A Voice (or Image) in the Abyss

By Courtney
A story recently reported in the media explained that two BC residents, both of whom have a rare genetic condition called albinism, have filed a class action complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal against Earls Kitchen and Bar, a chain of restaurants in western Canada and Ontario, asking the company to stop using “albino” branding of its menu items, including the house beer Albino Rhino and their weekly Albino Wing Wednesday special. The complaint in part states “the marketing and selling of the Earls Albino products is demeaning to persons with albinism and promotes demeaning behaviour towards them. It is humiliating for persons with albinism to patronize the company’s restaurants while other customers around them are ordering these products by simply asking for ‘an albino’” (view complaint here). To see a video of the story, click here.

For those who know me, you’ll know I have albinism. Most people recognize the physical traits of albinism pretty quickly — the platinum blonde hair and pale skin can be dead giveaways. However, I have been asked more than once what part of Sweden I am from or who bleaches my hair because it looks so natural. The story above is being filed on behalf of all persons in BC with albinism so I’ve been forced to step back and decide where I stand because if I disagree with their complaint, I must opt out. And for the record, the complaint is not asking for any financial compensation — they just want Earls to stop branding their products with “albino”.

Though the condition is genetic and I’ve had over three decades to literally get comfortable in my own skin, I found myself really struggling to decide if I agreed or disagreed. In looking through comments posted in response to the story, people overwhelmingly thought the complaint was frivolous and took political correctness too far. The argument was made time and time again that “albino” was being used as a colour descriptor and, therefore, was no different than the “blonde” in “blonde ale” or the “black” in “Black Angus beef”. I can see their point. Perhaps the complaint is taking things a little too far and the complainants a little oversensitive.

However, I can also see where the two who filed the complaint are coming from. The general public is missing a key point — having albinism is more than just having pale coloured hair and skin. The lack of pigmentation affects the development of the eye itself, contributing to vision loss severe enough to be recognized as a disability. So if it would be unacceptable for a restaurant to serve a spina bifida salad or a sandwich on an autistic biscuit, why would serving albino wings be any different? Just like spina bifida or autism, albinism is a disability. The loss of vision combined with other perks of albinism including, but not limited to, a sensitivity to light and the ability to get a sunburn in record time even in January inevitably has an impact on how someone with albinism lives their life. And no, I’m not going to go all doom-and-gloom on you here, but I would be lying if I said having albinism hasn’t added some very interesting challenges to my life, both good and bad.

As I read through the comments being posted, I did find a few that supported the complaint. And you know what? Thanks to Facebook profiles, I could see that all of them were either posted by someone with albinism or were the parent of a child with albinism. One cool thing about having albinism is that we are pretty easy to identify on sight! Which is also why we make really, really bad undercover agents. (For fun, check out You Might Have Albinism If… ) The real problem is that the Canadian National Institute for the Blind reports that there are only 245 people with albinism in all of Canada, so our collective ability to sway public opinion is pretty limited.

You can read more opinions on topic of albinism and the use of the term ‘albino’ by following these links: Ragged Edge Magazine, Vis-ability Stories and Andrew Leibs @suite101.

What does this have to do with sport? Well, it got me thinking about how the

Image Paralympian Stephanie Dixon - an amputee swimmer - with the caption 'she doesn't want your sympathy. but her competitors might.'

"She doesn't want your sympathy. But her opponents might."

majority defines its expectations of a minority in the media. A few years ago, along with a number of other athletes, I was asked to participate in a focus group to provide direction to an ad agency hired by the Canadian Paralympic Committee. Part of the session involved creating a list of words to describe Paralympic athletes — words like “elite”, “high performance”, and “excellence” were suggested. One of the ad agency reps looked confused. “What about words like ‘inspirational’ or ‘amazing’ or ‘overcoming challenges’?” she asked. The response from us athletes? That’s not how we see ourselves — we are athletes pursuing athletic excellence. And to their credit, they listened to us. The result were great examples of Paralympic sport. This concept evolved into the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s current “Superathletes” campaign (follow the link to see the full ad campaign – I’ve posted one of the videos below. The CPC also produced a series of posters and commercials that you can find here).

