AS Sophie Christiansen competed in the individual dressage Paralympic event on Sunday night I found myself shouting at the television. But I wasn’t cheering her on; I was shouting because the commentary kept referring to Sophie’s “involuntary movements” in a hesitant and somewhat shame-faced way.
The British Paralympic Association would rather we didn’t dwell on an athlete’s impairment. But if, at last, disabled people and their impairments are visible on television why can’t we mention them? Why can’t we call an impairment what it is? Why can’t we dwell on it? We’ve been invited in, why can’t we look?
As a person with mental health problems I have experienced at first hand the importance of saying and seeing things as they are, not as we might prefer them to be. Saying what you see about disability, the everyday trials of it, the humour of it, the exasperation of it and the dignity, strength and spirit of all those with impairments, is key. Only if we do this will we break once and for all the social, attitudinal, physical and institutional barriers that many view to be a disability itself.
Are the Paralympics helping? In some ways they are. The Games have certainly delivered more than just the feelgood factor of a disability festival. We’ve seen some fantastic sport, much of which non-disabled people and disabled people alike will never have witnessed before. It should increase participation and funding for disability sport and has helped to regenerate and make more accessible a poor London borough.
The Paralympics have also been a real game-changer when it comes to the language used by the media to describe disability. Gone forever (we hope) are the phrases “suffers from”, “victim of” “wheelchair-bound” and the unnecessary pairing of “normal” and “abnormal”. The Games have finally encouraged the media to actually engage with and discuss disability, generally from a positive point of view.
This in itself is a welcome relief from what has been a very depressing few years of broadly negative coverage. Last year’s study by the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research into the media and disability showed an increase overall in negative coverage of disabled people.
Newspaper articles documenting the apparent “burden” that disabled people place on our economy increased by two-thirds in five years. Stories “exposing” disability benefit fraud had doubled, no doubt helped by UK Government ministers’ frequent use of fraud to justify their disability benefit reforms. It’s ironic that their own statistics report Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefit as having the lowest fraud rates by far of working-age benefits.
The Paralympics have put the brakes on this tide of negativity, and this is good. The problem is that we are now in danger of going the other way. We’ve started talking of the disabled super-human, the athlete who has “overcome” their impairment to compete at the highest level.
Disabled people, once deemed to be “scroungers” from, or a drain on, the state coffers have apparently been elevated from the gutter. They’ve been placed on a pedestal as national “superheros”. They’ve triumphed over adversity to become a living embodiment of what can be achieved if you just try hard enough.
We need, however, to tread more carefully. Let’s not reinforce the unfortunate beliefs of those who think that disabled people in everyday life can achieve Paralympian feats. They could, they say, be less of a burden on the state if they just put a bit more effort in to “overcome” those tiresome, inexplicable impairments. And, their logic goes, if they did, those disabled people would cost the taxpayer so much less.
A Paralympic legacy? It’s in the words we use. Let’s ride the tide of positivity, slam-dunk disability fatigue and reclaim our pride and our language.
• Susie Fitton is a senior policy adviser at Capability Scotlandweekend to remember for lothian paralympians
• SPORTS fans across the Lothians celebrated a memorable weekend of Paralympic sport when three homegrown talents scooped medals in their respective events.
Libby Clegg, who has only peripheral vision in her left eye, collected silver in the women’s T12 100m while in the pool her brother James, from Musselburgh, won bronze in the 100m butterfly S12.
Edinburgh athlete Sam Ingram, right, upgraded his Beijing judo bronze to a silver with wins over American Dartanyon Crockett and Argentina’s Jorge Lencina.
Meanwhile, Blair Glynn was red-carded as his seven-a-side football team lost their preliminary pool B match 0-3 against Brazil while Jim “The Swim” Anderson failed to pick up honours in the pool.