27 July 2015

Tim McCallum on The Voice Australia. Have a think about why you think someone with a disability inspirational.

When Jessie J cried upon hearing 34 year old Tim McCallum's performance of Nessun Dorma on The Voice last Tuesday night, I immediately thought of Stella Young's stance on inspiration porn. You know, disabled people applauded for doing ordinary things. Like banking or working.

Tim is a brilliant singer, who just happens to be in a wheelchair. That's his backstory. Like X-Factor winner Dami Im was born in South Korea and came to Australia when she was nine. Like Shannon Noll worked on the family farm prior to coming second to Guy Sebastian on Australian Idol. And like Karise Eden was a foster child. Those are the facts of their lives. Every successful reality TV star has a back story. That's the dramatic effect the producers employ. Contestants rising above adversity tug at the heart strings.

One thing I like about talent shows like The Voice and Masterchef is the diversity they showcase. Contestants are from different countries and religions, have various disabilities and sexual orientations, which represents the richness of our community more than fictional TV.

Tim was paralysed from the neck down after a surfing accident when he was 19. He only has use of his arms.

Tim told The Voice coaches "My level of injury is quite high and I don’t have the use of my stomach and diaphragm ... I invented different ways to hit the notes.” Singing is hard work for him. Ricky Martin called him a "miracle", which might make disability activists uncomfortable, but it IS really amazing that he's trained himself to sing using different parts of his body. That's his reasonable adjustment.

The late Stella Young did great work speaking up about inspiration porn. She wrote "[Inspiration porn is] there so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, "Oh well if that kid who doesn't have any legs can smile while he's having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life". It's there so that non-disabled people can look at us and think "well, it could be worse... I could be that person".

Stella continued: "My everyday life in which I do exactly the same things as everyone else should not inspire people, and yet I am constantly congratulated by strangers for simply existing.

It's a regular occurrence for people without disabilities to be wowed by every day actions of those with disabilities. And parents of children with disabilities are treated as superheroes for well, just being parents.

Have a think about why you think someone with a disability inspirational.

Is it because their situation makes you feel better about yours? Or are they actually doing something really amazing?

Tim McCallum is not just doing something ordinary. This guy isn't just buttering his toast or doing the groceries while in a wheelchair. He's singing opera live on national prime time TV. Being judged by international singers and social media audiences.

And I think we need to give him credit for his achievements. Making The Voice is a big deal for anyone. He's been a singer for years - and this program might just give him the break he needs.

Sarah Barton, founding series producer of No Limits - the community TV program that launched Tim's media career (and where he shared the desk with Stella Young) believes it is great we are seeing positive stories about disability in the media. "Anything that puts a disabled person in the spotlight alongside everybody else, achieving something is fantastic", she says. Sarah has known Tim for many years and says his aspiration has always been to sing.

Tim's not calling himself inspirational, telling The Today Show "I try to blow that myth out of the water that you can actually sing while you're sitting down."
Tim McCallum on The Voice
We do need to question why Jessie J was moved to tears, and why audiences found Tim inspirational. Was it because Tim has a disability, or because he's got amazing talent? Perhaps it's also because the show's judges, producers and audience haven't been exposed to disability? And are they reacting the same emotional way to contestants without disabilities?

The ongoing problem with the portrayal of people with disabilities is they're only ever tragic or heroic, never just living an ordinary life. I think Tim just wants to sing - and working hard at his talent - and his talent is a part of his ordinary life. I don't think Tim wants to be a superhero in a wheelchair. I think he wants (and deserves) a record deal and a season at the Opera House.

This was originally published on Mamamia. 


  1. Great post Carly. I've been a follower of your blog for a while and love your honesty! I too wondered exactly the same thing watching the responses to Tim on the voice. There is absolutely no question his talent is immense, in fact I think his voice is one of the strongest ones there but I felt a bit embarrassed by the fawning and 'you're an inspiration' commentary and you could see it wasn't sitting well with him too.
    Cheers, Nardia
    PS. Today I'm participating in the blog engagement thread from Aussie Bloggers - just in case you're tracking where this comment is from :)

  2. I commented on your facebook page too, but actually I know how nice it is to see actual comments on the actual blog!

    I totally agree. I thought it was fascinating and really impressive that Tim has been able to teach himself to sing without being able to consciously control his diaphragm. But the framing of the episodes he's been in and the 'most inspirational person on the Voice label' seems really questionable/icky/condescending to me. He has an amazing voice and he's in a wheelchair. He might be inspirational as well (I don't know him) but he isn't inspirational because he's singing in a wheelchair.

    Also, I think what I find inspirational might be different to other people.....Most of the people I think of as inspirational are people I know personally who through their approach to life and care for me 'inspire' me to keep on going!

  3. I don't rate this guy to be outrageously great. Sure he's a good singer but not amazing amazeballs. Still, the judges turned for him on voice only, not looks or physical ability, which is what the show is all about. But yeh, I get your point totally :)

  4. I honestly think you are barking up the wrong tree with this one. Tim isn't doing an ordinary thing. Typically opera singers need to use their lungs and diaphragm to reach their crescendos. Tim has no movement from the chest down so has no control of his diaphragm and had to retrain his body in order to sing.

    In his own words ""I was able to retrain my body to use what it has to get what I need. I now use my biceps and shoulder muscles to leverage on my wheelchair some strength to push down."

    Personally I think that's why people are inspired. He isn't just a singer who happens to be in a wheelchair.

    Also Jesse J cried because she had a stroke at 17 and was told there was a possibility she would never walk or sing in the same way again so I guess his story was personal to her.

    There is more info here for you: http://www.mamamia.com.au/entertainment/the-voice-2015-jessie-j/


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