I can’t wait for Maggie to reach the age where she’s taking part in the Paralympics, shooting baskets or swimming or hurtling down the track on some super bouncy legs or whizzing round the volleyball court in her cool, streamlined wheelchair while the crowd cheers her on not only for her athletic prowess but for the glowing, inspirational face of positivity she wears every single day of her life because, hey, being disabled is no barrier, you’ve just got to have a dream and believe in yourself and be one hundred and seventy-nine per cent sure that you’re no different, not really, from everyone else out there because, at the end of the day, it’s about fighting and winning and loving life and taking on challenges and...
I have a problem with the Paralympics. Or, rather, a problem with all the crap we have to hear about it every day. I’m sick and tired of seeing muscular, fit young men and women with missing legs telling us that disability is just, y’know, one of those things they have to deal with. As they zoom about in their funky wheelchairs, oozing BBC-approved positivity.
I have a problem with the Paralympics because it seems to me to paint quite a false picture of what disability – real disability – is like for so many people. Disability, for them, isn’t about positivity and treating life as some kind of Hollywood script where a belief in one’s self is all that’s needed to win the day. Disability for them is a life of sadness and pain and loneliness and poverty. And given what’s happening with the cuts, it’s about to get even worse.
I have a problem with the way the Paralympics seems to say to those disabled people who aren’t athletes – who have absolutely no hope or even desire to be athletes – that they’re somehow letting the side down. I know Maggie will never be able to do the things I described above but it should be enough that her achievements will be small. To reference Frankie Boyle’s joke about Lewis Hamilton’s brother: if she ever managed to drink from a cup, that’d be something truly amazing. But will she have to feel guilty and sad about the fact that that will be a relatively small achievement compared to, say, running the 1oo metres?
One of my biggest problems with the Paralympics is that it claims disability, and notions of disability, for itself. By which I mean: there’s a world of difference between someone who has lost their leg below the knee and someone who is blind and deaf with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Yes, the Paralympics raises awareness of something called disability; but it’s not the same disability that many people have to live, and suffer, with.
I think, at heart, it’s about me being suspicious of the value of the Paralympics. Because when they talk about raising awareness of disability and how it gets disabled people in from the shadows, I think there’s a danger that severely disabled people – the ones you never see, the ones who really suffer – are going to be left in an even darker place. Because not only will they not fit in with ‘normal’ society and people, they won’t even fit in with these healthy, positive people who are rapidly becoming the new and public face of disability.
I don’t know if I’m right about this, by the way. I could be totally wrong. Maybe those media-friendly disabled people with muscular torsos and glowing, happy faces are right: maybe they are going some way towards creating a society where disabled people will fit in as much as everyone else. Maybe all disabled people will be welcomed in with open arms – even those who don’t quite fit the picture.
As I say, it’s the picture of disability the Paralympics paints that bothers me. I wouldn’t mind so much if this was balanced a bit in the media with portrayals of how awful and terrifying and lonely real disability can be. I worry that we’re collectively buying into an accepted definition of disability that essentially states that it’s something that’s not that far removed from being able-bodied. Which could lead to a general feeling of ‘what’s the big deal about being disabled?’ And at a time when disabled people are also being attacked in the media for being benefit scroungers or malingerers, I think we’re in danger of creating just another false narrative about disability, however well-intentioned it may be.
By the way, I’d be grateful for your thoughts on this because, as you've probably noticed, I’m struggling a bit with what to think - and how to express it.