Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The Language of the Paralympics

This post is really a PSA to be mindful of how you think and talk about the Paralympics and Paralympians. It is a reminder, primarily, that Paralympic athletes have lives outside of the games and that the games exist in a world with many other disabled people living normal lives.

Paralympic athletes are, without doubt, awesome people and awesome athletes. They have gone through selection, trained and competed at the highest level in their sports and categories. They have worked hard and are incredibly skilled.

They are also
1. Not representative of all disabled people
2. Not fakers
3. Not there for pity or condescension
4. Actually real people.

When talking about disabled athletes people often fall fowl of a few cliches that can be at best annoying and at worst actually create a culture which causes harm to disabled people including those athletes you are talking about. That's just the cliches and comments that are supposed to be positive.
So lets take a look at them.

If they can run/swim/race/compete there's no excuse

This is possibly one of the more harmful cliches that comes out. Occasionally it is said with malice, an accusation leveled at "fakers", disabled people who can't work due to disability, but often it is said in a way that is supposed to be inspiring and encouraging to a disabled person.
The truth of the matter is we could say this about anybody, able bodied or disabled. If they can be a premiership footballer, there is no excuse that you earn minimum wage. If they can run a 9 second 100 meters then there is no excuse for you to be driving to the shops. If they can swim 7 different races in the Olympics then there is no excuse for you to struggle at the gym.
The truth is that we are all different. It's as simple as that. Able bodied or disabled we are all different. We have different skills and interests. We have different abilities. We have different physiology. We have different opportunities.

However this accusation is more likely to get levelled at disabled people during the Paralympics than at anybody else. If they can do it why can't you. As well as the myriad of reasons that anybody has, from opportunity to desire, for not being a top flight athlete we also need to consider that people with disabilities are also dealing with the complexities of their health and body. The categories of the Paralympics are very clearly defined and it may simply be that any given person's disability does not neatly fit in to one of those categories. Further more, there are things that just aren't covered at all and are outside of those category's scope.
There are dozens of disabling symptoms including but not limited to chronic pain, chronic fatigue and chronic migraines that simply do not lend themselves to sports and would make it impossible to compete safely. This is especially so for people whose conditions are variable. A person who has cerebral palsy has cerebral palsy every day. A person who has chronic pain may find that today is a worse pain day than yesterday and can not simply take more pain killers to be able to compete.
The Paralympics is just as rigorous when it comes to drug testing and banned substances as the Olympics. Athletes can apply for medical exemptions, but even when granted there will be restrictions as to what dose a person can take. This can mean that some people simply wouldn't be able to compete.

That's me, a disabled person, horsriding AKA doing a sport. I am not an Olympian
Finally we have to consider false equivalency. Even if you are a top athlete and all you do is train and compete, there is some flexibility in your schedule. You can plan the number of training sessions, how long they last and when they are. You probably also have a guaranteed income of some sort or financial security. A training session is not the same as having to do a full time job. The stresses on the body are vastly different and for the vast majority of jobs, the employer has little control over where it is and what they do when they get there. Holding down a full or even part time job in a manner that is able to provide a living is physically very different from managing a training schedule and competing. That's without considering the amount of support somebody may have.
Consider a race. The athlete is driven to the track so they can conserve energy. They are provided with nutritionally balanced snacks and hydration. They have an assistant with them who can help explain things clearly, who can carry things for them. There is a rest and seating area as well as a warm up area that allows athletes to prepare in their own manner. They do the race. Maybe they win, afterwards they have help walking away, packing up their things. They are driven home. They are given time to rest and recover.
Athletes work very hard. That is without question, but how they work hard is very different from your average working life. They just don't compare. So we shouldn't compare.

"That person can race" does not equal "so any disabled person can work".

They are "superhuman"

This is a little more difficult to explain. Describing athletes as a superhuman isn't reserved for paralympic athletes, it's a term given to many top flight athletes, because after all they are doing and achieving things beyond most of our wildest dreams. However, when it is used for Paralympians the term can be "othering" or have other baggage attached. Many people with disabilities have experienced being treated as some how less than human or subhuman. Whilst superhuman is more flattering than subhuman, it still serves to describe paralympic athletes as something other than a normal human being. This effect is amplified when you refer to an entire group of people as "superhuman" rather than individuals. Advertisers and commentators may be intending that group to be "Olympic level athletes" which would be appropriate, but this group also shares another characteristic, that of being disabled. Even if it doesn't rub disable people's (both athletes and non-athletes) up the wrong way, it does subtly enforce the idea in the minds of the general public that disabled people are a group of "other" and that other is different to normal humans.
The second issue, the baggage, relates to language and attitudes that disabled people often have to face. This is the attitude that disabled people are somehow amazing simply for going about their every day lives. That to be disabled is so limiting and so unimaginable that to do anything at all is some how a superhuman feat. As previously, of course what Paralympic level athletes do is amazing and really is something to applaud, just like we are amazed by the feats of any world class athlete. The issue comes that many disabled people are so used to hearing words like superhuman, amazing, awesome in a patronising voice relating to merely living their lives that to hear it at all directed at a group of disabled people is to make us bristle. We can't be sure that every time it is being used it is because they are amazing athletes or because the speaker or writer is astounded that disabled people can do anything at all.

