Saturday, September 1, 2012

In Defense of Frankie Boyle: Why You Should Make Fun of the Paralympics

I developed a sense of humour one day in October of 1996. This feat was achieved thanks to the following factors.
·      I was 13.
·      I was nearly 6 feet tall.
·      I was in a bright blue half body cast that forced my legs apart at 45 degree angles.
·      To achieve this angle, a wooden hockey stick had been casted between my legs, necessitating snaps in my underwear like the kind used in baby onesies.
·      I most often dressed in long peasant skirts (to avoid the need for snaps) topped with a series of T-shirts that proclaimed me to be a “Big Dog.” (The “Big Dog” shirts had no medical function, though they probably could have been used as a diagnostic tool for depression).
·      I had just started high school, and getting my wheelchair to class required the use lifts installed over the stairs. These lifts emitted warning chimes similar to those of an ice cream truck, which routinely caused stoner boys to sneak from their classrooms expecting a Fudgesicle, then look at me with an expression of deep, soul-crushing disappointment.
On that day, I was late for class and the lift was moving at a glacial speed down the stairway, chiming so loud that three teachers came out to see what the fuss was about. I was frustrated and embarrassed. I was dressed like a lady hobo. I had just started high school and would have to see all these people for 4 more years. There were snaps up my underwear. My cast itched and smelled. And suddenly, I looked down at the piece of wood forcing my legs apart and thought, “Oh my God. Even though it is impossible for me to close my legs, no one even wants to rape me.”
This is a truly awful thing to think, but I started to laugh. My whole perspective on my body had changed.
Since then, I have told many jokes about my disabled body, and very few of them have been kind. I make fun of the fact that I walk like a crack addict, or a zombie. When I was single, I often joked that since sex is one of the few things that alleviates my chronic pain, I should register myself as a non-profit organization so that I can issue tax receipts to men who fuck me.  I have been chided by (able-bodied) people for denigrating myself, but I see it differently: when you can make fun of something, it loses its power over you. I know for a fact that if I hadn't developed the capability to tell off-colour jokes about myself, I would not have survived. I would have wasted away into a ball of seething frustration and ironic T-shirts.
A few days ago, there was a furor over British comedian Frankie Boyle telling some Paralympic jokes on Twitter. (Here's an article on the controversy). I thought they were funny, but then again I also thought it was hilarious when I posted a video of wheelchair rugby heavy hits and someone commented that the hardest hit was the car crash most of them were in.
C4 has had some really interesting discussions on whether you can laugh at the Paralympics. I think you can -- and you should -- but that there are two questions every comic should ask him/herself when doing so.
1.     Is the joke funny? To me, that’s the standard on which any joke’s success should be judged. Does it have that element of surprise, of originality, of intelligence? The offensive Paralympic jokes I've seen have failed not because of their subject matter, but because they just weren't very good. If you're going to take on a taboo subject, you better bring your A game.
2.     Does the joke come from a place of respect or at least understanding? It’s very easy to tell when a comedian has bothered to understand and respect the target of his joke, or whether he is accidentally revealing prejudices. (Note that showing respect doesn't equate to being nice, but it does mean having a purpose other than petty mockery or perpetuating some shitty stereotype). That’s why people who do the “Chinaman” voice or the “person with a mental disability” voice are nearly uniformily unfunny. It’s also why Louis C.K. can tell a joke about sexual assault, but your rapey Uncle Steve can’t.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that jokes are the ultimate form of respect. When you put disability up on a pedestal and treat it as Serious Business, it becomes the elephant in the room. People with disabilities are cast as some “other” who must be treated differently than “normal” people. If Paralympic athletes want to be respected as the elite athletes they are, then they need to accept everything that comes along with it. David Beckham lives with people joking about his Mickey Mouse voice or calling him out if he has a bad game, and so should every Paralympian. (Boyle tweeted something similar to this, saying it was his job to make fun of the Paralympics just like it was his job to make fun of the Olympics, and I agree).

