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Leg-ism leaves some Paralympic stars out on a limb

Artificial leg wearers tend to fare better than “wheelchair-bound” athletes in the media. Jason Verwey

We all know the media is influential. We also know the media’s portrayal of disability issues and disabled people is uneven. Such biases are also evident in the portrayal of the technology employed by Paralympic athletes – and not least in the different treatment given to artificial legs and wheelchairs.

The Cheetah legs of Paralympic athletes such as Oscar Pistorius and Aimee Mullins have triggered a lot of attention.

Artificial legs are often hailed as “liberation tools”, giving their wearers the “essential” ability to walk. At the same time, other therapeutic assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, are demonised through the use of phrases such as “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to the wheelchair”.

This might be understandable given the cultural reality of leg-ism, an “ism” that perceives walking as essential. But it’s troubling.

A recurring theme

In 2003 I wrote a book chapter called “Confined to your legs” to question the leg-ism evident in the discourse around artificial limbs and in society in general. And the bias against wheelchairs has been questioned by people with disabilities for a long time.

Last year, Laurence Parent did a thesis with me, called Je Me Souviens: The Hegemony of Stairs in the Montreal Metro, in which she wrote about the legism and walking-ableism exhibited in the Montreal Metro system (click here for the accompanying PowerPoint presentation).

Legism is evident in many places. But it is particularly troubling that articles covering Cheetah legs use the term “wheelchair-bound” nearly exclusively if a wheelchair is mentioned in the same article.

To give five examples:

1) A 2007 Wired magazine article states:

No-one expects able-bodied runners to compete head-to-head with wheelchair-bound marathoners.

2) In 2009, the National Institute of Health Office of Science Education published Exploring Bioethics NIH Curriculum Supplement Series Grades 9-12 Master 1.7 Answer Key for Oscar Pistorius’s Case, in which one reads:

Pistorius would have been wheelchair-bound without the amputation and prosthetics.

3) In 2008, an Extreme Tech magazine article stated:

For anyone who has watched the Paralympic version of the Boston Marathon, where wheelchair-bound athletes finish in a fraction of the time of their more able-bodied rivals, pay attention.

4) A 2010 USA Today article about Cheetah leg-wearing track athlete Amy Palmiero-Winters states:

She gives motivational speeches at schools. She runs marathons pushing wheelchair-bound children, trying to inspire them to push beyond their obstacles.

5) In 2009, Mind Power News shared a similar sentiment, stating:

Leg amputees, if not wheelchair-bound, are often left struggling with awkward prosthetics, canes and crutches. But now, with the aid of newly developed super-legs, even double amputees can run every bit as well as some of the world’s fastest sprinters.

In addition to the above instances, and countless others like them, there are many examples of negative imagery of wheelchair Paralympians, independent of leg-related articles. Again, to give a few examples:

On Swifter Higher, a website about the Olympics, we learn that:

Wheelchair-bound Veronika Vadovicova of Slovakia scored 494.8 points in the R2-SH1 standing air rifle competition, therefore becoming the first gold medalist of the 2008 Paralympics.

In 2008, the BBC informed us that:

Celebrations are taking place in Britain to mark the handover, with Stoke Mandeville hospital - which hosted the first Games for wheelchair-bound athletes 60 years ago - open for students to attend a special ceremony.

In 2010, the How it Works website pointed out:

The first Winter Paralympic Games were held in Sweden in 1976. They were the first Games to feature athletes other than those wheelchair-bound.

Question is: who of the reporters and editors involved in this coverage buy into the legism linked to using the term “wheelchair-bound” and how many use the term without thinking about its negative connotations?

International vs national athletes

A recent blog post by Associate Professor Toni Bruce from the University of Auckland stated that media in New Zealand cover international and New Zealand Paralympic athletes differently.

She discovered that media stories highlight the “deviant” body far more when covering international Paralympians versus New Zealand Paralympians. On her blog, Professor Bruce is currently looking for good and bad examples of media coverage, should you come across any.

Of course, the media also covers disabled people outside sport in an uneven fashion which might be a subject to return to after the London Games.

To stay with the Paralympic theme for now, the media is fast to use terms such as “inspiring” with Paralympians. But how can they inspire if the reporting of disabled people often continues to be disabling in so many instances.

Instead of using labels such as “wheelchair-bound” the media should aspire to inspire people to accept and support ability differences.

The International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Charter states that:

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

Maybe we need such a spirit of Olympism for the media?

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