Gatorade took a similar approach with their “Everyday Athletes” campaign, featuring a water-skier in a wheelchair alongside an able-bodied beach volleyball player. Both are named Kerri. The captions are very small, but over the picture of Kerri the water-skier, it reads: “I’ve never won 108 straight volleyball matches. I’ve never been nicknamed ‘Six feet of Sunshine.’ I’ve never had the expectations of my entire country rest on my reconstructed shoulder. I’ve never turned Athens and Beijing into gold. But I have tried as hard as I can to be the best I can”. And over Kerri the beach volleyball player it reads: “I’ve never had to live with spina bifida. I’ve never leveled the playing field by getting in the water. I’ve never done a wake jump, backwards. I’ve never been a national champion water-skier. But I have tried as hard as I can to be the best I can.”

Two side by side images - one of a beach volleyball player and the other of a wake board athlete (I think) in a wheelchair - the name 'Kerri' is across both images.

The question is, can ads featuring a select few of a minority group appeal to and change the minds of the masses? Are some athletes more “media-friendly” because their disabilities are easily identifiable, such as amputees or wheelchair users? Will some athletes with disabilities be consistently passed over by ad campaign designers because they are “too” disabled? Is an athlete with an acquired disability more easily accepted by the general public than an athlete with a congenital disability because at some point in their life they were able-bodied? Are current ad campaigns playing it safe now in order to condition the public to seeing images of athletes with disabilities so that they can push the envelope later by including athletes with more severe disabilities? Or is there a limit to what the public will accept as an image of an athlete with a disability, forcing organizations like the Canadian Paralympic Committee to only use Paralympic athletes who most closely resemble their Olympic counterparts, leaving athletes with more severe disabilities in the shadows? With the complaint against Earls, the voices of people with albinism are being drowned out by the voices of the average person. Is the same happening with ad campaigns featuring athletes with disabilities — are they just getting lost in the media abyss? Or are they motivating a change in attitudes?


Join the conversation and invite your friends!

6 thoughts on “A Voice (or Image) in the Abyss

  1. Courtney: Thanks for the post on the Earl’s ads. I agree – the ads are certainly offensive – they would not be tolerated by any other major disability group or visible minority. People with albinism certainly classify as a visible minority group.

    Would Crippled crocodile cocktails fly? What about Bind mans burritos – depicting a blind person or animal? Earls needs to realize that their customers, some of whom have various disabilities, including albinism should be able to dine without exposure to such discriminatory branding.

  2. Well said. It is unfortunate but also interesting to note that the large amount of anger over this complaint, is evidence that majority do not know anything about albinism. If they understood its disabling aspects, I doubt that most would be against the complaint. Their anger and comparison of albinism to physical qualities that typically dont have disabling aspects reveals a big lack of understanding of the condition….. -

  3. In relation to Earls Considering that I would avoid eatting there I guess it does bother me, but not as much as the guy advertising his Freak Show on Venice Beach LA where all I would have to do is swallow a knife to qualify, i don’t have an issue with looking a bit different but being made to feel uncfortable about it can affect ones well being.

  4. Larry, I hear you! That is why this issue is so difficult – is it taking political correctness too far? But the more I think about it, is it because of political correctness that more buildings are being designed to accommodate wheelchair users? Or why some banks now have talking ATMs for people who are blind? Or why Vancouver’s transit system is one of the more accessible systems in North America? I would argue no, it is because the affected groups have successfully lobbied to have their voices heard despite being a minority in society. They have been able to get the majority to see things from a minority’s perspective and, therefore, gain acceptance by the majority for the changes needed. I don’t see this as being different. The Canadian Paralympic Committee’s ads are trying to change the way the majority of people see athletes with disabilities and I think the campaign really does serve its purpose well.

    The Earls issue really isn’t much different in that a minority is trying to change the way a majority sees them – literally. It’s just that in this situation, it’s not a physical accommodation that needs to be made, it’s one of identity. Think of how African-Americans have been labelled over the years – a certain “n” word has evolved from being acceptable to “racist, offensive and potentially illegal” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigger).

    You might say that the two issues cannot be compared, but what’s different? Is it because there are fewer people with albinism? Both groups struggle to change the way they are perceived – shouldn’t it be the affected group who defines who they are and what they need and not the majority? Because if it were up to the majority, ads depicting Paralympic athletes likely would be screaming “Look at these challenged people! They are so happy! Aren’t they amazing? Aren’t they inspirational? Isn’t it great they are doing something positive with their lives despite the challenges they face?” That’s not how I want the majority to see me.

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