Home > Disability, Stigma > Sorry, the Paralympic spirit insults disabled people like me

Sorry, the Paralympic spirit insults disabled people like me

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 30 August 2012 15.11 BST


I am not a sports fan. Loathed it at school, steadfastly bored by it since. So I was not a keen observer of the Olympics and won’t be following the Paralympics either. This might seem strange. The Paralympics, after all, promise the opportunity to show that disabled people are not work-avoiding stay-at-homes glued to daytime TV. And as I’m disabled, I should welcome them – greet with open arms this opportunity to show the world what so-called disabled people can do.

I won’t. Not because I don’t give a damn for sport generally, or the Paralympics specifically. While I don’t understand why people should want to run, row or swim faster than others, I’ve never known why people would want to be accountants, either. It’s the baggage associated with the Paralympics that’s my problem – the subliminal and explicit messages.

Able-bodied people aren’t expected to reach the standard of Usain Bolt or Mo Farah – they’re accepted as being exceptional. But there is an implied expectation on “the disabled” that if only they would throw away their crutches, dispense with their wheelchairs, flush their drugs down the loo, make an effort, the rest could stop having to pay for them. After all, look at … name your Paralympian, Stephen Hawking, or one-handed concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy.

Such people are definitions of exception. Whereas no one expects Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, to run like a Bolt or a Farah, it’s commonplace to hear “if he can do it so can you” as a rebuke or encouragement to disabled people. This really misunderstands the nature of disability itself. Particularly when it involves state benefits, and particularly when irresponsible ministers and journalists can’t or won’t distinguish between fit young athletes – even with bits missing – and the generality of disabled people.

I became disabled slowly, progressively, after I broke my back in a car accident. I was never good at sport even before then – probably why I hated it. I was the last to be picked for the football team – didn’t see well, had fits, flat feet, got depressed. But I managed – until the crash. Complicated by a family history of osteoarthritis, over decades I became less able. Life became punctuated by increasing pain and stronger drugs to limit it. At no point did I opt for disability as a lifestyle choice – it chose me.

I have as much in common with the Paralympian Oscar Pistorius as you, gentle reader, have with Bolt – which for most of you isn’t much at all. If people accepted that, there wouldn’t be a problem, and I would feel less chippy about the Paralympics – but they don’t.

I don’t believe in role models in general. I never could fathom why judges should admonish footballers who get caught doing something drunkenly with no trousers on that they’ve let everyone down, since young people look up to them. If Paralympians are role models – and I really wish they didn’t have to be – let them inspire everybody, able and disabled, rather than be exploited to make disabled people feel inadequate and guiltily dependent on the hard-working taxpayer.

The Paralympics, like the Olympics, is a circus – it has its stars, its pretence, its sheer silliness – and on that level, I don’t object to it. I don’t want to watch it, neither do I want wall-to-wall coverage so reminiscent of fiddling while Rome burns, but if that’s what fills your boots, go ahead. But it isn’t a sermon in form-fitting Lycra. It’s not, or shouldn’t be, a big party for the Friends of Atos – the firm that conducts controversial medical assessments for benefit claims on behalf of the government – to hug us as if we were all the same while surreptitiously snipping away at our sole means of support.

I’m in my 60s now, and there’s a limit to what the coalition can do to me. I worry about the young – those who can no more choose work than choose not to be disabled, but will have their benefits slashed anyway. As a spectacle, the Paralympics might inspire them, but as a symbol of what society thinks disability means, it will hurt them. And sponsored by Atos and welcomed by David Cameron, the Paralympics are in danger of turning into an insult to all of us.

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  1. August 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    I’m not sure I’ve come across anyone who’s watched the Paralympics and expected that all people with disabilities should be able to be Paralympians. If anything watching the Paralympians adds an extra layer, of wow, I could never do anything like that, on top of what there was during the Olympics.

    I can’t cycle that fast, I can’t swim that fast, and I’ll never be that good at judo. And if I became disabled I imagine I’d be even less inclined to try than I am now.

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