As we tune in to the Paralympics, it’s worth pondering how we speak about, think about, and perceive the athletes and people with disabilities in general. If you have spent anytime reading online, you’ll know that some people care a whole lot about what words are used to discuss disability while others care less about the words and more about the tone (that would be me).
As we tune in to the Paralympics, are we allowed to notice the athletes’ disabilities? Are they heroes? Can we be inspired?
Well, it would be a bit ridiculous to overlook their disabilities as that is not only a qualifying condition for these competitions, but in some cases (i.e. wheelchair curling and sledge hockey) they are quite visible. All of the athletes have been categorized, in the medical sense, by their disability. They’ve also provided brief backgrounds about their disabilities. Was it due to an illness? Congenital condition? Injury? I suppose that’s part of living in the spotlight and it’s part of their story.
We should pause and consider what it means that their athletic abilities, which are certainly impacted by their disabilities, will be on display during the Games. This is only one facet of their identities. While there is much disagreement whether or not people are defined in part or completely or not at all by their disabilities, we are getting a very limited view of these athletes which will focus greatly on their physicality. Each of these athletes, and indeed each person with a disability, gets to qualify for themselves how their disability defines them.
Here’s where I believe we run into trouble when considering people’s disabilities – we look at one CAN’T and heap a bunch of other CAN’Ts onto it. He uses a wheelchair so he CAN’T walk so I’m sure he CAN’T feed himself either and I’ll talk very loudly just in case he also CAN’T hear. She’s visually impaired so she CAN’T see anything so she CAN’T get out of the house and she probably CAN’T make a lot of decisions for herself.
We go negative pretty quickly and throw the whole presumed competence thing out the window. The Paralympics will make anyone think twice about that. The fierce competition and those shiny medals will be one collective shout of “Yes, we can!”
Now, are they heroes and can we be inspired? I believe we can. These are elite athletes competing at the highest level of their field. They’ve trained hard, beat out the competition, and earned their spots in these Games. That’s inspirational. They’re people to look up to because they’ve achieved something exceptional.
What about the person in your grocery store who uses a wheelchair, or the guy in the cubicle next to you who has an amputated limb, or the non-verbal kid in school? Are you surprised to see them there? Do you want to congratulate them or thank them or tell them how pleased you are that they’ve gotten out and about?
Don’t. Just don’t.
Grocery stores, work places, and schools are everyday places that people, all people, belong. I’m still surprised when people ask me not where but if Aidan attends school. Well, yes, school is where twelve year old boys belong. I recognize that people with disabilities are grossly underemployed and that there are real accessibility issues to getting around town in a wheelchair and kids in school are still unnecessarily segregated. Those issues fall on us as a society to correct, but it does not give us license to welcome people with disabilities into community as if we’ve done them a favor by letting them in. If we start giving out gold medals, or the smiling encouraging equivalent, for going about daily tasks then we’re not working hard enough to make these activities the norm.
While we’re at it, let’s discuss baby talk or speaking with any sort of condescending tone or with an excessively slow and loud voice. These athletes are adults. Some of them are military veterans. They can all kick your a**. I don’t suppose that anyone would be tempted to baby talk them, but it happens to other adults with disabilities. There is such an easy fix to this. Next time you see an adult using a wheelchair, or cane, or assistance dog or whatever… speak to them like you would any other adult. I recognize the impulse to speak to an adult with a developmental disability like a child, making all sorts of assumptions about their level of comprehension rather than respecting their chronological age.
Again, just no.
Here’s why I’m so inspired by the Paralympic athletes. Yes, their level of achievement is incredible. What they’re doing as accomplished public figures is turning a whole world of CAN’T away and raising the collective bar. Parents are watching. Teachers are watching. Medical professionals are watching. Employers are watching. If them, why not my child/friend/student/co-worker. Let’s not leave this bar to the world of athletics. Let’s hold high expectation of them, believe the best of them, in every realm. Let’s be willing to make accommodations and modifications as necessary so we don’t miss out on their important contributions.
For more reading on this topic, check out the following:
- What Do You Do Dear? – My Son’s Disability Defines Him
- The Drum – We’re Not Here for Your Inspiration
- In Case of Fire Use Stairs – I Have a Disability Like it’s My Job
- Support for Special Needs – Diversity in Language
- Love that Max – The Paradox of Disability Inspiration and May I Admire You, Please?