Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Are the Paralympics Patronizing?


Before my hip replacement, I was a Paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball. I won 2 World Championship gold medals (2002 and 2006) and won bronze at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Today, the former athlete (and current disability studies enthusiast) in me was intrigued by a blog post entitled "Are the Paralympics Patronizing?" The article (here: http://blogs.channel4.com/paralympics/2011/12/07/are-the-paralympics-patronising/) reflects on a survey that found that less than a quarter of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. This, the blogger says, "questions the core purpose of Paralympic sport."

I'm not so sure.

First, it's tough to make the argument that the Paralympics themselves are patronizing. Separating athletes out based on biological categories has been around since the advent of sports. Boxers and wrestlers have weight classes. Women have their own teams. There are championships for athletes of various ages from junior up to masters. No one is arguing that some 50 kg wrestler should hop in the ring with a 80kg wrestler. Why? Because sport is better when people compete against their equals.

One of our fundamental beliefs in sport is that champions are not born fully formed, but are created out of hard work and dedication.  Separating athletes into fair categories allows such a principle to be carried out. If sports like boxing or wrestling did not have weight classes, the athlete who happened to be born with the most appropriate body type would overpower athletes who trained harder, were smarter or more skilled. Allowing like to compete against like shows us true excellence, since the athlete who has done the most to maximize his or her natural gifts is the winner.

For this reason, the Paralympics as an event cannot be patronizing. What can be patronizing, however, is the way the Paralympics are represented in popular culture. Just as the lack of popularity of women's sport is less a reflection on women's sport and more a reflection on our culture's beliefs about women, the Paralympic movement reveals society's attitude towards people with disabilities. This attitude is often highly patronizing.

One of those patronizing attitudes is the notion that the "core purpose of Paralympic sport" is to inspire other people with disabilities. Athletes compete in the Paralympics to win. It is an elite sporting event and a wheelchair is just another piece of sporting equipment that allows athletes to achieve this level of excellence. When I competed, I did not get up at 5:30 every morning so that some 50-year-old accountant with polio could learn to follow his dreams. I got up at 5:30 every morning to win a gold medal. Athletes able-bodied and otherwise are notoriously bad at being role models (see: Michael Phelps) because their #1 goal isn't to inspire. Their goal is to win.

The problem is that when the "inspirational" narrative that exists in able-bodied sports gets applied to the Paralympics, it's filtered through a thick lens of ableism. Michael Phelps is inspirational because he won roughly 8 million gold medals. A Paralympic athlete, however, is inspirational because she overcame a disability (bonus points if this disability was acquired in a tragic manner) and is exhibiting hope and courage and rainbows and butterflies by just competing at all. To reduce any sport to a Hallmark made-for-TV movie is to cheapen it and the word "inspirational" as applied to Paralympic athletes has been degraded to the point that it's a dirty word.

This, I suspect, is what the bulk of people with disabilities are reacting to when they profess to be not excited about the Paralympics. Even the question is filtered through a bias. Why should one person with a disability be expected to feel a rah-rah sense of allegiance to someone else with a disability, be they Paralympian or otherwise? Why should a person who has no interest in sports be interested in the Paralympics just because he or she has a spinal cord injury or a missing limb? I imagine that by the time the Paralympics arrive, there will be a lot of non-sporty people with disabilities in Britain sick of being asked by well-meaning people on buses or in shops whether they're excited that The Disabled are being put on TV thanks to the Paralympics, in much the same way that conservative African-Americans must have gotten sick of well-meaning white people asking them if they're excited about the election of Barack Obama.

 Personally, I don't care whether only 22% of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. I care that wheelchair sports are represented in a way that allows both able-bodied and disabled people alike to make up their own minds. When Paralympic sports are treated like the sports they are, we see time and again that people who love sports "get" them. A professional wheelchair basketball league is thriving in Europe not because people want to show their kids that people with disabilities can accomplish great things, but because wheelchair basketball is exciting, fast-paced and fun to watch. When a wheelchair is viewed as a piece of sporting equipment, all that awareness and advocacy and empathy stuff takes care of itself.

My hope is that in London 2012, the "I word" takes a backseat to an intelligent, honest analysis of Paralympic sports. The good news it that it's starting to happen, as more and more journalists (Gary Kingston, for example) and bloggers represent Paralympic sports for what they are. This may mean criticizing a team or athlete for underperforming, or it may mean admitting that some Paralympic sports (like some Olympic sports) are not as exciting as others. Without this honesty, however, the Paralympics become nothing more than an extended human interest story. And if that's the case, there will be a lot more people with disabilities changing the channel.

