It was little more than a week ago that Russia’s Channel One announced Julia Samoylova as its choice for the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest. At the time, online reaction was mixed.
Mainstream commentators concerned themselves with the fact the singer had openly admitted to crossing the Russia/Ukraine border into Crimea. A crime in the eyes of the Ukrainian security services. Others denounced the devious Russians for appearing to take advantage of a ‘girl in a wheelchair’. After all, they reasoned, who would dare boo?
With the contest taking place in Ukraine – a country barely on speaking terms with Russia – an unfriendly audience was always likely. Add to that, some see booing the Russians as a Eurovision ritual.
When the sixteen-year-old Tolmachevy Sisters faced a hostile crowd, many felt uncomfortable. Last year, show producers doctored the live feed to reduce audience reactions as Sergey Lazarev took to the stage.
So if the audience were happy to boo little girls and a pretty boy, where might they draw the line?
Ukrainian television producer Sergey Kalvarskiy took to Facebook.”They are knowingly sending a young woman with a disability so that they can later report on the ‘inhumane Ukrainians’ who boo the Russian artist.”
Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a reporter for Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio station agreed. “It could be a sign of changes in the state policy toward people with disabilities but that’s hard to believe. Most probably Moscow wants to avoid any possible problems for its representative in Kiev. Nobody will want to boo a disabled singer.”
At the same time, others lined up to say how brave she must be to consider even leaving her own home, let alone taking to the stage in a wheelchair. She was, they insisted, setting an example.
In a world where so many bad things hit the daily headlines, why should this matter?
Unconscious bias or outright degrading assumptions have real consequences. If we don’t consider certain people to be as human as we are, their happiness or wellbeing becomes less important to preserve. We get to treat them how we like. We either apply ‘special standards’ or stand by as they are treated badly.
If all you saw was a wheelchair, and a cynical attempt to defy the audience, what does it really say about you?
Comments posted by the likes of Kalvarskiy devalue disabled lives. At the same time, calling Samoylova an ‘inspiration’ equates to ‘If I were her, I don’t think I’d be able to leave my house’.
The disabled people who I know don’t want to hear how incredible they are for doing things others take for granted. They don’t want me to talk to their chair.
When asked how online reactions made her feel, Julia was sanguine: “I put all off that other stuff aside, none of it is really important. I sing. My job is to sing well, to represent Russia and not disgrace myself.”
And then the Ukrainian security service banned her from entering the country for three years. Not because of her disability, but because she broke a law. A law that didn’t contain any wheelchair clause. Within minutes, a Russian official called it ‘inhuman‘. Not unfair. Inhuman.
Whilst the BBC, the New York Times, Die Welt, Le Figaro and others reported ‘a ban on a Russian singer‘, Russia Today, Tass and other Russian websites focussed on Julia’s wheelchair. Moscow tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda went further, claiming the ban was “spitting in the face of defenceless 27-year-old in a wheelchair.”
They, like so many others – some with good intent, others less so – didn’t see a woman in charge of her own mind, ready to take advantage of massive media exposure. They elected to focus instead on her chair, and it spoke volumes.
Footnote: Julia has been offered the chance to perform via link-up.