The narrative of a Paralympian as a heroic source of inspiration is boring. If journalists and fans are only allowed to talk about the Paralympics in one way -- if only one type of conversation is deemed politically correct -- then we will never get the well-rounded, nuanced coverage that the Paralympic movement needs. To get this nuanced coverage, we have to test (and keep testing) to see where the line is.
When done well, humour can be a force for change because it forces people to confront prejudices they didn't know they had. The best humour challenges the status quo and upsets the balance of power (see: joker characters in Shakespeare). Frankie Boyle is no Shakespeare, but I would pick someone telling a joke about "Taliban-inspired" Paralympic performances over someone approaching me on the street to praise me for my courage/inspiration/whatever any day.
The Brits are known for their great sense of humour, and I hope it’s on full display at the London 2012 Paralympics. In that spirit, I will be judging the success of these Paralympics based on whether there is a nod to the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch in the Closing Ceremonies.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The London 2012 Paralympics: The Best Show You'll Never See

In 2004, I competed in the Athens Paralympics in wheelchair basketball. I was not a starter. I played mostly in the round robins and the highlight of my entire Paralympic experience was scoring 7 points in the first quarter against Mexico, which landed me very briefly on the high scorer board. My mom has a photo of this high-scorer board. Along with that photo, she also got bruises up the backs of her legs from tensely pressing her calves against the seat, and a sore throat from cheering that took weeks to clear up. A few days later, my family watched me stand on a podium and receive a bronze medal: an experience that they never could have even dreamed of during the early years of hospital stays, half-body casts and surgeries.
The game I was in would never have been shown on TV and at the time webcasting didn’t exist, but my parents were able to share this moment because they had the means to travel from Canada to Greece. Thousands of parents, friends and supporters of the athletes who will compete in the London 2012 Paralympic Games this summer, however, do not. Those who cannot afford to visit an expensive city like London are banking on the fact that the Paralympics will be webcast.  The good news is that they will:  the U.K. Channel C4 will be webcasting many of the events with a professional feed complete with colour commentators. Here, however, is the bad news: unless you live in the U.K., you will never get to see it.
If you ask C4 why they have restricted the feed to a U.K. audience, they will tell you that they don’t want to interfere with other countries’ television broadcasting rights. (That sound you hear is thousands of Paralympians snickering at once). The channel with the broadcasting rights in your country will provide coverage, they say. This is all well and good if you live in a sport-mad country like Australia, but less good if you live in Canada, where CTV (the channel with the Olympic and Paralympic broadcasting rights) had to be publicly shamed into airing the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics’ Opening Ceremony, even though it took place in their own country. And it’s even less good if you live in, say, India or Africa. Or if you play a sport that is not one of the Paralympic marquee sports like wheelchair basketball.
Given that most countries will not be offering up-to-the-minute Paralympic coverage, and given that a webcast is an entirely different medium than television and its picture quality and reliability do not compete with television, the true reason the Paralympics are not being webcast worldwide is a financial one. C4 is so protective of its market that it does not even release made-for-web videos to a non-U.K. audience. It does not see an incentive to work with other broadcasters to ensure that the Paralympic Games can be seen. But there are some very compelling reasons why they should. Here’s why.
Because the people who need to see Paralympic sports are the ones with the least access to it. It is not an exaggeration to say that involvement in wheelchair sports (or any Paralympic sport) saves lives. People who play wheelchair sports at any level have fewer hospital stays, fewer secondary complications, less depression, more independence and greater employment. But it’s more than that. During the Paralympics, you will hear over and over again how an athlete’s involvement in his or her sport was the number one factor in their adjusting to life after acquiring a disability. When you hear Paralympians say that they would not be here if not for sport, this is not an exaggeration in the least. There are thousands of athletes at a recreational level who could tell you the same story.