16 comments:

  1. Great post, Arley.

    I don't think the Paralympics are patronizing but people do undervalue the event. Someone suggested once that the Paralympics might be better off if they were held BEFORE the Olympics to generate more buzz since many people simply "go away" after the Olympics are over.

    Your suggestion that non-sporty people with disabilities might be getting tired of being asked whether they are excited about the Paralympics (when in fact they don't care) reminds me of some of the stupid questions I get, like "Do you know Sally Ann? She's in a wheelchair too." (My mind: "No, I don't know Sally Ann because it is next to impossible to know one person out of a city of 2.5 million, even if you mentioned her surname. I'm pretty sure she's a nice person though.") Anyways, I got a chuckle out of that.

    See you soon,
    -Arnold

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great points; this really drove it home:

    "When a wheelchair is viewed as a piece of sporting equipment, all that awareness and advocacy and empathy stuff takes care of itself."

    Anytime you want to comment on this topic, we'd be happy to share it on our site too...
    http://www.SportsandSocialChange.org

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is my first time to your blog. I study sport and social change and really appreciate your commentary on the issue. As an able-bodied non-elite athlete, I can't speak from experience. That said, I think you're onto something when you argue that the Paralympics are not inherently patronizing but that we (able-bodied folk) are the ones who do them a disservice. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Things are a bit different in our family. We have been involved in a camp for elite wheelchair athletes for 12 years. We get just as excited about Paralympic sports as Olympic sports. In fact, the family Christmas gift this year is tickets to the 2012 Paralympics in London.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I do like your article and agree with alot however and I quote "No one is arguing that some 50 kg wrestler should hop in the ring with a 80kg wrestler. Why? Because sport is better when people compete against their equals" In paralympic sport the Equivalent of a 50 kg wrestler competes against a 80kg wrestler all the time. maybe not in wheelchair basketball but in alot of sports this is the case, its survival of the fittest. again in this quote "One of our fundamental beliefs in sport is that champions are not born fully formed, but are created out of hard work and dedication. Separating athletes into fair categories allows such a principle to be carried out. If sports like boxing or wrestling did not have weight classes, the athlete who happened to be born with the most appropriate body type would overpower athletes who trained harder, were smarter or more skilled" in my paralympic sport people who are faster and fitter and are physically at the top of their class will run rings around someone at the other end even if they do have better skills......... so i dont agree with those comments

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Shit, don't you guys realize how friggin hard it is for most fo people with disability just to fight every day just to stay alive? We don't have the luxury to do sport. Our lives suck, and suck enough that at times we sometimes get tired of fighting every day.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Wow truly inspiring blog you have here. A lot of us who doesn't have any disability tend to do nothing in their lives and feel sorry about decisions they made in life. Your story may awaken their senses like you even conquered your fear despite the disability.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The answer to the question "Are the Paralympics Patronizing?" will depend on the person who you ask it from. A person like you who experienced it's competitive nature and gave you a goal, winning, will answer the question differently from a "couch potato"(with our without any disability) who sits all day without even knowing the notion of exercise, not to mention the notion of a competitive sport.
    Another fact that might influence that answer is the preconceived notion, that a person with a disability cannot "function" like they can. This is so wrong on so many levels. I believe that those who think that Paralympics are patronizing just watch it and see that this is a competition as any other and the athletes fight as hard as they can to win.

    Best regards,
    John.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I don't care if the atheltes are 'standard' olympians or paralympians, as long as team GB get to the top of the bl**dy medals table!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks - a fantastic piece, very thought provoking, and I agree with pretty much everything you say. A few arguments came to mind, though..

    "Just as the lack of popularity of women's sport is less a reflection on women's sport and more a reflection on our culture's beliefs about women, the Paralympic movement reveals society's attitude towards people with disabilities."

    While I agree that this is a cultural issue, it's also a performance one. When Usain Bolt wins the 100m, we can leigitimately say he is best 100m runner alive. Not the best female 100m runner or the best disabled 100m runner. He is the fastest. For the same reasons, Heavyweight boxing attracts more interest that Flyweight, and the Premier League attracts more interest than the First Division.

    "It is an elite sporting event and a wheelchair is just another piece of sporting equipment that allows athletes to achieve this level of excellence."

