Australians love a good sports story about a hero overcoming adversity. Track cyclist Anna Meares’ gold medal in London was all the more impressive given her recovery from a life-threatening neck injury she sustained just four years earlier. Perhaps it is this message of triumph over adversity which also captures the imagination during the Paralympic Games.
Paralympic athletes demonstrate feats of superhuman strength, not just after an injury, but in spite of a disability. But alongside this celebration of exceptional ability, there must also be a reflection on our worst disability – the way in which our society disables people.
A social theory of disability
Disability activists have long argued that individuals are disabled not by physical or intellectual impairments, but by a society that does not accommodate difference. In other words, a wheelchair user is not “disabled” by a spinal cord injury, but by building planners who fail to provide wheelchair access.
The challenge to a medical model of disability, in which people are perceived to be disabled by impairments alone, was largely pioneered in the United Kingdom by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), and disability activist Michael Oliver in his groundbreaking work The Politics of Disablement.
Oliver argued that a “personal tragedy theory”, which locates disability in the impairments of individuals, should be rejected. Instead, disability should be understood through a “social oppression theory” where disability is seen to be caused by society’s inadequate responses to impairment.
A social theory of disability is also favoured in many Scandinavian countries, where disability is typically understood as the result of a disconnect between the individual and their environment, or the individual and their situation.
Norwegian sociologist Jan Tossebro points to examples of people with a disability who may not be disabled in specific contexts. A deaf person is not disabled in a place where everyone speaks sign language. A person with a visual impairment is not disabled when using the telephone.
In adopting this social understanding of disability, it could be argued that a visually impaired athlete is thus not disabled when competing against other visually impaired people in the popular Paralympic sport goalball (see video below).
But despite removing disabling factors in some ways, the Paralympic Games can also undermine efforts to view disability as a societal, rather than an individual, problem.
UK broadcaster Channel 4’s promotional campaign for the Paralympic Games, Meet the Superhumans, is a refreshing departure from the pity lens through which disability sports is often viewed. But while the advertisements can be congratulated for their focus on achievement, the campaign website persists in naming the impairment of each competitor, individualising their disability.
Prominent British disability academic Tom Shakespeare warns against divorcing an individual’s experience of impairment from a wider social understanding of disability. Certainly the success of Paralympians owes much more to a personal journey than a societal transformation.
However, a medicalisation of athletes’ experiences is in part a result of the Games themselves, which group participants according to medical definitions of impairment.
Categories such as T40-46 (for a track athlete with a loss of limb or limb deficiency) or S11-13 (for swimmers with a visual impairment), are used in an effort to ensure a level playing field for athletes in each event. But they can also result in damaging debates about what is “normal”.
Some athletes have been excluded from certain sports at the Paralympic Games because they are deemed “not disabled enough”. Others, such as the famous “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, are charged with receiving an unfair advantage through the use of prosthetic limbs.
The initial exclusion of Pistorius from eligibility for the Summer Olympic Games in 2008 was the result of a farcical debate over what could be considered a “normal” level of achievement for an “able-bodied” man. This is despite the fact all Olympians regularly exceed any “normal” expectations.
Focusing on the technology Pistorius uses to compete, rather than on his abilities as an athlete, demonstrates a reluctance to move beyond traditional understandings of what a normal athlete’s body should look like.
In the quest to achieve personal best, people with a disability have overcome many technological barriers, only to be faced with attitudinal ones. The ultimate inclusion of Pistorius in the Summer Olympic Games shows some attitudes are changing.
But achievement in and outside of the sporting arena is still measured according to what an “able-bodied” man or woman can do.
Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell argue in their book Disability in Australia: Exposing a Social Apartheid that a dominant understanding of what is normal has created a “social apartheid” and inequality in work and home life.
People with a disability are faced with workplaces which do not support those who work differently, public spaces which reject those who look different, and social norms which shame those who communicate differently.
Embracing a social theory of disability requires a large scale rethinking of not just physically disabling structures, but also of social spaces and workplace environments, in order to challenge the assumption that “normal” even exists.
Deconstructing the ways in which our society disables people does not end with buildings that have wheelchair access. But it can at least begin with a recognition that Paralympians, like all Olympians, are exceptional athletes, to whom the measure of “normal” can never be applied.