These athletes could also tell you that they initially resisted becoming involved in wheelchair sports because they did not think it would be competitive. And then, one day, they came out to a wheelchair basketball practice and saw someone sink a long three-pointer, or saw a head-on collision at a wheelchair rugby game, and the spark was lit. Today, thanks to webcasting technology, that spark can be lit at 3 am in front of a computer screen. It can be lit in a developing nation where there is not yet a single sports wheelchair. (During the webcast of the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, 1 in 6 viewers were from countries that did not have a wheelchair rugby team). Once every four years, people with disabilities from around the world have a chance to see wheelchair sport played at its very best and so see what they might also be capable of. Without a webcast, many will never get this chance.
Because the Paralympics deserve to be seen. When parasports are shown on TV or reported about in newspapers, if they are shown at all, they are generally framed by able-bodied journalists who are not experts. Lacking expertise in the technicalities of the game, the journalist must resort to the old clich├ęs about how inspirational the athletes are, about how much they’ve overcome. It’s not the journalist’s fault that they are not equipped to interpret wheelchair sports, but the end result is that the sport never gets a chance to speak for itself.  Nor is it the fault of television executives that there is not the market to put a full wheelchair basketball gold medal game on during a time when people would conceivably watch it. Thanks to the webcast, however, people have a chance to see a full game presented the way it is. The game is not a human-interest story, but a fully realized sport with its own intricacies, strategies and feats of athleticism. The viewer can make up his or her own mind.
We’ve seen over and over that when people see wheelchair sports, they fall in love with them. The professional wheelchair basketball league in Europe plays to packed crowds. The 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships made $40,000 in ticket sales. But a barrier exists in wheelchair sports that able-bodied sports don’t face, which is that before you can get someone to watch a game, you must get them past the stereotypes they hold about people with disabilities. A highlight package on the local news will not overcome this barrier, but a webcast can.
Because the Paralympic community deserves more. I work for a wheelchair rugby team and that sport has some of the most dedicated fans around. At every tournament, friends and families and volunteering, fundraising and cheering in the stands. It makes sense. Say that you are a mother who nearly lost a son in a car accident, who was told by a doctor that he had become a quadriplegic, who supported him as he re-learned basic life skills, who watched him transform from someone barely able to sit up in bed to someone representing his country on a world stage. Imagine you have seen all that and you don’t have the money to travel to London. Imagine that someone tells you that you will not be able to see your son competing at his most proud sport moment because some television channel might kind of sort of maybe possibly want to do a 15-minute highlight package two weeks after the Paralympics are over. You would find that answer unacceptable, and so do I.
Now say that you are a Paralympic athlete. You moved thousands of miles away to train with the best coaches. You got up at 5:30 a.m. for years. You routinely push your body so hard that you throw up. You have been to 8 countries in the past year just to qualify. And now say someone tells you that, though the technology exists, your friends and family will not be able to see you represent your country on the world stage. You would find that answer unacceptable, and so do I.
Webcasting is a developing technology and it raises many important questions about broadcasting rights. These must be discussed. But it also raises new solutions, and none of these solutions involve apathy. C4 could sell its webfeed to other broadcasting companies. It could sell individual events 30 minutes after the match is over in iTunes. A major sponsor could step in to cover the cost of the bandwidth and ensure that Paralympic sports can be seen worldwide. From a purely financial standpoint, it’s in C4’s best interest to get this right. It seems better to make the webcast available worldwide and profit off the advertising, than to have Paralympic fans access the webcast via other means.
The Internet is a global medium and the Paralympics are a global movement. Both are evolving rapidly and there are many kinks to work out along the way. But if the Paralympics are about anything, they’re about refusing to accept the easy answer, about proving someone wrong when they tell you it can’t be done or it’s not possible. The London 2012 Paralympics deserves to be seen, and every athlete, supporter and ever stranger should be loud enough to demand it.
And here’s how.
1)   Ask C4 Paralympics to make the webcast for the London 2012 Paralympics viewable to people in every country. You can reach them on Twitter (@C4Paralympics), on Facebook ( or via their website (
2)   If C4 will not show Paralympic sport outside its market, then the broadcaster with the official broadcasting rights in each country must do so. In Canada, this is held by CTV. Contact them on Twitter (@CtvOlympics), Facebook (, or via their website (

 There are 100 days to the Paralympics. Let's make those 100 days count.