    If the purpose of the sport if to find out who is the best at it, and nothing else, then presumably anyone who can get in a wheelchair (disabled or otherwise) should be able to compete? Is this already the case?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Before the determination was made to try out virtually any unconventionally physical exercise system, It's a good idea to do a very little homework 1st. The purpose of the subsequent review is usually to offer a number of methods frequently asked questions concerning the well-liked trx for sale Headgear Coach workout method.
    The concept regarding TRX Revocation Coaching was a idea of the past You Deep blue Close off and his teammates. Most of these significant athletes needed a moveable, flexible and effective strategy for residing in ideal Trx Suspension wherever the adventures could be.
    Fitness at any place, designer along with owner with the TRX, warranties it truly is goods with regard to one-year protecting any disorders around supplies as well as skillfullness. Also, cheap TRX for sale items have a very 30-day satisfaction ensure if you're the item isn't for you.
    The particular TRX insides coach is a adaptable as well as easy exercising procedure for convenient efficient exercises for strength training, main steadiness, flexibility, in addition to metabolic teaching. This TRX Fitness is very easily transportable and so now you may exercise anywhere: at your house, on a trip, for the store, or even at the gym.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Another make of may use harder, cheaper metals, which could scratch and damage genuine Cheap Trx Another make of may use harder, cheaper metals, which could scratch and damage genuine Cheap Trx With the Murano Cheap Trx, the genuine article has been heat treated to be extremely tough and durable.
    This oversaturation in the market has companies fighting to get hold of Trx Suspension Training, inspiring them to take measures which are usually not seen in the conventional purchasing environment.
    When supply outweighs demand you would uncover a fundamental economic law which would steer down the price of TRX suspension trainer so as to generate greater sales.
    Color has been one of the selling points for TRX For Sale.
    In general, a unisex or gender neutral appearance; a man or woman can wear black-on-black Trx Workouts and not look too masculine or feminine.
    This is a popular brand of trx suspension training and with good reason.
    This brand offers one of the best TRX Workouts Sale in the world in an exciting range of cutting-edge designs, styles and colors.
    Another make of may use harder, cheaper metals, which could scratch and damage genuine trx straps sale Another make of may use harder, cheaper metals, which could scratch and damage genuine trx straps sale With the Murano trx straps sale, the genuine article has been heat treated to be extremely tough and durable.

    ReplyDelete
  13. They've already created these TRX Australia with the youthful, fashionable, and hip in head.
    The trx workouts line is more known for its artistic work and elegance in design than anything else.
    Each piece you see on display is a masterpiece in itself and a reflection of trx australia's artwork.
    This brand Trx Workouts is an ideal choice to buy as the designs are always novel and never go out of style.
    One can buy authentic trx workouts and accessories from reputed stores that offer a complete range of this brand.
    You can also buy this trx Australia line from online stores which makes your shopping more easy from the comfort of your home.
    So make sure you dress up this season with fashion that's filled with the hottest and latest TRX workouts in the market.
    TRX Australia is a prime American design house that specializes in a big clothesline.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Their Trx Suspension Training are polished and top of array.
    One can buy authentic Trx For Sale and accessories from reputed stores that offer a complete range of this brand.
    You can also buy this TRX suspension trainer line from online stores which makes your shopping more easy from the comfort of your home.
    So make sure you dress up this season with fashion that's filled with the hottest and latest TRX For Sale in the market.
    trx suspension training is a prime American design house that specializes in a big clothesline.
    They've already created these TRX For Sale with the youthful, fashionable, and hip in head.
    The range is actually excellent and provides an extended type of fancy and serious cheap trx that could be donned to any occasion for that polished everyday look.
    They have the latest in trx for sale collection and people will discover excellent cheap deals on the products.

    ReplyDelete
  15. trx workouts are nothing but pendants that you can attach to any form of jewelry you like.
    When these are trx pas cher, the excitement just gets doubled.
    Most chic looking TRX Australia are in fashion now.
    A revolutionary online retail store with a difference, yes I am talking about the trx australia.
    Be it gifts or Trx Workouts it provides the essence of style and quality that can't be justified by words.
    trx Australia offers you a wide variety of charms.
    Let's just have a look into some of the pas cher trx that may interest you.
    These are only a few, there is whole host of trx workouts that are available and can easily ship them for you at very nominal rates, as per order.
    Most of the TRX workouts present here are actual collectible jewellery items.
    Possessing a TRX Australia is a matter of pride and a matter of envy for the onlookers.

    ReplyDelete