Post No.: 0665
Sport is a wonderful way for disabled people to feel capable – to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t. It offers them goals and – if they otherwise don’t feel they have a purpose anymore due to the depression that can accompany experiencing a trauma event where they suddenly became physically disabled – something to look forward to every day.
Disabilities, or impairments, come in a tremendous array of different types and severities. There are conditions that affect power, range of movement, balance, coordination and more. It’s not just missing limbs or being in a wheelchair, which are the most externally-obvious conditions. Sensory impairments and cognitive impairments can each be broken down into different types and severities themselves.
Paralympians or para-athletes show us that there’s more ability than disability with those we call ‘disabled’. They don’t need ‘fixing’ unless they personally want to be. What they most demand is the environment – especially work environments and public spaces – be fixed to account for them so that they can be as equal as participants in society as possible. (After all if e.g. stairs are provided for people who are missing wings then ramps should be provided for people who are missing legs.) Not all discriminations are illegitimate (e.g. excluding deaf people from audio engineering jobs) but any culture that perpetuates illegitimate, irrelevant or inappropriate distinctions or discriminations should be fixed too.
Sometimes disabled/impaired people wished others would focus solely on their abilities and treat them like any other person, but sometimes they wished others better understood and took into account their pains and limitations and to not expect them to be quite like fully-abled people. We’ve therefore got to tread that balance between expressing pity versus neglect, trying to help too much versus not enough, treating them the same as everyone else versus expecting too much from them, and being ‘disability-blind’ versus understanding that they do face social prejudice and often ongoing health difficulties.
For some it can be like “Don’t call me disabled” but the next moment it’s, “Don’t you realise I’m disabled?” Some people don’t want the label of disability, of depression, of eating disorder, of dyslexia, or any other medical or clinical physical, mental or learning difficulty. In such cases, it’s partly a self-stigma. It’d be like an ethnically Indian person saying, “Don’t call me Indian.” If other people have a problem with you being called disabled then they’re stigmatising the disabled. But if you have a problem with you being called disabled when you are then you’re self-stigmatising being disabled. So sometimes it’s the case of applying self-acceptance and self-compassion.
And it can arguably be a political-correctness minefield because some will state that if someone doesn’t regard themselves as impaired and different to others then they cannot demand differential treatment (e.g. extra time for completing exams), and so it’d be perhaps fair to instead call them derogatory terms if they cannot perform as well at a task compared to others (e.g. slow).
Notwithstanding, para-athletes do inspire enormously, and they’re not just inspirational to other disabled people but ‘abled’ people too. But the other side is that not every disabled person can be or feels ‘super human’ hence such ideals can place pressures on them to defy their disabilities or to not make a fuss out of them. They’re described as ‘brave’ but this can put pressure on them to hide their authentic feelings and to report how ‘life-affirming’ their experience is. Those with mental health issues may feel pressured to show positivity when they don’t truly feel it too.
So seeing para-athletes perform as they do can inspire and help everyone to view the disabled in a more capable light, yet it can also place pressures on and set expectations about the disabled that many who are disabled cannot match, for disabilities come in a wide range of types and severities. Disabilities, or abilities, are hugely diverse and there isn’t just one image of a disabled person that they all (must) fit into, whether it’s one of a ‘super human’ or a person in constant agony. Even when we see para-athletes competing and winning, we might not see the daily trials they face behind the scenes, from the hospital visits and medications to the chronic pains and mental health issues. So there are no suitable stereotypes. It’s also about pushing ourselves to our own limits. Woof!
It’s not that physical disabilities don’t make a difference to people’s lives. Disabled people can’t ‘do anything they want as long as they put their minds to it’ – because no one can; at least without technologies or external help (e.g. a blind person piloting a plane).
Everyone could be regarded as disabled or ‘disabled’ to varying degrees – ‘normal’ or ‘fully-abled’ people don’t have wings so could be considered ‘partially mobile’, don’t have eyes that can detect infrared or ultraviolet light so could be considered ‘partially-sighted’, don’t have ears that can detect infrasound or ultrasound frequencies so could be considered ‘partially-deaf’, don’t have gills for swimming better, fluffy tails for balancing better or as an extra climbing appendage, six pairs of hands, stomachs that can handle lava, etc.!
So for everybody who is alive and can do at least something – it’s about understanding that, despite our limitations, there are still so many things each of us are capable of doing even if we’re missing many abilities; and about understanding that, despite our capacities, there are many things each of us are incapable of doing without the use of technologies or external support or cooperation. This latter point also highlights how even ‘abled’ people rely on technologies to enhance their capabilities – so if they get such privileges then why not extend these to accommodate ‘disabled’ people as best as possible in the workplace too? We don’t make ‘normal’ people work on tables that are 7ft high or arc weld without helmets. Deliberately ergonomically-designed furniture is provided for ‘normal’ people – so make them deliberately ergonomic for ‘other’ people too. Why should ‘normal’ people be the only group to get special treatment when it comes to design?! The world designed for ‘normal’ people isn’t ‘the natural order of things’ but has been artificially designed to suit that narrow range of people.