"They're so inspiring"

They're so inspiring! She's an inspiration to us all! It's so uplifting to see this!
These phrases, and the issue with them, closely follow on from the previous paragraph. Watching somebody do something brilliant really can be inspiring and we really can feel an empathetic rush of joy when somebody has achieved something they have been striving toward. That's fine, it's normal it's not a problem. the problem comes when this language is so often used toward disabled people and so often in tones that sound like the person is speaking to a small child or a dog. There is a sense, once again, that anything a disabled person does is a shock and a pleasant surprise to some people. Additionally the language often presumes that the disabled person has done these wonderful things for the edification of the general public and not because the person just wanted to. If you find yourself thinking these things ask yourself, would you have been inspired if an able bodied person had done it? Why is it inspiring to you?

For example are you inspired by Michael Phelps winning his 28th Olympic medal? Because that's an amazing achievement and a display of truly awesome talent and training. If seeing that doesn't make you feel inspired but seeing a swimmer with muscular dystrophy get a personal best does then perhaps your inspiration is more routed in your understanding of the person's disability than in their athleticism. (I still think somebody getting a PB in a race is great to see though).
If your answer is that it's "just so good to see somebody overcoming adversity" and you don't believe that has anything to do with disability then stop and reconsider. That phrase has two main fallacies.
Firstly you are making a lot of assumptions about their disability: you don't know how much adversity that individual felt they actually had to battle through. For some it may not have felt like adversity at all. It's simply their life. It assumes that things must have been terrible for that person simply because of their disability and that they had to overcome it. That's simply not true. (And to go back to the first section, it also neglects to remember that people are competing against people in the same classification).
Secondly it means that you are drawing your inspiration and your good feeling from somebody else's perceived suffering. Just think on that. You don't find somebody inspiring or heart-warming unless they have first suffered so that they can overcome it in a way that you find pleasing.

Additionally it's also terribly patronising. It diminishes the effort and hard work that these athletes have put in to reaching the Paralympics and implies instead that they are only worth accolade because they have achieved something while disabled. I just want to pause a moment to talk about the many sports in the Paralympics and Olympics as well as, again, the huge array of classification systems. Because some able bodied people may say "Well yeah, but they're [the disabled athletes] are never going to be able to compete with normal athletes." and after I had been held back by a group of burly folk and prevented from assaulting the unsuspecting individual with my walking cane, I would explain that, actually there's often a good reason for that. So, many of the classifications take in to account an athletes physical limitation in terms of top speed achieved, or endurance. These are usually race type sports like swimming and running. In these cases, no, most Paralympians can't compete in the same races as their able bodied counterparts. Their top speeds just aren't making the qualification times that allows them to do so. However the Olympics and Paralympics aren't just about running and swimming, no not even about cycling. There are 22 different sports many of which consist of a number of different events in this years Paralympics, from para-triathlon to boccia, athletics to archery. Many of the classification and different events differ from their able bodied counterparts due to adaptations and accommodations, not because the athletes are less able (stay with me) in terms of athleticism. There are some sports where the main difference is changes to the rules around stance and equipment or specific differences in equipment that would not be allowed in the Olympic rules. These might be changes in saddle type in the Para-dressage changes, in how a sail is winched or what maximum dimension of boat is allowed in the sailing or, how many bounces of the ball are allowed in tennis Then of course there are the unique para-sports of boccia, wheelchair rugby, and seated volleyball.

Yes they are inspiring athletes but it's because of their athleticism and skill in their sports and not because they have managed to get into a world class, highly regarded renowned internation sports tournament "despite their disability."

But why is this important?

Well for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, though the athletes may not be able to hear you (though they can hear the commentators and see the billboards) they are still real people and things aren't offensive/patronising/inaccurate/hurtful just because the person can't hear you. If you wouldn't say it to their face, don't say it.
Secondly it's because, though disabled people aren't one homogeneous hive-mind, we are still a large group of people who do have a lot of shared experiences. Sadly a lot of those shared experiences are pretty negative and are to do with being mistreated at everything from a government to a personal everyday level. This sort of language, whether from you at home on your sofa or from a commentator on prime time TV just supports that. It dehumanises and others. It belittles and patronises. It is a constant trickle of treating disabled people like crap and like they are lesser than able bodied people. If you say these things unchallenged once, it gives you silent consent to say it again. And If you say it in private the first time maybe next time you'll say it directly to a disabled person. If it is said enough and by enough people it creates a society that tacitly agrees and condones that disbaled people are just something slightly less and something slightly inferior to abled bodied people. That's the sort of society that then thinks it's ok to treat disabled people badly because after all we're not like you.

That's a big reason.

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