Blink and you just might miss it. If you don’t live in the UK, that is. Last night, 80,000 people watched the Paralympic opening ceremony – a slightly more modest, but nonetheless equally poignant affair than its bigger brother. As the kids return to school and the Olympic feel-good fades, it offers a last-hurrah for an enthralling and passion-filled spectacle. Celebrating ability and achievement in the face of physical, mental and psychological ‘disability’, I will savour watching it. At the same time though, I hope I don’t have to watch it ever again.
Paralympics – the ‘mini-Olympics’ that makes us feel uncomfortable
For many, the Paralympics is viewed as a ‘mini-Olympics’, or as one Sky TV presenter mistakenly reported ‘sports for paraplegics’. (It isn’t, ‘para’ means ‘runs alongside’.) Yet despite the UK newspaper’s best efforts by printing numerous features and special supplements, appreciation of the event will probably be in Great Britain. Broadcaster NBC will show just five-and-a-half hours – and none of it live. The nationally funded BBC ought also to be ashamed, who will be airing none of the Paralympics live; Channel 4, with their humbler resources, have assumed these responsibilities. You can’t blame the TV broadcasters’ wholly – they only go where the audience is. Any lack of interest in the Paralympics is a reflection of attitudes within society: put simply, lots of ‘able bodied’ people would rather watch something else.
Many of us ogled the elite performers and revered them as the pinnacle of humanity. Dreams were filled of what it would be like to run like Usain or to cycle like Wiggins. The same can’t be said for Paralympians. To admire them in the same way would mean imagining ourselves lacking a faculty we’d rather not be without: contemplating life without vision or with profound learning difficulties is something most would people would like to avoid. No, for all the enjoyment of the Paralympics, the admiration of the contenders will be a bitter-sweet mix of impressed sympathy.
“I’m a swimmer, not a disabled person”
These are the words of Liz Johnson, Welsh Paralympic swimming champion. The president of the International Paralympic Committee agrees with her notion and has called for the word “disabled” to be phased out completely. He’s on the right tracks, and let’s not forget that we have come a long way.
Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday that Britain has been ‘trailblazing’ in terms of equality and disability legislation. Yep, you’re right Dave – things have been getting much better, it’s just a shame that the Conservatives have so monumentally bad at ever passing any of these. (I presume he has also forgotten that ‘long term disability’ was one of the characteristics of what his party terms a ‘troubled family’.)
Time to discriminate?
If we are to integrate, not discriminate, might we redress the balance by ‘positively discriminating’ people with a long term impairments? Discrimination within the work sector is often subtle: people with disabilities are less likely to receive on-the-job training, and despite qualifications will earn less (about 20%). Increasingly popular is the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ – offering anyone with a recognised disability more employment opportunities than those who don’t. Clearly, not everyone is happy with the idea. Many fear it would undermine meritocracy – and that we might stop rewarding on performance and ability. But haven’t stuffy old men been saying the same about women in the boardroom for years?
Positive discrimination might be seen as patronising, but until the day that people with physical and mental impairments are widely recognised in high-profile, successful positions – ‘disabled’ will remain part of the vocabulary. And while we’re at it, could someone please get rid of the ‘person in a wheelchair’ sign for disabled toilets? Most disabled people don’t have wheelchairs. (Suggestions for alternatives on a postcard to Rehabilitation International),
Time to ditch the Paralympics?
Seb Coe and the Olympics big-wigs have missed an opportunity. I would suggest to them they do away with the Paralympics all together. Why not, during London 2012 Olympics, alternate the Olympic 100m sprint heats with the 100m Paralympic equivalents? Why not have a game of goalball, boccia or wheelchair rugby on the court before every basketball match? If you’ve never heard of these sports – Google them, they are truly remarkable. Audiences would then be captive to watch ‘The Superhumans‘ in action. TV channels would be forced to show them – else be accused of overt discrimination. People would watch. A generation might truly be inspired by our best. Regardless of their label.
Perhaps the world isn’t ready for that just yet.
Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to discuss in the comments below…Follow @realdoctorstu
Hilary Metcalf (2008) Pay gaps across the equality strands: a review. Equality and Human Rights Commission
Moon, M (2010). The shackled runner: time to rethink positive discrimination? Work, Employment and Society, 24 (4), 728-739 DOI: 10.1177/0950017010380648