye-catching, it isn’t clear at first glance what Manitoba Possible is. Is it the new motto for the Progressive Conservative budget cuts? A superhero catchphrase? Or a children’s nonprofit, which is actually a front for a money-laundering scheme?
No, Manitoba Possible is the rebranded, moderately catchier name for the Society of Manitobans with Disabilities. The name for this Manitoba institution, like the language of disability, has evolved over the years, but this is a serious misstep.
Originally founded in 1950 as the Society for Crippled Children, it was two years before they included adults in their name. In 1985, the organization was renamed the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities, and in 2020, they became Manitoba Possible.
These may seem like incremental improvements, but language has a huge impact on how Deaf and disabled people are perceived. Language is a way of framing our relationship to the world and to our bodies.
Abled people over the last century have tried to find words to define us. “Differently-abled,” “handicapped” and “handicapable” are all clumsy terms that ableds have used to describe us, while avoiding “disability” as if it were a bad word. Disabled people usually prefer to be called “people with disabilities” or “disabled people.”
Naming disability is key to identifying a range of physical and mental conditions and the people who live with them. By avoiding the word “disability,” they have lost the specificity of whose accessibility they are advocating for.
While accessibility benefits everyone, shying away from the word “disability” suggests they do not advocate for Deaf and disabled culture and people specifically, but for all Manitobans.
On the other hand, “disability” is not a word that all people Manitoba Possible supports identify with, as many Deaf people do not consider themselves disabled. The (capital-D) Deaf community identifies as its own culture, and many believe they are only “disabled” by an ableist society, not by any lack of hearing.
Even so, “Manitoba Possible” smacks of a condescending positivity, which is only increased by featuring children in their ads instead of adults. By using kids in their branding, it seems like they are suggesting that disabled people are like children and need to be helped by abled people.
“Manitoba Possible!” even sounds like something a Golden Boy-inspired superhero would proclaim right before flying away. It is cartoonish and cutesy. “Manitoba Possible” makes it seem like we are superheroes, as emphasized by the childish, bright colours in their advertising campaign. This sort of inspiration porn infantilizes disabled people and minimizes our independence.
While “Manitoba Possible” seems to be a progressive and inclusive name, its bland optimism does no more for the community than “the Society for Crippled Children” did, as it erases Deaf and disabled identity, infantilizes us and makes us seem like superheroes, just for existing a world that was not created for us to succeed.
Hannah Foulger is a disabled British-Canadian writer and theatre artist, living with a brain injury, from the Haldimand Tract in Cambridge, Ont.
Published in Volume 75, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 5, 2020)