However, one could argue that it’s about free market forces – about what’s economically worth designing for according to demand (just like designing buildings that comfortably suit people around the 10-90th percentile region in sizes compared to the 1st or 99th percentile groups). But it’s about what are considered ‘reasonable accommodations’.
And para-athletes are thus valid sportspeople if ‘normal’ athletes are missing so much capability too. And the free market will again supply the competitions and coverage if there’s enough demand for them. Televised sports are really a part of the entertainment industry so people will watch any sport if the competitions are exciting enough for enough people to want to watch, more than witnessing whatever ‘the peak of raw human performance’ is.
Para-athletes may use running blades and other special equipment, but regular athletes don’t exactly run barefoot either. They both use technologies to aid their performances, whether equipment used during competition, training or recovery, and whether external gear or permitted substances like caffeine or smelling salts i.e. no one is really competing strictly ‘raw’ – whatever that means. And no one’s saying the two groups of competitions are directly comparable with each other when we, say, compare 400m sprint times.
Well like all other judgements – what’s considered ‘normal’, ‘extraordinary’ or whatever just depends on what we wish to compare to. And there are many line-drawing problems in that we have to draw the line somewhere between categorising someone as ‘abled’ or ‘disabled’ for the purpose of whether they can compete in parasports at all; and between each disability sports classification, which can get quite complicated.
At the elite competitive level, there’s, in some cases, a difficulty in classifying para-athletes into appropriate categories so that the system is as fair as possible for everyone. For example, where should we draw the line between certain classifications like how short a limb stump should be before it crosses from one classification into another? The difference could mean that someone who’s a gold medal contender in one class has no chance of a medal in another. Some people even try to feign or deliberately amplify the severity of their conditions to get into a more disabled category where they’ll have a greater chance of medalling.
Under the current system, different doctors who decide who should be placed in which classifications can express different opinions. Some para-athletes might even get their limbs amputated (further) so that they’ll fit into a more disabled category. (This might echo how, allegedly, some athletes transition gender just to improve their chances of winning something – although the reason why some para-athletes consider worsening their impairments is because they’re currently considered ‘not disabled enough’ to even be eligible to compete in a parasport when they’re clearly too disabled to compete in the ‘regular’ sports. Perhaps this conundrum is complicated further because of the amount of variables at play due to the vast range and spectrum of different physical and mental impairments to consider.)
Coaches can pressure their para-athletes to try to get them into a more impaired classification. (Some former para-athletes have talked about being silenced or threatened of being kicked out of the team if they spoke about the questionable practices their coaches were employing.) The incentive to win is frequently driven by money (e.g. funding, sponsorships) and national pride, and some argue there’s a danger that parasports will be dominated by barely-disabled people – which defeats the point of the endeavour. Funding based on medal positions incentivises cheating, whether for parasports or ‘regular’ sports.
…Anyways, it all shows us that life really happens inside the mind rather than the body because this different perspective hopefully makes us understand that we’re all basically partially-disabled or partially-abled. So if it’s worth living if we’re what we call ‘fully-abled’ then it’s worth living if we’re what we call ‘disabled’ too.
If physically ‘abled’ people can feel happy about their lives then so can physically ‘disabled’ people too. And we generally find that ‘disabled’ people report a high quality of life despite many ‘abled’ people assuming they can’t be when imagining if they were similarly disabled themselves (the so-called ‘disability paradox’). Now this isn’t true for every physically-disabled person, but then not every physically-abled person reports a high quality of life either.
Challenging life experiences can give one more wisdom in life, and also provide a form of resilience training for having to learn to adapt and find solutions. And we can always find a way to adapt to losing the function of limbs or whatever as long as no pain persists – in the same way that people manage to live without wings because no pain exists where their wings could’ve been. It’s ultimately the mental health problems, rather than the non-life-threatening physical disabilities, that are where the real risks are – we cannot adapt to chronic pains (or constant and loud sounds like with tinnitus) because they evolved as warning signals to say ‘something’s wrong’ i.e. they wouldn’t be very useful as warning signals if we could learn to ignore them over time.
And it’s contextual or environmental factors that will most affect the mental health of a person with a physical disability i.e. it’s not always the intrinsic nature of a disability itself that’s a problem but factors like bullying, abuse, arbitrary discrimination and being or feeling excluded from social activities and participation.
It’s currently culturally acceptable in many places around the world for adults to be poor at rudimental arithmetic hence it’s not considered a disability that’s generally stigmatised against. This highlights how it’s really the culture that determines what’s regarded as a disability and in turn what might potentially be stigmatised. And cultures aren’t immutable things.